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Medieval Gaelic Clan, Household, and Other Group Names
Draft Edition

by Sharon L. Krossa
Last updated 3 May 2007  

So far in my experience, medieval and early modern Gaels normally called groups of people after an individual. A clan would be named after an ancestor (Soinso's Clan). A monastery would be named after a saint (St. Soinso's Monastery). A household would be called after it's head of household (Soinso's household). A group of soldiers would be called after their leader (Soinso's band/troop), and so on. In some cases these were not so much formal names as simply descriptions.

Although I have not yet completed an exhaustive study of the matter, what I have seen while researching other issues and what I have discovered in preliminary inquiries has shown this to be the almost universal pattern. I am not currently aware of any kind of medieval Gaelic group that had fanciful names such as being named after animals or objects. (If anyone has any evidence of medieval Gaelic groups that were not named after an individual, please contact me.)

In the discussion below, normalized late medieval spellings are used for all Gaelic text unless otherwise noted.

Names of Clans

The English/Scots word clan derives from the Gaelic word clann, which was and is the normal Gaelic word meaning "children". In the Middle Ages clann was one of several different terms used in Gaelic for a ruling noble kindred. Others Gaelic terms for such a kindred include cinéal (kindred), síol (seed), and sliochd (lineage in the sense of descendants); in Ireland (grandsons) was also used. Which terms were used for a particular clan seems to have varied depending on specific time period, culture (Scottish or Irish), and clan. These ruling noble kindreds were patrilineal, and members were "descended by known steps from a named ancestor. In a looser sense a clan might also be taken to include the clients and dependents of the leading kindred". (CtGS, s.v. clans, origins of; Patterson, 36-7) 

Medieval Gaelic clans were named after a male clan ancestor. Examples include:

Clann Domhnaill A Scottish Gaelic clan named after a man with the given name Domhnall who lived in the early 13th century. (CtGS, s.v. Clans, origins of; Skene 1467)
Clann Ghille Eoin A Scottish Gaelic clan named after a man with the given name Gille Eoin who lived in the 13th century. (CtGS, s.v. Clans, origins of; Skene 1467)
Clann Ghriogair A Scottish Gaelic clan named after a man with the given name Griogair who lived in the 14th century. (CtGS, s.v. Clans, origins of; Skene 1467)
Clann Néill An Irish Gaelic clan named after a man with the given name Niall who died in 919. (CtGS, s.v. Clans, origins of; Rawlinson)

The eponymous clan ancestor seems always to have been dead by the time a clan was named after him -- clans do not seem to have been called after living individuals. The historical Scottish Gaelic clans we are most familiar with today mainly are named after clan ancestors who lived from 1150-1350 AD. The eponymous clan ancestors of familiar Irish clans, however, often date to an earlier period. (CtGS, s.v. Clans, origins of) 

The basic pattern for the names of medieval Gaelic clans is:

<clan term> <eponymous clan ancestor's name (in genitive case & sometimes lenited)>

The clan term used determines whether the eponymous clan ancestor's name is lenited. After cinéal, síol, and sliochd the clan ancestor's name is not lenited. After , the clan ancestor's name is always lenited. After clann the clan ancestor's name is lenited unless his name starts with D, T, L, N, or R. (Thurneysen, 141-3; Lehmann, 16, 95) 

Most commonly the name used for the eponymous clan ancestor was his given name only, but sometimes his simple patronymic byname only or his given name plus descriptive byname would be used. For example:

Clann Mhic Dhuibhne A late medieval Scottish Gaelic clan named after a man with the simple patronymic byname mac Duibhne. (Mackechnie)
Clann Eoin Duibh A late medieval Scottish Gaelic clan named after a man with the given name plus descriptive byname Eoin Dubh. (Skene 1467)

In late medieval Ireland, the name used for the eponymous clan ancestor was sometimes a more complex name. (Future drafts of this article will contain more details on this point.)

Note that the English or Scots language name of a clan -- especially the modern one -- is often very different from the historical Gaelic language name of that clan. For example, Clann Mhic Dhuibhne is modernly known in English as Clan Campbell. The relationships between the Gaelic and English/Scots language forms of the names of clans can be complex and are beyond the scope of this article. Likewise, the relationships between the names of Irish clans and the clan affiliation bynames used by members of those clans are also complex and beyond the scope of this article. Finally, note that in the Middle Ages clans were a feature of Gaelic culture, and so far the only pre-1600 examples of groups specifically called variations of "Clan Suchinsuch" that I have found -- in English, Scots, or Gaelic -- have been Gaelic clans. [All of which is to say, do not try to use the above explanations to recreate anything but the Gaelic names of Gaelic clans!]

Household Names

Gaelic households appear to have been called after the individual who was the head of that household. In many ways these were more descriptions than proper names. Examples include:

luchd taighe Maoil Sheachlainn household of Maol Sheachlainn (Four Masters 2, M1012.7)
luchd taighe Domhnaill mhic Taidhgh Uí Chonchobhair household of Domhnall son of Tadhgh Ó Conchobhair (Four Masters 3, M1303.4)
luchd taighe Uí Néill household of Ó Néill (Four Masters 3, M1306.4)
luchd taighe Cathail Uí Chonchobhair household of Cathal Ó Conchobhair (Four Masters 3, M1322.7)
teaghlach Uí Mhaoil Sheachlainn household of Ó Maoil Sheachlainn (Four Masters 2, M1101.7)
teaghlach Cathail Croibhdheirg household of Cathal Croibhdhearg (Four Masters 3, M1226.8)

The basic pattern for medieval Gaelic household name/description is:

<household term> <household head's name (in genitive case)>

So far I have found two terms used for "household": luchd taighe (household, literally "house-people") and teaghlach (household) (Dwelly, s.v. luchd, taigh, & teaghlach). I do not yet know what, if any, differences in meaning there are between the two terms, nor precisely who was considered to belong either to a man's luchd taighe or teaghlach.(So far all examples have been named/described with a man's name.)

