Clans and the Clan Chief

What Is A Clan? Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs view

Source: (February 2011)

The clan system is closely bound up with Scottish heraldry. The best definition of a clan provided by a heraldic authority is contained in Nisbet’s “System of Heraldry”, published in 1722: - social group consisting of an aggregate of distinct erected families actually descended, or accepting themselves as descendants of a common ancestor, and which has been received by the Sovereign through its Supreme Officer of Honour, the Lord Lyon, as an honourable community whereof all of the members on establishing right to, or receiving fresh grants of, personal hereditary nobility will be awarded arms as determinate or indeterminate cadets both as may be of the chief family of the clan.

A clan is therefore a community which is both distinguished by heraldry and recognised by the Sovereign. At the head of this honourable community is the chief. He is the only person entitled to display the undifferenced shield of Arms, ie without any marks of dependency upon any other noble house.

Chiefship is a title of honour and dignity within the nobility of Scotland. Any claimant to such a title must establish, to the satisfaction of the Lord Lyon representing the Sovereign, that he or she is entitled to the undifferenced arms of the community over which they seek to preside. It is the determining of chiefship which is among the Lyon Court’s central work.

Many of the cases which have come before the Lyon Court in the last 50 years have related to the chiefships of clans. There are now about 140 clans that have chiefs recognised by the Lord Lyon.

A clan or family. which has a recognised chief or head confers noble status on the clan or family which gives it a legally recognised status and a corporate identity. A family or name group which has no recognised chief has no official position under the law of Scotland.


Clan Buchanan - Who was the last recognized Chief of the Clan?

The principal chiefly line of Clan Buchanan is said to have become extinct in 1681 (Dec 1682?) with the death of John Buchanan of that Ilk (ie John Buchanan of Buchanan), the 22nd Chief.  As he died without male issue (having 2 daughters), the chief is said to have then came from other cadet branches, firstly from Buchanan of Auchmar (branch became extinct by 1816), and last known from the line of Buchanan of Spittal in 1762 (a cadet branch of Buchanan of Leny) refer

Strathendrick records that Francis Buchanan - Hamilton of Spittal, Bardowie, and Leny was served on 9th July 1828 as male heir to his gt, gt, gt, gt, gt, gt, gt, grandafther Walter Buchanan of Spittal, and established his claim in the absence of other competitors as chief of the Buchanan Clan with the right to use the undifferenced arms of Buchanan - being that of Buchanan of that Ilk.

The last lineal male descendent of Buchanan of Leny was Henry Buchanan, whose daughter and heiress, Katherine, married Thomas Buchanan, 10th of Spital (or Easter Catter), an officer in the Dutch service.  He took for his second wife, Elizabeth, youngest daughter of John Hamilton of Bardowie, the sole survivor of her family, and by her he had four sons and two daughters.  Their eldest son, Colonel John Buchanan of Leny and Spital, born in 1758, succeeded to the estate of Bardowie, and assumed the additional name of Hamilton.  He, however, died without male issue and was succeeded as chief by his brother, Dr Francis Hamilton-Buchanan of Bardowie, Spittal, and Leny (15 February 1762 - 15 June 1829), on 9 July 1828.  Dr Hamilton-Buchanan was heir-male descended from Walter, third son of Walter, the 15th Chief of Buchanan, who became first laird of the property of Spital in 1519, as well as from John, third son of the 12th Chief of Buchanan.

Dr Francis Hamilton-Buchanan of Bardowie, Spittal, and Leny m. Anne Brock (dau of Andrew Brock) and had issue, including John Buchanan-Hamilton (b. 14.02.1822).

John Buchanan-Hamilton of Spittal, Bardowie and Leny (b 14.02.1822, d 16.05.1903) m. (09.07.1845) Margaret Seton (d 05.07.1892, dau of George Seton, representative of Cariston family) and had issue.

Where are these descendants?

According to The Buchanan Society web site, "a claim was laid in 1878 for Chiefship, the applicant’s grandson died without issue in 1919. Since then the Chiefship has been dormant" (

John Guthrie Smith, Strathendrick and its inhabitants from early times : an account of the parishes of Fintry, Ballfron, Killearn, Drymen, Buchanan and Kilmaronock, Maclehose and Sons, Glasgow, 1896
Eyre-Todd, G, The Highland Clans of Scotland: Their History and Traditions, volume 1, D Appleton and Co, New York, 1923
The Buchanan Society web site,


A note on surnames, as this becomes important in tracing lineage, especially of significant clan positions.

It has been noted in a number of sources that Dr Francis Hamilton-Buchanan used several surnames of combination Hamilton and Buchanan.  For example, in a 1937 reference, http:// 

Francis Buchanan (1762-1829) joined the Bengal Service as an Assistant Surgeon in 1794, and left India for good in 1815. During a great part of this period, he was employed upon special missions and upon survey work of the most general character. He dropped the name Buchanan and assumed that of Hamilton in 1815.  After that date he subscribes himself "Francis Hamilton, formerly Buchanan" of simple "Francis Hamilton" ; but now he is often referred to as "Buchanan-Hamilton."


Recently, Stephen Buchanan wrote to Lord Lyon seeking information about the last known chief of the clan.  We can confirm officially that John Buchanan of that Ilk, 22nd Chief, died in 1681 (Dec 1682?), was the last chief recognized by Lord Lyon.

It would appear, therefore, that the claims above were not followed up formally with Lord Lyon.

Malcolm Buchanan
September 2010

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