Which is the oldest clan in Scotland?

Scotland has a rich history of clans, which are families or kinship groups that unite under a common surname and ancestor. With records dating back centuries, determining the oldest clan in Scotland can be challenging. However, by examining clan origins and histories, a few contenders for the oldest emerge.

What is a Scottish clan?

A Scottish clan is a kinship group that shares a common surname and ancestry. Clans are united by their allegiance to a clan chief. Clans typically have a clan seat or homeland territory. Tartans, coats of arms, slogans, and plant badges are common symbols that identify a Scottish clan. Clans were important for defense, identity, and social support in the Highlands and border regions of Scotland for centuries.

Key characteristics of Scottish clans

  • Common surname – Members share a surname that indicates their clan identity.
  • Believed common ancestry – Clans trace lineage back to an early clan chief or founder.
  • Allegiance to a clan chief – Historically, the clan rallied around their chief for leadership and protection.
  • Clan seat and lands – Each clan historically occupied lands and had a clan seat or homeland.
  • Tartan patterns – Unique tartan patterns were associated with each clan.
  • Coat of arms – Clan badges and coats of arms symbolized clan identity, status, and heritage.

Oldest clan theories

Determining the oldest Scottish clan is challenging for several reasons:

  • Inconsistent records – Written records for early clan history can be sparse, incomplete, or inaccurate.
  • Debate over origins -There are often different theories about clan founders and early history.
  • Evolving clans – Clans evolved, split, and changed over the centuries, making linear history difficult to trace.
  • Unclear early chiefs – It’s not always clear which chiefs preceded later, well-known historic chiefs.

Despite these difficulties, there are a few clans considered to be the oldest based on available records, clan histories, and legends.

Clans cited as oldest

  • Clan Colquhoun
  • Clan MacGregor
  • Clan Campbell
  • Clan Mackintosh
  • Clan MacDonald
  • Clan MacDougall

Next, we’ll examine the origins and earliest records for each of these clans.

Clan Colquhoun

One of the oldest clans on record is Clan Colquhoun, with roots potentially stretching back to Roman times.


The Colquhouns trace their lineage to Uldredus, a nobleman who may have lived during the Roman occupation of Scotland based on property charters dating to the 3rd century CE.

Medieval records

The Colquhouns were established in their ancestral home of Dumbarton by the 13th century. Sir Humphrey of Colquhoun was granted the barony of Colquhoun by Alexander II in 1246 CE.

Notable chiefs

Sir Robert of Colquhoun was a prominent figure in the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century. The Colquhouns supported Robert the Bruce.

In the 15th century, Sir John Colquhoun was Lord High Chamberlain of Scotland.


Despite records potentially stretching back to Roman times, there are gaps in knowledge of the earliest Colquhoun chiefs. However, established records by the 13th century confirm their status as one of the oldest major Scottish clans.

Clan MacGregor

The Clan MacGregor also makes a strong claim as one of the earliest clans, with origins possibly going back to the 8th century.


Folklore traces the MacGregors to Gregor, who was said to be the son of King Alpin, the first King of Scots in the late 8th century. Some records cite Griogair as the earliest known chief in the 9th century.

Medieval records

The MacGregors held lands surrounding Loch Awe and Glen Orchy by the 13th century. Alexander MacGregor gained the title Baron of Ardchattan by marriage in 1357. His son Robert fought at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Notable chiefs

Eoin MacGregor led the clan at the Battle of Glen Fruin against the Colquhouns in 1603. After defeat at the battle, the MacGregors were outlawed, surviving persecution until their name was restored in 1774.

Sir Malcolm MacGregor led the clan in the mid-20th century, working to revive MacGregor estates and traditions.


The MacGregors claim descent from ancient Gaelic royalty. Despite scattered records before the 14th century, their traditions of an 8th century founder suggests their status as one of Scotland’s earliest clans.

Clan Campbell

With their ancestral seat at Inveraray Castle, the Clan Campbell rose to become one of the largest and most powerful Highland clans.


Tradition traces the Campbells to the Norman knight Gilleasbuig, who came to Scotland in the 13th century. However, the clan name indicates a Gaelic origin. Caimbeul translates to “crooked mouth” in Gaelic, suggesting an older origin.

