The derbhfine is the core members of a Scottish clan, who in the past would gather to enact clan business, and today may be called together as a court to decide the succession or appointment of the clan Chief. I'm not sure exactly how this Scots Gaelic word is pronounced, but I think it's roughly DAIR-vin-i.

Formerly membership of the derbhfine was defined by descent: such as all the male-line kin in the clan going back four generations, or all those descended from a reigning king. (1)

Today, when members of Scottish families are scattered all around the world, it is defined by possessing honours within the Scottish system of nobility: either land or arms. They must be a landholder outwith a burgh (outside a town), or they must be a Scottish armiger, that is grantee or inheritor of a coat of arms granted by Lord Lyon King of Arms. They must also of course be members of the clan proper, having the clan surname. They need not be residents of Scotland. (2)

A derbhfine, called an ad hoc derbhfine, is summoned when the succession to a chiefship needs to be decided. Some clans did not have chiefs in ancient times; others lost them in the wars, clearances, and emigrations of around two centuries ago; in others the main branch appears to have gone extinct and it is not clear which cadet branch now has the seniority. Senior clan members organise an ad hoc derbhfine, which has a quorum of nine, and appoint a Commander (Ceann-cath). The Commander acts as temporary head of the clan for the purpose of seeking candidates, doing genealogical research, and dealing with the legal authorities who will adjudicate on any claims that are put forward. Heraldry in Scotland is governed by the Court of Lord Lyon, and it is Lyon who rules on succession to titles as well as eligibility for arms.

Derbhfines happen several times a century in modern times, and with the increase in interest in genealogy, Scottish families have come together over the Internet to revive dormant clans or even to create new clans for surnames that did not anciently belong to any. In any case Lord Lyon reviews the genealogical evidence and may eventually choose to grant a coat of arms to the person adjudged to be Chief. This can happen after an elapse of ten years since a derbhfine appoints a Commander and makes a recommendation. (3)

The new Chief is supposed to be the nearest heir in blood to the last known Chief, who may have died centuries previously. Obviously this is not always possible. But though the clan is bound by blood ties, and inheritance is by primogeniture from father to son, the derbhfine represents a more ancient elective tradition. The earlier Celtic system was of tanistry, where the kings or chiefs needed to be powerful, and to have powerful heirs, so they appointed an able-bodied adult kinsman to be their tanist, next in line for the title. So the derbhfine meets when the rule of primogeniture has failed or cannot be applied, and they elect someone they believe to be an honourable person, resident in Scotland, who is as close as reasonably possible to the ancient line of the Chief.

One of the most recent ad hoc derbhfines was remarkable for the elected claimant's having no provable blood tie at all to the last Chief. Lord Lyon deferred acceptance of his candidacy and clarified the rules. (4), (5), (6).

Aulay MacAulay of Ardincaple was the last known Chief of Clan MacAulay. In the mid eighteenth century he was in dire debt, sold Ardincaple, and died in poverty in 1767. He had no children and did not appoint a tanist. He had relatives of course, but to inherit the title they would also have had to agree to inherit the debts that then went with it. One Alexander MacAulay of Dublin is on record as having refused to do so. The MacAulay's own sister was married to one of his debtors, and as women can inherit titles under Scottish law, his brother-in-law could have taken on and claimed the Chiefship. But no claim was made, so all the lines that were approached in this way disqualified themselves, having refused the title.

In 1991 one Archibald Craig MacAulay and on his 1995 death his brother Iain McMillan MacAulay researched their genealogy with intent to claim the title. Another person of that surname, Iain Davidson MacAulay, was doing the same thing at that time. None of them ever succeeded in proving their descent, but Iain McMillan MacAulay organised a derbhfine in 2001, was appointed Commander, and was elected with the dissent of only his rival to be recommended to Lyon as the new Chief. Lyon did not disallow the appointment of a Chief without provable blood connection, but refused the request for the time being and set the minimum number of years of advertising, searching, and challenging necessary in such a case. Also he indicated that if he acceded to the request it could not be as head of all the MacAulays, but he would create a more restricted title of MacAulay of Ardincaple.

Well I like learning new words.


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