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