Medieval records

Dugald Maul Campbell was likely one of the earliest chiefs, holding lands in Argyll by 1280. The Campbells formed ties with Robert the Bruce through marriage. Sir Duncan Campbell was an ally at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Notable chiefs

Sir Colin Campbell, 1st Lord Campbell expanded the clan’s lands and power in the 15th century. Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll unified the clan in the 17th century. John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll supported the Act of Union with England in 1707.


The Campbells secured vast lands and aristocratic titles early on, though their origins before the 13th century are uncertain. Their rapid expansion confirms their status as an early successful clan.

Clan Mackintosh

Based in Inverness-shire, the Clan Mackintosh has a long history as a powerful clan in Northern Scotland.


Legend points to Shaw MacDuff as an early clan chief in the 11th century. Some records suggest the Mackintoshes descended from the early Celtic Picts of Scotland.

Medieval records

William Mackintosh allegedly signed the Declaration of Arbroath asserting Scotland’s independence in 1320. Clan leaders are well-documented from the 14th century onward.

Notable chiefs

Lachlan Mackintosh led the clan at the Battle of Inverlochy in 1431. Angus Mackintosh of Borlum led Jacobite forces in the 18th century.


Legends trace the Mackintoshes back to early Scottish royalty and the Picts. But clear records begin in the 14th century, so their early status is uncertain compared to other clans.

Clan MacDonald

With roots on the Isle of Skye and influence across the Highlands, the Clan MacDonald has a claim as one of Scotland’s most storied clans.


Clan Donald traces their descent from Domnall MacDonald, purportedly a 9th century King of the Isles. The 13th century saw the Lords of the Isles emerge as leaders.

Medieval records

Alexander, Angus Og, and Donald were early chiefs establishing the MacDonalds on Skye and surrounding islands in the 14th and 15th centuries. They often battled for control as Lords of the Isles.

Notable chiefs

Ranald MacDonald supported claims to the Lordship of the Isles into the 16th century. Sir James MacDonald aided the Jacobite Risings in the 18th century.


Legends point to the MacDonalds descending from ancient kings. But clear records begin in the 14th century, putting their early status in question compared to clans like the Campbells or Colquhouns with documentation before 1300.

Clan MacDougall

The Clan MacDougall ruled swaths of Argyll as Lords of Lorne for centuries. Their ancestral seat was Dunollie Castle.


The MacDougalls claim descent from Dugall Craignish, said to be connected to the ancient Kings of Dalriada. Some records point to Dugall MacTavish in the 12th century as a founder.

Medieval records

Ewen MacDougall was the first Lord of Lorne around 1175. Prominent chiefs ruled as Lords of Lorne through the 13th and 14th centuries.

Notable chiefs

Ewen “The Wicked” MacDougall supported Balliol and warred against Robert the Bruce. Duncan MacDougall led the clan at Bannockburn in 1314.


The MacDougalls allege descent from royalty and were prominent lords by the 12th century. But gaps in records of the earliest chiefs make placing them firmly among the oldest clans difficult.


Based on available clan histories and records, the Clan Colquhoun and Clan MacGregor appear to have the strongest claims as the possible oldest clans in Scotland.

Key facts about the oldest clans:

  • The Colquhouns cite origins back to Roman times and chieftains in the 3rd century, with established records by the 13th century.
  • The MacGregors claim descent from 8th century Gaelic royalty. Though records are spotty until the 14th century, their traditions suggest great antiquity.
  • Other old clans like the Campbells, Mackintoshes, MacDonalds, and MacDougalls likely emerged as major powers later in the medieval period.
  • Gaps in early records make it difficult to pinpoint the oldest clan with certainty. But the Colquhouns and MacGregors have the earliest records and legends.

Scotland’s clans emerged as kinship groups with complex histories. Their origins intertwine with Medieval Scottish kingship, battles for independence, and warlord dynasties. Unraveling the earliest clans remains challenging but also highlights their enduring traditions and legacies.

1 thought on “Which is the oldest clan in Scotland?”

  1. Clan Donnachaidh/Robertson dates back even farther and is the only clan allowed to have a crown on it’s crest. We have our own DNA project identifying clan members as well. Our ancestors were know to the Romans as the Kaledonioi, or Caledonia, one of eleven tribes in the northern Pictish nation. They inhabited the area now known as Atholl in Perthshire. They were the only race in Europe that could not be defeated by Imperial Rome.The Clan descends from King Malcolm II, who reigned from 1005 to 1034. He was the last king in the direct male line to descend from Kenneth MacAlpine, who united the Scots and the Picts in 843 A.D. and is considered to be the founder of Scotland.


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