The MacLaren’s reminder of the Gaelic roots of Scottish clans
In a recent Not Your Father’s Gaelic blog post I began to explore the topic of Gaelic influence on today’s Scottish clan and family system. The point being that despite giving lip service to the Gaelic roots of this most active and influential of Scottish heritage communities, we really understand very little about how and why the clans and families that we know today were forged.
We know that the clans grew from the Gaelic culture that had been present in Scotland since Roman days and had come to influence if not dominate most of what we know as Scotland by the 11th century. Yet today the colorful manifestations of Scottish clan heritage that we see at highland games across America carry few markers that would belie Gaelic roots. In the blog, I suggested that Scottish clans and families should become more inquisitive about these ancient Gaelic roots and more supportive of Gaelic based heritage and cultural initiatives lest the whole thing be lost forever and the Gaels eventually relegated to the dark historical closet where the Picts hide.
Part of the tragedy of loss of Gaelic culture must be laid at the feet of the clan chiefs themselves – mostly the ones that lived hundreds of years ago. Many of today’s clan societies enjoy a close and robust relationship with today’s hereditary clan chiefs. Where the chief goes, so goes the clan. Some of today’s chiefs recognize and celebrate their ancient Gaelic roots while others do not. As we know, over the course of a few centuries, many clan chiefs shelved their Gaelic-ness – and that of their clan – in favor of the more contemporary introduced Anglo-Norman culture that flowed northward out of England and the Scottish borders. Feudalism brought economic, political and social advantages that Gaeldom could no longer provide or possibly never did. Shift happens. Language and cultural shift – happens (Ghil’ad Zuckermann, 2015).
The largest and by far most significant and enduring Scottish heritage event of our time occurred in Edinburgh in 2009 and it drew many Scottish clan chiefs. The infamous 2009 Gathering of the Clans is today almost universally esteemed by the Scottish clan community as a near perfect international heritage event. Many discussions and much thought have been contributed since 2009 to trying to figure out how to successfully replicate it. By many accounts it was a “life changing” event; but on the whole, like the modern highland games from which the concept was drawn, the 2009 Gathering did not emphasize Gaelic culture.
The Gathering took place over the course of several days and included collective events in Edinburgh and a few coordinated individual clan events in traditional clan and family lands. One of most memorable Edinburgh events was a Clan Convention, held in the Scottish Parliament debating chamber. We are extremely fortunate to have a very good video record of those proceedings and they are definitely worth a watch. But before you do, here is a bit of advice on where to begin.
The proceedings of the 2009 Clan Convention were remarkable and even ground breaking in many ways. By far the most entertaining and perhaps insightful were comments by The MacLaren – Donald MacLaren, chief of Clan MacLaren – delivered near the end of the morning session of the first day of the event. He spoke on behalf of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. Aside from these comments, the subject of Gaelic heritage – and the tragic loss thereof – was little acknowledged at the Clan Convention. But Donald MacLaren is one of those chiefs who understands his heritage and the Gaelic genesis of his people and he chose not to avoid the chiefs’ distant Gaelic heritage.
MacLaren’s understanding may come partially because his clan, founded by an Abbot in the early 13th century, actually refused the Anglo-Norman temptations of land and power and took little part in the feudal craze that eventually swept away most of the rest of the Gaelic clan system. Clan MacLaren chose to retain it’s Gaelic clan traditions instead of participating in the feudal re-allocation of land, titles and power in post 11th century Scotland. Thus, until Donald’s father matriculated arms in 1957, the clan was considered “chiefless and landless” by Scottish – Anglo feudal institutions and tradition. Today, Clan MacLaren – represented by the Clan MacLaren Society - is one of the closest and most successful Scottish clan groups around. Due partly to a steadfast retention of Gaelic character? Hard to say, but it is a strong clan society and a model for others to follow.
Back to 2009. Not only were Donald MacLaren’s remarks very entertaining and delivered with the skill of a seasoned storyteller (and an accomplished piper as well), but they were an isolated and not so gentle nudge to that esteemed not-very-Gaelic Convention, reminding them that in the rush to become great Scots, something of great value has been left behind. Take a moment to watch and listen to a great performance by a true highland chief. If you have a moment, listen thoughtfully to what Donald MacLaren of MacLaren had to say in 2009. You will not be disappointed.