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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A sept is an English word for a division of a family, especially a division of a clan. The word might have its origin from Latin septum "enclosure, fold",[1] or it can be an alteration of sect.[2]

The term is found in both Ireland and Scotland. It is sometimes used to translate the word slíocht, meaning seed, indicating the descendants of a person (i.e., Slíocht Brian Mac Diarmada, the descendants of Brian MacDermott).


Family branches

Síol was used within the context of a family or clan, all who bore the same surname, as a manner of distinguishing one group from another. For example: a family called Mac an Bháird (Anglicised as Ward) might be divided into septs such as Síol Seán Mac Briain, Síol Conchobhair Óg, Síol Sean Cuinn, Síol Cú Chonnacht. All of these individual lines might further sub-divide into still more septs, which in turn sometimes led to a new surname, and/or the emergence of the family considered a clan in their own right. This type of sept was normal in Scotland.


In the context of Scottish clans, septs are families that followed another family's chief. These smaller septs would then make up, and be part of, the chief's larger clan. A sept might follow another chief if two families were linked through marriage. However, if a family lived on the land of a powerful laird, they would follow him whether they were related or not. Bonds of manrent were sometimes used to bind lesser chiefs and his followers to more powerful chiefs.

Today sept lists are used by clan societies to recruit new members. Such lists date back to the 19th century, when clan societies and tartan manufacturers attempted to capitalise on the enthusiasm and interest for all things Scottish. Lists were drawn up that linked as many surnames as possible to a particular clan. In this way people without a "clan name" could connect to a Scottish clan and thus feel "entitled" to its tartan. One modern member of the Lyon Court has described the attribution of such names to particular clans as sometimes being based upon nothing but imagination, and in others cases upon a single recorded instance of a surname. Also, common surnames, found throughout the British Isles, were linked to particular clans. For example, the surname Miller was made a sept of Clan Macfarlane, and Taylor of Clan Cameron. Also, patronymic forms of common personal names were also linked to particular clans.[3] This has led to the false impression that many surnames have one origin and are all related to one another, and that such surnames are historically connected to one particular clan.


Historically, the term 'sept' was not used in Ireland until the nineteenth century, long after any notion of clanship had been eradicated. The English word 'sept' is most accurate referring to a sub-group within a large clan; especially when that group has taken up residence outside of their clan's original territory. (O'Neill, MacSweeney, and O'Connor are examples.) Related Irish septs and clans often belong to larger groups, sometimes called tribes, such as the Dál gCais, Uí Néill, Uí Fiachrach, and Uí Maine. Recently, the late Edward MacLysaght suggested the English word 'sept' be used in place of the word 'clan' with regards to the historical social structure in Ireland, so as to differentiate it from the centralized Scottish clan system. This would imply that Ireland possessed no formalised clan system, which is not wholly accurate. Brehon Law, the ancient legal system of Ireland clearly defined the clan system in pre-Norman Ireland, which collapsed after the Tudor Conquest. The Gaels, when speaking of themselves, employed their term 'clan'.

See also


  1. ^ "sept". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-05.  
  2. ^ Webster's II Dictionary Editors et al. (ed.) (2005). Webster's II New College Dictionary, page 1031. Houghton Mifflin Reference Books ISBN 0618396012
  3. ^ Campbell of Airds, Alastair (2000). A History of Clan Campbell; Volume 1, From Origins To The Battle Of Flodden. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 220–221. ISBN 1-902930-17-7.  

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