Are the Highland clans the new 'border families'?

The Highland Clans of Scotland have a long and illustrious history and despite the misfortunes that have beset them over the centuries, they have managed to survive unto the modern day.

There has been a process of evolution over those past centuries, even if at times it seemed to outsiders that theirs was a culture mired in ancient traditions and cultural backwardness. That however was never really the case.

The clan structure evolved from a recognisably egalitarian and democratic base prior to the arrival of Norman influence. It then became touched by a Norman inspired form of feudalism that robbed clansmen of their native land and changed the relationship between the chief and his people, certainly not for the better.

A further blow to the people of the clans occurred during the horrific Highland Clearances, when thousands of clansmen and their families who had resided on clan lands for hundreds of years, were thrown off by landowners. Sometimes these were their own clan chiefs, who replaced the people of the clans with sheep and Lowland shepherds.

This was very often done to support the clan chiefs comfortable and louche lifestyle in Edinburgh or London. At the time of the Clearances many clan chiefs were absentee landlords who lived off the rents supplied by their hardworking and poverty stricken small tenants.

A rising less popular

It is no surprise that when Bonnie Prince Charlie planted his standard on the 19th August at Glenfinnan to signal the beginning of the 1745 rising, and the chiefs who supported his cause tried to raise their clans in support, they often met with a great reluctance by the ordinary people. They cared nothing for ‘Italian fops’ or their political games, for a Jacobite victory would change nothing in their own difficult lives. They were merely 'cannon fodder' for the ambitions of a Prince who barely knew one word of Gaelic and whose aim was to be a British King who sat in London. Scotland would never have been an independent nation under a Stuart monarch, that was simply not enough for them.

As a small illustration of the above, of the 87 men from Glen Urquhart and Glenmoriston who surrendered to the Hanovarian forces in May 1746, it was noted that 57 of them had been ‘forced’, ‘pressed’ and even ‘dragged’ into the Jacobite forces, hardly a universally popular rising it would seem.

The Jacobite uprising that ended so tragically at the Battle of Culloden was the final nail driven into the coffin of the old clans. Highland Dress was banned along with tartan and the bagpipes. It also brought about the unhappy conditions that set the Highland Clearances in motion.

Lonely Glenfinnan on a raw June day

From a few decades after Culloden right up until the end of the 19th century, Highlanders were evicted from their homes and forced onto the immigrant ships bound for the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even South Africa. The Gaelic lifeblood was drained out of Scotland and clan chiefs found themselves the possessors of empty and meaningless clan titles and even emptier lands, save for the sheep and the shepherds.

It was only in 1822 with the visit of King George IV to Scotland, that Sir Walter Scott in the nick of time, saved the unique culture of the Highlands and made it popular throughout the British Isles. What tourists perceive as being the very essence of Scotland today is in fact the very essence of the ancient Scottish Highlands, diluted over time and refined for the modern age.

One must also remember that at the time of the 1745 uprising, there was no such thing as a clan tartan. People may have worn a kilt of a certain blend of colours but that had more to do with the cloth being woven in their area. Clan tartans are a 19th century innovation and many were designed at that time. They are still being designed today, with some of the smaller clans only adopting a specific tartan as late as the end of the 20th century.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder

There is a saying in Scotland that ‘the further a Scotsman travels from Scotland, the more Scottish he becomes’. There is a lot of truth in that and this is borne out by the membership figures for clan associations and the like. By far the biggest membership numbers in many clan associations come from the USA.

Let us take the Clan Macpherson Association membership figures for 2008 as an example. Out of a total worldwide membership of 2763, no less than 1577 of those reside in the USA, with a further 208 in Canada. The Scottish membership is only 304. The biggest growth of the association by far was also in the USA, with a gain in membership of 158 over the figures for 2007. In Scotland there was an increase of only 13 new members.

'He who pays the piper calls the tune'

The American members of clan associations are the driving force behind them. They are increasingly providing the enthusiasm and impetus and that is certainly nothing to be sneered at. Americans care passionately about their history and take a real pride in their roots and origins.

New traditions

The powerful and enthusiastic American influence in clan associations is leading to some new and innovative traditions being introduced, the best known perhaps being the quirky practice of Kirkin’ the Tartan.

This new tradition developed from a myth that during the tartan prohibition after the Jacobite rising of 1745, people would secrete a scrap of tartan about their person as they went to church and at a certain point in the proceedings, they would place a hand on the tartan and say a silent prayer for the restoration of their ancient tartans or some such sentiment.

Brian Wilton, the well know tartan expert and Director of the Scottish Tartans Authority in his book, ‘Tartans’, has this to say about the new tartan myths:

‘This is an interesting myth that seems to have been invented to sanctify the peculiarly American custom of Kirkin’ the Tartan, an annual church service where many clan societies and other such bodies take their tartan banners to church to have them blessed’.

Image and perception

This above shows quite clearly that clan associations are evolving and growing in America, whereas in Scotland they are often dying – sometimes quite literally, given the average age of members – or are seemingly mired in a cloying nostalgia. Why is the membership in Scotland often falling or failing to grow?

Unfortunately, these clan associations can be seen as elitist and terribly middle class. They can be seen as the preserve of the privileged and professional, conjuring up images of sporting estates, kilted landowners with cut-glass accents, and pretentious social climbers with double-barrelled surnames. This can evoke a feeling of exclusivity rather than seeming to be inclusive of all those of the name.