The names used for the head of household show considerable variation. Some household names/descriptions use only his given name (e.g., Maol Sheachlainn), some use his given name plus byname (e.g., Domhnall mhic Taidhgh Uí Chonchobhair, Cathal Uí Chonchobhair, & Cathal Croibhdearg), and some use only what appears to be his chiefly title (e.g., Ó Néill & Ó Maoil Sheachlainn).

Other Group Names

As you may have guessed, this draft is not yet complete. At some time in the future, I will be adding specific information about fighting groups names/descriptions and monastery names.

Kinds of Groups Not Found

Note that there are various kinds of groups of people common to other medieval cultures that were not really a part of medieval Gaelic culture, and thus there are no examples of Gaelic names for these kinds of groups.

For example, because Gaelic culture did not have the kinds of burghs, towns, or cities found in other late medieval cultures, they also did not develop craft organizations or guilds such as those that developed in the late Middle Ages in towns elsewhere in Europe. (Towns in late medieval Scotland and Ireland were not Gaelic in culture. In Scotland, burghs were predominantly Scots-speaking and Lowland in culture, even when located next to or in Gaelic speaking areas. In Ireland, late medieval towns were established by the English; the few earlier towns had been established by the Norse and later taken over by the English. Unsurprisingly, the craft organizations and guilds that developed in these Lowland Scottish and Anglo-Irish towns were known by Scots/English terms and names.)

So far in my research, I have not found any special names for inns or other businesses in either Scotland or Ireland (Gaelic or Lowland/Anglo-Irish). I expect that to the extent these had names, they too were simply called after individual people (the current owner/proprietor).


Eponymous refers to the person after whom something is named. For example, Robert's eponymous uncle would be his Uncle Robert, after whom he was named, and the eponymous founders of Hewlett-Packard would be Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard, after whom the company was named. Similarly, the eponymous clan ancestor of Clann Domhnaill would be the Domhnall after whom the clan was named.

Genitive Case
The genitive case shows possession. It involves certain changes in spelling and pronunciation which have a similar effect in Gaelic as changing John to John's has in English.

Given Name
Also known as a "first name", "Christian name", or "forename".


Grammatical lenition involves a "softening" of the initial consonant sounds of words in certain grammatical situations. This pronunciation change in Gaelic is sometimes indicated by a changed spelling as well. See The Spelling of Lenited Consonants in Gaelic(i) for information on the effect of lenition on spelling. (Vowels cannot be lenited.) A word that is changed in this way is said to be lenited.

Scots is a language closely related to English. There are many terms, some more respected than others, used for the modern Scots language and/or specific dialects of Modern Scots, including "Broad Scots", "Lallans", "Lowland Scots", "Aberdonian", "Doric", "Glaswegian", and many others. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Scots speakers themselves called their language "Inglis", while in the 16th century they took to calling it "Scottis".

Some linguists consider Scots to be a separate language from English, others consider it a dialect of English. Since the categorization of independent language vs. dialect is a subjective one, there is no "one true answer". I choose to refer to Scots as a language for several reasons, including that I find it makes it easier to talk about and explain the linguistic situation in both modern and medieval Scotland.

Note that "Scots" has several other, more common, meanings in addition to referring to the Scots language, including, as an adjective, the meaning "Scottish" and, as a noun, the meaning "more than one Scottish person".


Byname For a discussion of Bynames, see Quick and Easy Gaelic Names.
Descriptive Byname For a discussion of Descriptive Bynames, see Quick and Easy Gaelic Names.
Fanciful Names

Note that this means that currently there is no known evidence to support Gaelic group names using any variation of these patterns:

<group designator> <animal>
<group designator> <object>

And so names using any variation of the following patterns are even less plausible:

<group designator> <animal> <adjective>
<group designator> <object> <adjective>

Thus, there is little purpose in seeking Gaelic translations for proposed group names like "Fox Clan", "Clan of the Blue Unicorn", "Clan of the Silver Sword", or the like, as they do not follow any known historical Gaelic group naming pattern.

Male Clan Ancestor None of the many historical Gaelic clans whose names are known were named after a female clan ancestor.
Simple Patronymic Byname For a discussion of Simple Patronymic Bynames, see Quick and Easy Gaelic Names.


1467 MS A photograph of the "1467 Manuscript", a Gaelic genealogical manuscript which is shelf-marked Adv.MS.72.1.1 in the Scottish National Library. Colm O'Boyle has kindly helped with transcriptions from this manuscript.
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Skene 1467 Skene, William F. "Genealogies of the Highland Clans, Extracted from Ancient Gaelic MSS.: 1. Gaelic MS. Written circa A.D. 1450, with a Translation" and "Genealogies of the Highland Clans, Extracted from Ancient Gaelic MSS.: 2. Gaelic MS. Written circa A.D. 1450, continued". In Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis consisting of Original Papers and Documents Relating to the History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, edited by The Iona Club, 50-62 and 357-60. Edinburgh: Thomas G. Stevenson, 1847.
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