Tag Archives: Clan

Clan Means Children

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.



The Modern Clan is a Modern Asset

Almost accidentally Scotland has ended up with a unique asset in the form of the modern clan.

Tartan, the kilt and bagpipes have given the country an instantly recognisable identity around the globe. It’s an astonishing change of fortune for the Highland culture, once despised as being barbaric across the rest of a nation that applauded its destruction in the 1740s. Today it is so seductive that pipe bands play Scottish music in virtually every country in the world, and registered tartans include Sikh, Singh, California Highway Patrol, Jewish, Lady Boys of Bangkok and even the Law Society of Scotland.

Several factors coalesced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to bring about this transformation. The publication of the poems of Ossian, supposedly the work of a great Gaelic poet, the equivalent of Homer to ancient Greece, took Europe by storm. It fitted into the fashionable concept of the Noble Savage. Then came the heroism and effectiveness of the Highland regiments in the British army that impressed the world. A few years later, the works of Walter Scott cemented the whole concept into place and he turned his words into vivid spectacle during the famous visit in 1822 by George IV to Edinburgh.

But the clan culture is more than just image. Scots have been emigrating for centuries and the numbers departing accelerated after the ’45 and through the 19th century. In Gaeldom ancestry and family was very important. Ask in Gaelic from where someone comes, and the question is, literally, from what family or line he comes. Kinship defined one’s place in that society and every Highlander could once reel off his ancestors and collaterals back through the generations. In new worlds the old kinship links within Scotland were irrelevant and this knowledge was soon forgotten – to the immense frustration of those of Scots stock today who research their forebears. But the modern clan – and today this includes Lowland names whose family origins were never Gaelic or Highland – allows virtually every descendant of Scots emigrants an instant family with whom to explore their Scottish roots. With the bonus of a shared language, no other nation can provide such a powerful draw or such a strong bond to its diaspora.

Most Scots are oblivious to this. More people and younger people are wearing kilts, particularly as badges of identity at national sporting events or weddings, but they don’t feel the need to associate with a particular clan except, perhaps, to choose the tartan of their surname. Only the tiniest minority take their interest in their clan origins much further. Being natives most feel they have no need to establish a Scottish identity.

This leads to a catastrophic wasted opportunity. There are estimated to be some 41 million people of Scots descent in the English-speaking world. In North America and the antipodes, Highland Games can attract scores of thousands. Unlike their equivalents over here, perhaps 120 Clan Associations will have tents, pulling in new members and creating a welcome for any who claim a Scots ancestry. The centrepiece of these games will be the march of the clans. Many clan associations will have branches throughout North America. All of them look to Scotland as their spiritual home and all want to discover their family and their families’ history here.

And this is where they are so often let down. Some thriving transatlantic clan associations have no equivalent over here. As a result they have no points of reference in the home country. For those that have, too often the Scots clan societies are old-fashioned, inward-looking, unadventurous and prone to internal squabbles. Few look with any great enthusiasm at their North American counterparts and too many feel superior. They feel they are the real Scots and they can find the tiggerish enthusiasm of the diaspora hard to handle. As a result the opportunity to harness the immense good will that the descendants of the emigrants feel towards Scotland, their country of origin, is sometimes rebuffed and dissipated.

A cultural bond can be used to create an economic bond. $10.4 billion was invested by the US in Ireland in 2004, only $3b less than investment in the whole UK. Of course Ireland is independent but the entire nation woos its diaspora and has copied Highland clans and tartans, knowing full well the advantages these can bring.

‘I have attended a number of meetings in Canada and the USA where some Scottish Minister was doing the rounds or other Scottish organisations wanting to talk to local people. Never have they come up with plans on what we can do to help. They tell us a tiny amount about their organisations or what is happening in Scotland and expect us to read their minds about why they have come or what we might be able to do to help…The local Scots seem to want business handed to them on a plate. ‘Do you mean we have to do some work to get the business? Unless there is a grant I’m not interested!’ That’s from Alastair MacIntyre who hosts the Electric Scotland website in Ontario with 35,000 pages and 1.5 million downloads a month.

We could change this by embracing our diaspora this summer. The Gathering will be the first International Clan event in this country since 1977. The last was great fun, well attended and left no legacy. This time we should use it for the benefit of this country.

First published in the Scotsman newspaper in March 2008