Clans, families and clan societies in the 21st century

Through the latter part of the 20th century and into the current one, there has been a growing interest in clans. People who have an ancestral connection with Scotland wish to discover more about their roots and cultural heritage. This has been especially true of the USA, which now has some of the largest clan associations and societies in the world. Canadians have always been well aware of their heritage and bear witness to the pride and the pain of forced migration. There are now more people of Highland descent in Canada than in Scotland, such was the devastating impact of the Highland Clearances.

This Highland revival really began in the Victorian era when all things Scottish were in great demand. Sir Walter Scott, the famous writer with a Border heritage, was a huge driving force behind this romantic reinvention of the Highlander and of the tartans. It was horribly ironic though, that at the very time Scott was romancing the Highlands, many of the clan chiefs were fully engaged in clearing their lands of the very same Highlanders.

Due to this new romantic way of looking at the Highlands, it is no coincidence that the 19th century saw tartans being assigned to specific clans, resulting in the way we see tartans today. In fact some clans have only adopted an official tartan fairly recently. For example, the current Bissett tartan was designed in 1976. The Bowie tartan was recorded in the 1970's, the Scrymgeour's tartan was also only adopted in the 1970's, whilst it wasn't until 1980 that the Clan Nicholson/MacNichol decided to become two separate clans. 

Not all matters to do with clans are as ancient and steeped in tradition as one might think, or others might lead you to believe. This is not a bad thing by any means as clans need to evolve for the modern world.

Then of course there is the question of septs and families associated with the major clans. Many of these septs assigned to specific clans are highly questionable, and hark back to that Victorian obsession with the Scottish Highlands and its history.

Through rose tinted spectacles

There are now myriad clan societies, and many of those have the current clan chief as head of the organisation. This is a wonderfully historic connection with the past and provides a common reference point. These societies attract many American members eager to feel a bond with the homeland of their ancestors, an understandable emotion for those descendents of clansmen so cruelly scattered by the clearances.

The wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands

Many of the websites for these clan societies are extremely well made and attractive, others are more modest and homely. What they almost all have in common unfortunately is a collective amnesia about the Highland Clearances. It is amazing just how easily such an appalling and horrific event can be expunged from the pages of these websites. One noble exception to this mass amnesia are Clan Macrae in Scotland - - they do make mention of the Clearances and in a sensible and realistic way. Unfortunately, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

It is also amazing that there are many people in North America only too keen to sign up to these societies and swear allegiance to the current clan chief, without first delving into the real history of the clan. On many of these websites the impression given is that the clock stopped in 1746 with the battle of Culloden. Heaven forbid that they must air their dirty washing for all to see. However the past is the past and for a clans history to be a true and accurate record, it must contain the good and the bad.

The award for 'understatement of the year' must go to the Clan Sutherland Society of Scotland -, for this amazing piece of historical gymnastics on their website, in respect of their clan history. It would be amusing, if the subject matter was anything other than the brutal displacement of an entire people by the clan chief's vile factors in the early 19th century:

'As the number of people in Sutherland grew apace, traditional ways of highland life were simply inadequate to support this burgeoning population. Emigration to England and the new world (particularly to the Americas) started as a trickle and soon became a flood. To an extent this was exacerbated by a policy known later as the Clearances, under which much small scale tenant farming was replaced by large scale sheep farming'.

Anybody wishing to delve deeper into the Highland Clearances and the inhuman treatment of the people of Sutherland, should read the 'History of the Highland Clearances' by Alexander MacKenzie. It will give a true picture of the situation in Sutherland at that time.

The Clan Macpherson are one of those Clans with clean hands when it comes to the Clearances. Having supported the cause of Bonny prince Charlie in 1745, the chief was to find himself a hunted man with his home, Cluny Castle, being destroyed and his lands confiscated by the British government. The Macpherson chief was to spend nine years in hiding in the clans homeland of Badenoch before making good his escape to France, where he was to die in exile. His son was able to regain the clan lands some years later after service with the British army.

No Macpherson's were cleared by a Macpherson chief or anybody acting on his behalf. It is this noble history that is reflected in the strength of the Clan Macpherson Association today and the special affection in which its chief is held.

