OF THE SCATTERING
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
makes the heart grow fonder
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.
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
who pays the piper calls the tune'
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.
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.
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
Wilton, the well know tartan expert and Director of the Scottish Tartans
Authority in his book, ‘Tartans’, has this to say about the new
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’.
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?
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.
can evoke a feeling of exclusivity rather than seeming to be inclusive
of all those of the name.
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.
place or the name?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
been the case for some people and it must have come as a bit of a shock
when drawing up the family tree.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
©Copyright - James of Glencarr