That scenario is very definitely not the case in America, where people tend to be descended from the ordinary men and women of the clans and don’t carry the heavy and suffocating baggage of the British class system. In a nutshell the problem in the UK as a whole tends to be one of image and perception, which is a real shame because these associations contain many lovely and welcoming people who are very enthusiastic about their association or society.

The place or the name?

For the ancient people of the clans, ‘belonging’ was a part of who they were. The Gaels of the Highlands held very ancient traditions and beliefs and that is what lies behind the original concept of the Clan. One major tradition is known in Gaelic as duthchas. It is impossible to accurately translate the exact meaning of that word into English, but it expresses a sense of belonging to a certain area of land, of being firmly rooted by ancient lineage to a particular place that was communally held by all the people of the clan.

On the other hand, the hardy people of the Scottish Borderlands had no duthchas-like attachment to a particular spot, although they may have lived in the same area for many generations. The real force in the Borders was family and they were often referred to as the ‘riding surnames’. Although today these old border families are often spoken of as being clans, they were never anything of the sort. To them it was the name that was important and it was the name that bound them together in a bond of kinship and belonging.

The vital bond between Highlander and land that was at the heart of duthchas was severed in the most brutal way possible during the horrors of the Highland Clearances. People were literally torn from their ancient homelands and forced into exile by grasping landlords, who were often their own clan chiefs. The trauma of a forced eviction was doubly traumatic for those betrayed by their clan chief and they often boarded the immigrant ships disbelieving their chief could have sanctioned such a cruel and heartless deed be set upon them.

The Y-Chromosome and ancient cuckoldry

Today the old clan structure with its old communal heritage and the poisonous additions of feudalism that infected it, has changed out of all recognition. The people of the Highlands were scattered far and wide and it is estimated that there are now over sixty million people of Highland descent who live outside of Scotland. Those figures dwarf the number of people who live in the Scottish Highlands today.

Many of these scattered people are descended from those who left Scotland in the 18th century and have been settled in their new lands for many generations and feel rooted in those new homes.

I doubt there are many Americans of Highland descent living in the balmy climes of Florida or Southern California, who would gladly exchange those homes for the damp, cold and rustic delights of the Highlands and Islands. The notion of doing so may be terribly romantic, but the reality is a rude awakening indeed.

No matter the passage of time, the blood of the Gael and of the Highlands still proudly courses through the veins of the dispossessed and the betrayed. It flows in an unbroken link to those who came before and who called Scotland home. This sense of ‘blood’ is reflected in many American clan associations and societies fascination with the new science of genealogy, a powerful tool for those who seek their ancient origins.

The 2009 annual magazine of the Clan Macpherson Association – Creag Dhubh - has two detailed articles about genealogy, especially in respect to the y-chromosome that is passed down via the male line from father to son. Such genetic investigation can rattle a few very old skeletons in cupboards too. Through the new y-chromosome research it may even be discovered that a male ancestor had been a cuckold. Indeed, that situation has been the case for some people and it must have come as a bit of a shock when drawing up the family tree.

It should also be remembered that the major clans have septs attached to them. These are basically those people of lesser clans or families who sought the protection of a major clan. In days of old many would adopt the surname of the clan to whom they became attached, but during the great Victorian Scottish revival, clans seemed to acquire an ever-expanding collection of septs.

The Clan Macpherson lays claim to the surname of ‘Smith’ and that certainly opens the doors to a huge potential membership opportunity. How one proves one is a Smith that was originally under the wing of the Clan Macpherson is an open question, unless one knows for certain the bloodline of the 'Macpherson Smith's' and can jump on that genealogy bandwagon. In all, the Clan Macpherson has 22 septs attached to it and some of the other major clans have more than that.

The surnames remain

What binds the modern clan together more than anything is the clan name. A person is proud to be a Macpherson for example, whether they carry that name or a sept name or indeed any other surname. It is the decision of the clan chief if a person not of the blood can be a member of the clan association, and that in itself is a very ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the communal past.

With the scattering of the people of the clans, it was the name that existed as a common bond, the standard to which the dispersed people could rally. A current clansman of the diaspora can have no direct umbilical connection to the ancient homeland, in the same way that the people of the clans of old did, too much time and too many generations have passed for that.

A modern clansman of the scattering no longer has Gaelic as his native tongue and can no longer truly claim to know the real meaning of duthchas. The sense of belonging and attachment they feel towards Scotland is a romantic one and it is a touchstone to the people of the past. If one asks in Gaelic where somebody comes from, the literal meaning is subtly different. It is actually more akin to where do you belong and is the essential essence of duthchas.

An American on vacation can visit his ancestral lands in Scotland today, wallow in the history and probably rue the awful weather, and he will then leave to go home quite happily to America. On the other hand, his ancestors who left those same lands for America were violently wrenched from them and the pain of eviction was keenly felt. It was the very death of the Gael and his culture in the Highlands.

What is very real today, is a pride in being a member of a clan that stretches back into the mists of time and it is the surname that evokes that enormous sense of pride. Names are never merely just that, they hold the essence of ones true self and ones true identity. Names are not just casual titles of convenience they are who we are in a very real sense and they anchor us to our distant origins.

Just as in the Scottish Borders, the powerful old bonds of loyalty and service may have disappeared but the names remain and they are a vivid reminder of who we are and where we come from. They are the very core of our identity and should be cherished as such.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr