The word ‘clan’ means ‘children’. But in Scotland at least, fewer and fewer young people seem to have very much time for their clan. This raises two questions: ‘Why?’ and ‘What’s to be done?’
In one sense perhaps, the clans have been a victim of their own success. The image of the clan is a marketing miracle and its trademark features – the tartan, the pipes, the castle – have all become clichés of the tourism industry. It’s no surprise that not all Scots want to see themselves as part of something that looks like a tourism package. Unlike overseas clansfolk, Scots don’t need the clans to express their Scottish identity. What’s more, the enthusiasm of overseas clansfolk compared to disengagement at home can make the whole idea of the clan seem rather phoney. So what do clans have to offer for Scots today?
Firstly, the clans are part of Scotland’s national inheritance. They are our living link with the history of the nation, and few families will have changed their clan since the Declaration of Arbroath. Scottish identity is bound up with the clans; turn your back on them, and you turn your back on part of Scotland.
As well as being part of the bedrock of Scotland, the clan is also a part of who we are ourselves. It’s not something we have much choice about. As we look back into our families’ pasts, there it is growing stronger the further back we go. It’s written into our very names. Accepting your clan identity is a matter of owning up to who you are.
Now put yourself in the place of a Scottish youth. If you do discover an interest in your clan, what are you going to do about it? It doesn’t follow that you’ll want to learn to dance the Fling or toss a caber, and there’s no obvious pay-off from joining the clan society. Is there anything else on offer?
Some Scots clearly feel disenfranchised and alienated from their clans. For some, it’s about the Clearances and a feeling of betrayal. For others, it might have more to do with class consciousness. Many just feel there’s no way to take part that suits them. It’s all very well to tell them they should come along and join in; if they don’t see a place for people like themselves, they won’t feel at home.
That’s why I’m putting forward a proposal for a Clans Foundation that will enable people to connect with their clans in altogether new ways. You won’t need to go through the clan society; you won’t need to shake hands with your clan chief. But if you value your clan community, you can play your part to make it work for everyone. And unless you opt out, your society and your chief will learn about what you are doing on behalf of the clan.
Of course, clan identity (like any group identity) isn’t formed around benevolent work alone. That’s why I’m setting up a new Clans Football League. The organisation isn’t quite in place yet, but we already have our first fixture – MacEwens v. Frasers at Moniack in August. And I understand that representatives of the MacDonalds and Scotts are also interested in getting involved for next season. I’d welcome enquiries from other clans that might want to take part in future matches.
The Clans Foundation is not about doing away with the old – indeed, I hope that the existing institutions will actually be strengthened as interest grows. But it is about giving the idea of the clan a newer and stronger underpinning. The Victorian era reinvented the clans for its time, now is the time for us to reinvent the clan for ourselves.
To find out more about the Clans Foundation, please visit my site here: http://thorewing.net/clans/foundation . Do let me know what you think, and if you’d like to get involved.
Thor Ewing is a writer, translator, cultural historian, musician and the founder of the Clans Foundation.