Rab McNeil: The (sometimes confusing) story behind Scotland's clans

·5-min read
A bagpipe player in St Andrews, as high winds suspend play during a Golf in the Olympic Games press conference during day three of The Open Championship 2015 at St Andrews, Fife..
A bagpipe player in St Andrews, as high winds suspend play during a Golf in the Olympic Games press conference during day three of The Open Championship 2015 at St Andrews, Fife..

WE all seek a sense of belonging but, these days, with nation, family and even gender breaking down, all you’re left with is your fitba’ team, and it’s probably full of foreign mercenaries signed by a billionaire owner who still has trouble finding his way to your town.

In desperation, the clan is an ancient group to which a Scotchman might align himself passionately, particularly if he’s a bit weird. As the world capital of Weird, it’s unsurprising that the clan is particularly associated with Scotland, even if, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, “in its wider meaning of a group of kinsmen forming a self-governing community, the system has … existed at one time or another in all lands”.

The Scandinavians had their ætter, often translated as “houses” or “lines”, the Biblical tribes of Israel had clans, as did Arab and Native American society.

But Scotland has more clans in films and novels, and so is clearly top dog in this regard. I know you love your etymology – no, come back! – and so I can tell you authoritatively that the word comes from the Gaelic clann, meaning “children”, or maybe “offspring”, “progeny”, or “descendants”. If you’ve a different translation, just shut up and drink your breakfast Buckfast.

It’s possible that taking the word’s original meaning of “children” or “offspring” too literally led to the misconception that everyone bearing the same surname, often but not always Mac, was descended from one ancestor and is related, however distantly, to the current chief.

In fact, clans would include many folk with other names, who’d adopted the handle out of solidarity, for protection or for free fodder. Life’s too short to get into septs – families that followed another mob’s chief – but back in the 19th century, when being Scottish was briefly in vogue, sept lists were drawn up, largely at the instigation of clan societies and touters of tartan tat who saw a chance to make a bawbee. Common British surnames were linked to particular clans, such as Miller to MacFarlane, Taylor to Cameron, Blenkinsop to MacWibble.

Even more loopy than the idea that we’re all Jock MacWibble’s bairns were the many clan claims of origins in Irish mythology. Clan MacNeill, for example, traced their ancestry to the fifth century Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland.

Scandalously, however, that Herald newspaper brought disgrace and outrage to the clan in 2015 when it reported that DNA studies had shown the MacNeils not to be descended from the aristocratic Irish but from terrorist Norwegian Vikings.

The Hebridean MacNeils had already been widely regarded as “pirates”, right enough, but the news brought shame to decent ratepayers bearing the name, for whom not returning a library book timeously was the nearest they got to pillage.

These DNA studies are always dubious, though, tending as they do to attract those and such as those, with little input from normal people. In reality, at any rate, clan ancestry can rarely be traced beyond the 12th or 13th century.

In the 14th century, Robert the Bruce made use of feudal tenures, granting lands to clans in return for support. Centuries later, after the defeated Jacobite rising of 1745-46, the British state set out to eradicate clan culture, though modern historians say the conversion of chiefs into landlords was already under way.

The clan chief was supposed to be a mighty warrior, who rarely caught a cold and was generous with his largesse. Today, he’s probably a 120-year-old American with varicose veins, or a toff with an impossibly posh English accent who lives in the Home Counties and comes north once a year to kill something.

Thankfully, they no longer wield any authority, and the position is a mere social cachet, like doorman at the Ritz. That said, they are entitled to wear three eagle feathers behind their crest badge, while chieftains (heads of a branch of the clan) might wear only two. Clan members who are humble foot soldiers cannot wear any feathers, except with the express permission of the Lord Lyon King of Arms. Please do try to remember that.

According to Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw Bt., in an article on the Electric Scotland website, a clan is a legally recognised group in Scotland with a corporate identity like that of a company, club or partnership. It is a “noble incorporation” because its officially recognised chief or head “confers his noble status on it”. Does he, aye?

The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs – current membership 135 –was founded in 1951 to represent their views and interests, such as protecting their peculiar insignia from exploitation or misuse. The big problem they have is: who cares?

This apathy is taken up in in an article on the Standing Council’s website by writer and historian Thor Ewing, who suggests clans may have been a victim of the very cultural clichés they exploited for marketing, as “not all Scots want to see themselves as part of something that looks like a tourism package”.

Some Scots might feel alienated from their clans because they feel betrayed by the Clearances or by the whole anglicised upper class chief thing. In addition, expat enthusiasm can make the whole idea seem “phoney”, which Ewing believes a pity since Scottish, and even personal, identity can be bound up with the clans: “Turn your back on them, and you turn your back on part of Scotland … Accepting your clan identity is a matter of owning up to who you are.”

Talking of who you are, by the way, you don’t have to be a Highlander to be in a clan. A Scottish Parliament act of 1597 talks of clans “in the hielands or bordouris”, listing Maxwells, Johnstones, Carruthers, and Turnbulls. Lowland families, such as the Douglases, are also usually referred to as "clans".

Ach, who cares what you’re called or where you come from. If you fancy flinging your tammy at a clan, fill – with apologies for the mixed costumery metaphors – your boots. Nae eagle feathers on the cap badge, mind.

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