Clan Chieftains

Clan Chieftains

by Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence, Ph.D.


Historically, the clan system was a rather egalitarian enterprise, and the clan chieftain was the head man chosen from a group of leaders within a kindred group to speak for their entire group.

In the Highland clan system there was not a necessary dependence on primogeniture, or the practice of leadership being passed from father to first son, and so forth.  Rather, there was a group of eligible leaders and one was chosen to be the leader for the duration of his lifetime, and then a new leader would be chosen to succeed him.

Clan Spens is not a Highland clan.  Rather it is something somewhat more amorphous – a Lowland clan.  The Lowland clan was more an articulation of the Scottish version of feudalism utilizing the terminology of Scottish clans.  Lowland clans have been described as “family kinship associations or family group corporations,” whereby real or assumed kinship groups are maintained amongst different families sharing the same or similar surname.  The people in the kinship group may or may not be blood relatives, and they may or may not mutually descend from a common real or mythological ancestor.

In the case of Clan Spens, the core of the kinship group is composed of a group of feudal families who share the same surname and assumed common descendancy from a single ancestor, one Sir Henry de Spens.  In additional, a more modern interpretation of Scottish Lowland Clan kinship would expand the group beyond the descendents of the feudal Spens families to include other Scottish families who share the surname of Spens or Spence.  This would include Spens and Spence persons in the Orkney and Shetland Islands; Spence families in the Isle of Bute and Ruthven; Spence families in the Carse of Gowrie; as well as, the many Spence families to be found in villages and cities across Scotland.

I have endeavored to establish exactly when the role of Chieftain of Clan Spens was codified into a formal role without success; however, evidence would indicate that it is unlikely this was a thing before approximately 1750.  However, during the renaissance of Scottish clan culture during the 1700s it was common for traditional Scottish feudal families to re-articulate themselves as Scottish clans.  As some point during this period it was established that the head of the senior line of the kinship group would double as the chieftain of Clan Spens.

The senior line of Clans Spens since 1390 has been the Feudal Barony of Spens of Lathallan and the descendancy of the Feudal Baron of Lathallan and the Representar of the Name of Spens has been well documented.  Around 1750, the baron of Spens of Lathallan was Thomas Spens, a Jacobite, who had a keen interest in the notion of Scottish Clanship.

In 1959 a descendent of the cadet family of Spens of Craigsanquhar performed exceptional services to the crown and state, and as a result was elevated to the position of Lord Baron Spens of Blairsanquhar.  At the same time it was decided that the Lord Baron Spens would also assume the role of Chieftain of Clan Spens.  Now, some 50 years later we have the 4th Lord Baron Spens of Blairsanquhar who assumed the role upon the death of his father, the 3rd Lord Baron, and who has registered with the Lord Lyon office in Edinburgh his assumption of the role of Chieftain of Clan Spens. Currently, the Lord Spens resides in London.

Arms of Lord Baron Spens of Blairsanquhar