Reflections on Clan Spens
by Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence, Ph.D.
I have had some interesting recent discoveries related to the so-called “Clan Spens”. I have been researching Spens and Spence families of Scotland for the last four years.
Just for some background, even though both Spens and Spence surnames are less common in Scotland these days, the history Spens people goes back to the time of the Norman invasion and was closely allied with the on-goings of the Scottish crown for centuries. The first Scottish Spens ancestor was Jean Le Despencier or the Dispenser (or the keeper of the royal pantry) who supposedly came from Normandy and wed an unnamed daughter of Duncan II of MacDuff, Moramor of Fife. This may or may not be mythological; however, the “founder of the family” for whom we have documentation was Sir Henrie de Spens, b. 1240-d. 1300. One of his great-grandsons, William of Spens, Burgess of Perth and 1st Feudal Baron of Lathallan in Fife, had his baronial tenure confirmed by the Scottish Crown on 16th May of 1392.
This fellow formed one of two major Spens lines that descend up to the current day, with the living heir being the 23rd Representer of the Feudal Barony of Lathallan in Fife, who lives in Australia.
As I have been working away attempting to document the wide and varied stories of these different people, I have been confronted with this thing called, “Clan Spens”. I even got into a fight with some angry old codger at the Scottish Genealogical Society in Edinburgh who insisted that there is no such thing as “Clan Spens.” So, ever since, this has been one of my ongoing tasks. I have discussed this issue with a variety of genealogists and historians around Scotland, and the Lord Lyon office, the crown’s representative in Scotland regarding titles and heraldry, has been most helpful in trying to sort this out.
To the present, there is a current clan chief of Clan Spens – the 4th Lord Baron Spens of Blairsanquhar who lives in London, and going back four generations in his family they were the clan chiefs. Before that the clan chiefs came down the Lathallan line. Having said that, there being a listed registered lowland clan named Clan Spens and a registered clan chief with the Lord Lyon of Clan Spens — there is no other record or historical mention of anything of related to a Clan Spens. There was absolutely nothing, and then seemingly out of nowhere there is a Clan Spens. And, my task has been to figure out that wrinkle.
These last months of being locked in during the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged good research, and I have revisited major sections of the Spens family story. Around 1750, we find one Thomas Spens who was titled, “Thomas Spens, 19th of that Ilk and 16th of Lathallan,” — b. 1722-d. 1783 — who was a Jacobite. Now the “of that Ilk” can mean several things:
The official use “of that Ilk” is as a linguistic shortcut as many people had the same surname as the place where they lived, so that one could be “John Macduff of MacDuff” or “George MacGregor of MacGregor” which is a mouthful, so it became “John Macduff of that Ilk or George MacGregor of that Ilk”
The second use “of that Ilk” is an indicator of a clan chief or the line of a clan chief, or his family to distinguish them from the rest of the clan who might share the same surname.
Now, Thomas Spens being “19th of that Ilk” has been used since 1750 to provide evidence of Clan Spens and that Thomas Spens was the 19th Clan chief back to Henry de Spens in 1240, who presumably was the 1st chief of Clan Spens, although I am quite certain that Henry de Spens was entirely unaware of this fact.
And, here arrives the wrinkle!
The Lord Lyon was kind enough to go dig up the documents they had on this Thomas Spens who has his arms recognized on three separate occasions.
They confirmed that there was no used of “of that Ilk” by anyone before 1750.
More importantly, in the three arms filings by Thomas Spens during his lifetime there was no mention of “of that Ilk”.
This means that either Thomas Spens invented the styling of his titles to include “of that Ilk”, or one of his heirs invented it and applied it retroactively. Or, that the creators of the Burke’s Peerage made them up, or that the informants to the creators of Burke’s Peerage made them up.
So, my current conclusion is that Clan Spens was invented at some point between 1750 and 1900 – probably between 1750 and 1800. However, this is not to negate the fact that Spens men in Fifeshire, considered themselves to be direct kin of the head of the MacDuff clan. This is shown that several Spens men claimed sanctuary for crimes committed at the Cross of MacDuff — a privilege only afforded to blood kin up to the 10th degree of kinship to the head of the MacDuff clan. Additionally, many Spens married into a group of closely allied Fife families, many also claiming blood relationship to MacDuff.
So, my second conclusion is that Clan Spens, even if it is a fiction as compared to highland clan systems, was not created from nothing. It was an effort to codify and systematize an ancient relationship between Spens families in Fife, the MacDuff family, perhaps as far back as 1150, and other regional families that formed an extended kindred grouping. (this can be examined further by examining all the Septs of Clan MacDuff, Clan Spens being one of those listed septs).