Clan history still matters in modern Scotland

GILLIAN BOWDITCH, The Scotsman, Sat 27 Nov 2004

WHAT'S in a name? If the name happens to be affiliated to a Scottish clan, the answer is an unparalleled connection to history, geography, literature and romance.

The origins of the clan system may be lost in the mists of the political turmoil and social opportunism of medieval Scotland. They may have been fictionalised in the 19th century and exploited in the 20th. But the clans - with their individual characteristics, traditions and legends - have survived the Jacobite rebellion, the Act of Union, two world wars, membership of the European Union, the breakdown of the nuclear family and the increasing homogeneity of a global society.

Are they still relevant in 21st-century Scotland? Absolutely. They may have been appropriated by the souvenir shops of the Royal Mile and used to hawk no end of tartan memorabilia, but those lucky enough to be linked with a clan have access to a rich and ready-made history and an instant kinship which stretches around the globe.

It is this sense of family, of shared affiliations underpinned by Scots law, which has given the clan system such a solid and enduring base, and it is this that distinguishes the clans from other tribal groups.

In other countries, tribes and traditions have disappeared or are under threat; ties of kinship and custom have been diluted. The clan system, by contrast, has adapted and survived. It remains uniquely Scottish and has given Scotland a distinct identity and the ability to punch above its weight overseas.

As Scots travelled the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, they could have been expected to abandon their clan loyalties. Instead, the diaspora maintained a strong pride in their clan identities and passed this on to their children. Today, some of the most thriving clan associations are to be found overseas and the number of Scottish gatherings outside of Scotland grows every year.

There is a great deal of snobbery in Scotland about overseas enthusiasm for the clan, but one of the most appealing aspects of clanship is the way in which the clans have managed to retain distinct and separate identities without succumbing to exclusivity or elitism.

Membership is usually defined through surname, and most Scots can lay claim, however tenuous, to some sept or branch.

In the modern world, where affiliations and affinities - be they to company, educational establishment or birthplace - are often short-lived, clans represent a sense of belonging and of continuity with the past. It doesn't matter how transient you are, your association with clan lasts from cradle to grave.

A MacGregor can feel a frisson of kinship with Ewan, the actor, or even Jimmy, the folk singer. He may share the cussedness of Rob Roy, whose tombstone at Balquhidder Church reads "MacGregor Despite Them".

He can't help but thrill to the knowledge that he is descended from the ancient Celtic royal family through the hereditary Abbots of Glendochart and that his family motto is "my race is royal".

And therein lies one of the keys to the enduring appeal of Scottish clans. Whatever wrongs were done in the past in the name of kinship and feudalism - and they are legion - the clans give every member a link to nobility. The distinctive quality of the clan is that its members share a common descent, however remote.

Perhaps this is where the Scots' egalitarianism, so eloquently praised by Burns, comes from. We may not all be lairds or chiefs but we all have clan blood coursing through our veins. For generations, the peasantry and the aristocracy have been united by clan and neither has forgotten it.

Today, the clans provide a very personal link to almost a thousand years of Scottish history. I am a Crawford on my mother's side and through my marriage. My ancestors were impoverished miners, but the Crawfords can trace their name back to the Normans. They settled in Lanarkshire and they feature in the legendary incident which led to the foundation of the Abbey of Holyrood, when Gregan Crawford, with a bit of divine intervention, was instrumental in saving the king's life from a stag in 1127.

The stag appears on the Crawford coat of arms. Margaret Crawford was the mother of Sir William Wallace. Sadly, it all went wrong in the 19th century when Hugh Crawfurd, the 21st laird of Auchinames, hot-footed it to Canada having flogged off the family lands.

The fortunes of clans may rise and fall - lands may be mortgaged, lost through supporting the wrong side in war or gambled away - but clanship gives every Scot a stake in their geography. We still refer to "Macdonald country" or "Gunn territory". This strong association with place remains an important feature of the Scottish psyche but perhaps more than anything else, it is the clan sense of extended kinship that is the defining Scottish characteristic.

Scots are travellers and adventurers. We tend not to be isolationist but are well-connected with the wider world. Ask visitors to Scotland for their impression of its people and they will nearly always cite friendliness as an attractive trait. Scots are good at kinship. We are good at reaching out to strangers without overwhelming them. We are adept at making people feel welcome without making them feel smothered.

This easy ability to accommodate strangers has its roots in the clan system. The tartan, the crests and castles are all very well but it is this sense of kinship which is the most appealing element of the clanship. With more people than ever taking an interest in family history, this is a real asset.

If you go searching for your roots in any other country, you will find pieces of your past. If you search for your roots in Scotland, you will find an extended family, rich in history, tradition and myth. Whether you choose to embrace them or ignore them is up to you, but they will always be there.

GILLIAN BOWDITCH, The Scotsman, Sat 27 Nov 2004