Scotland: Finding my Clan

Last summer I chased after my past, searching for two names that were familiar to me but still distant, something seemingly unreachable. 

First I went to Ireland, hoping to find remnants of my last name somewhere in the narrow streets of Dublin or in the green valleys of the countryside. Upon arriving, I realized the people didn’t really look like me, shorter and with smaller features, nor did I feel some sort of instant spiritual connection to the land. Even the locals remarked on how non-Irish I was in spite of my very Irish name, instead saying I looked Baltic or some other Northeastern European country.

It was only in my last week there did I find what I was looking for in a museum database. There, I found my ancestor who emigrated to the United States from Ireland in the 1700s. My father, sister, and I were ecstatic, but my mother found no such relief. She wouldn’t find such a connection until we reached Scotland.

(Below, my mom and I cheesin’ on the way to Scotland)

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Scotland, the country brings things such as tall mountains, rugged men with swords, kilts, and hidden monsters in lakes to mind. Things that I had seen in Braveheart, Outlander, or other sources of media. I knew such things were inaccurate or romanticized of course, so how much did I really know about my mother’s homeland and the Stewart name she held?

In Gaelic, the word clann means “children” or (loosely) “family”. Going through Scotland, we found this feeling of family everywhere. While in Edinburgh, we found two brothers also from the United States who were traveling to a clan convention in the Highlands, where they would meet with far-distant relations and participate in the Highland Games. They were apart of Clan McPherson (or MacPherson), and had only recently connected with their Scottish roots.

(Below, a chart explaining a little about the Clan Lord’s household and tenants)

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One of the brothers, Christopher, explained that clans were built up of descendants of the chief, however distant, septs (non-related families), and any other who desired to be under the clan’s protection. He said that the clan system was the main political system in Scotland for centuries, up until 1746 and the Battle of Culloden where the Jacobites were defeated. During this time, large scores of Scots fled to the United States to escape the strict rule of the English, who took away their right to wear the kilt and banned them from speaking Gaelic, among other things.

This is when their ancestors emigrated, and none of their family had been to Scotland since. I asked him later about his clan meeting experience, to which he said, “…we were greeted like long lost cousins. I befriended many of the Scots our own age and are planning to visit them next Spring.”

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His brother Brennan also only had positive experiences from the meeting, “I cannot speak more highly of the welcome my brother and I received. It may have been more because we were young and not as many young people come searching for their roots, but every person we chatted with was so welcoming and warm. We swam in the River Spey, and hiked around the countryside together. It was an awesome experience I will not soon forget and I cannot wait to see them again next year.”

I was fascinated by the idea that you could have claims to a long lost family. I didn’t think I could ever feel apart of a clan, of this land I knew nothing about. All I had were the words of another American and scenes from movies and television. How could I go into a clan meeting and claim to be apart of something so ancient and important? The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I worried that I was just looking at Scotland through the lense of the media, and not really seeing the history and traditions that go into daily life.

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Wondering more about this, I asked the brothers if they thought that our presence, the presence of outsiders, would dilute the culture. Their response brought clarity, “Clan just means family. All that has taken place by adding people from around the world is expanding a family… It doesn’t matter whether you have an American accent, or an extremely heavy Scottish accents, or even an Australian accent, when we were all gathered together sharing an experience like that, we truly were a family.”

Although I left Scotland without attending a clan meeting, I came back to the United States with a sense of pride in my mother’s last name, a part of myself I had never explored before. My last name is Irish, but that is not all of who I am, it is not the only family, or clan, I belong to.

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