A week ago, along with 47,000 others, I attended The Gathering a two-day ‘celebration of the culture and history of Scotland’ and the signature event of Homecoming Scotland 2009, a year-long government initiative aimed at encouraging those with a passion or connection with Scotland to ‘come home’.
As a tourism initiative and a boost to the local economy it appears to have been a success and I have personal evidence of this, as my Scottish-born Mum (now resident in England) was one of those who made a special trip to Scotland to attend. However, those of us who live in Edinburgh, where it seems whatever your surname or however tenuous your connection to Scotland someone will be happy to flog you ‘your tartan’, may have been left wondering what the point of it all was.
Interestingly, The Gathering website acknowledges ‘the near extinction of clan activity’ in Scotland and describes the event as ‘an opportunity to thank the clan associations and Scottish societies from around the world for their role in keeping these traditions alive’, so I guess it’s fair to say this wasn’t really one designed for the locals!
As a genealogist working in Scotland it’s not surprising that I sometimes get asked ‘Which clan do I belong to?’ or ‘What’s my tartan?’. Unfortunately though, these are questions I struggle to answer. I realise that Scotland’s strong cultural identity is one of the reasons why people are so keen to learn about their Scottish ancestors, but the subject of clans seems to have very little to do with the genealogical research I carry out.
However, in honour of The Gathering I thought it was time I looked a bit more deeply into the issue and so today, armed with seven different books on tracing Scottish ancestry, I have sat down to see what I can discover.
The first thing I notice is a certain similarity. Most of the books seem to have a chapter whose title includes the word clan somewhere near the end of the book, but the relevant section is rather short. Some suggest that a book on genealogy is not the place to discuss clans, others give a brief definition but do not indicate how this relates to tracing one’s ancestry as described in the foregoing chapters. Cameron Taylor, ‘consultant to Scotland’s national AncestralScotland initiative’ and author of Rooted in Scotland refers the researcher to the clan search facilities on the website of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs and on www.ancestralscotland.com (neither of these facilities seemed to be working when I tried today). Alan Stewart in Gathering the Clans (a book with only a brief mention of clans) cites instances of families changing their surname to that of a clan chief whose protection they wanted, whilst Bruce Durie is bold enough to declare that ‘Not every Scotsman has a clan’ as well as giving some reasons why not everyone who had a ‘clan surname’ was related to the clan chief or to each other.
Whilst this has pretty much confirmed what I already knew it hasn’t really given me an answer to the tricky clan question. It seems no one feels they can quite ignore the subject of clans but, in a book on tracing Scottish ancestors at least, they don’t have much to say about it.
So do clans have anything to do with researching Scottish genealogy? Not really but maybe, maybe? At least with the setting up of www.tartanregister.gov.uk I now have somewhere to refer those who ask about finding their tartan!