A truth less wholesome

Whilst understanding the natural desire to feel a sense of belonging to ones clan, people should stop and ask themselves why their forebears came to be in the New World. It almost certainly wasn’t due to a mass migration out of free choice. Most of their ancestors came to the New World in the rotten ‘hell ships’ of the early to middle 19th century. Forced to emigrate by certain grasping clan chiefs and landowners who evicted the clansmen and their families, so that they might replace them with lowland sheep farmers and their docile flocks of sheep.

Many of these poor Highland migrants did not even make it to America or Canada. Thousands died of disease on these ships that were nothing short of floating cesspits. It is no exaggeration to say that slave ships of the time had better conditions on board. Many of these decrepit ships also sank before reaching the New World. Not only were these rapacious and callous clan chiefs responsible for evicting people from homes they and their ancestors had occupied for centuries, they were also directly responsible for the deaths of untold thousands of these wretched and betrayed people.

At the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, some clan chiefs were raising regiments to fight in Britain’s wars, in India, North America and Europe. Many of these recruits were forced into going to war under a threat of eviction of their families if they didn’t. Some came back some years later, to find that their families had been evicted anyway and their homes and possessions burnt around them. Many had to emigrate themselves to find their families once again. Could there ever be a deeper betrayal of all that a clansman believed in?

A Highlander in the British army

The Clan MacDonald website - - is extremely interesting in that it makes absolutely no mention of the Highland Clearances, yet has a whole section on the Glencoe Massacre. This is absolutely astounding, given that the chief of the MacDonell’s of Glengarry was amongst the most notorious evictors of clansmen and their families. The evictions in Glengarry began in 1785, when 500 clans people were forced off their land. More evictions occurred in both 1787 and 1788. None of this is mentioned on the MacDonald website.

It is also not mentioned on the official website of the current Chiefs of Clan Donald - . Why do these people not mention the Highland Clearances? Why do they not issue a statement condemning those awful and inhuman injustices upon their own people? Those despicable events cannot just be ignored and forgotten as if they never took place. 

Sins of the father

Of course the current clan chiefs cannot be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors, and most are doubtless fine and decent people. However, those whose forebears had blood on their hands can condemn those past wrongs, and seek to build a genuinely new relationship with the scattered Highland diaspora.

It seems incredible that some modern clan chiefs can act as if the hands of their line are clean and pure, when in fact they are stained with the blood of their own people. The evictions and clearances began within living memory of Culloden. The souls of the clansmen who died on that field of battle under the banners of their chiefs and who were buried there, must be bitter in their sense of outrage.

It is little wonder that so many with guilty consciences are content for the falsehood that Culloden was a battle between the English and the Scots to be perpetuated. Many of the Highlanders at the battle were there because they had been gathered in the usual way, a mixture of exhortation and threat - ‘join the war band or be evicted from your home’. 

Bonnie Prince Charlie was the nemesis of the Highland Scots, and he was the catalyst for the Highland Clearances that were so enthusiastically entered into by his loyal clan chiefs in the years after 1746. Not by a long chalk did all Scots support the Jacobites, certainly not the Lowlanders nor many of the Highland Clans. The army of King George at Culloden contained many Scotsmen, and likewise, Englishmen served the Jacobite cause.

We would suggest that anybody thinking of joining a clan society should ask questions first about what that clans Chief(s) did during the time of the great clearances. If their hands are clean then all well and good. If not, they should also ask why that part of the Clans history is not featured on the website, given that they usually go into every minute detail of every other matter related to the clan.

We would also suggest that people think long and hard about swearing allegiance to any clan chief, whose ancestors were responsible for the brutal displacement of clansmen and their families from land they had lived on for centuries. If a chief has been open about the Highland Clearances and expressed regret for them, then he deserves a modern clansman's respect and allegiance to him would not be misplaced.

Leaving Alba for America

The yearning for a connection with the ancient motherland is a natural and fully understandable one. However, that does not mean one should swoon at the feet of a descendent of those who casually cast aside their own people in search of profit. The blood money that supported the landowners louche and lavish  lifestyles in the south was earned from the suffering and privations of the evicted people of the clan.

A modern clansman can feel justly proud of his name, his people, his peoples achievements in the New World and elsewhere, and of his Scots heritage. Above all, a modern clansman is independent and proud, free from the feudal chains of Lairds and Lords - which was the fervent aim of those leaving Alba for America.

On a much brighter and lighter note - the largest Clan Gathering ever, took place in July 2009 in Edinburgh. The event was a great success.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr