Clan Societies Article

A Brief Discussion of the Origin and Presence of
Clan Societies

by Larry Keith (first published in Keith & Kin, 1993)

Americans, enjoying a relatively short and prosperous national history, and mostly spared the ebb and flow of oppressive foreign rule, may tend to view Clan Societies as less than what they are. Today, Clan Societies are visible in this land, banding together for occasional holidays of pageant and frivolity. The uninitiated will see the trappings of something “foreign” to America, in distance and time, yet accepted for its quaintness and color. We see the avid in each Clan Society, dressing in kilts and meeting for a bit of comradeship, or to swap tales about old Scotland and family history. But, it’s our place to note, for ourselves and fellow countrymen, that this associating together celebrates something very different from the 4th of July and other such markings of brief events in relatively modern times.

To begin with, there were no “clan societies”. Each clan in itself was an intense association, reaching far into the lives of those who belonged, by birth or by choosing. Virtually everyone in old Scotland was “of” one clan or another, and “his” clan was both a responsibility and indispensable benefactor for the individual. In an equally important, though more heralded role, the clan was integral to the unique system evolved to keep Scotland defense-capable, viable as a nation among nations, and unconquerable even by the might of Rome. Through these functions in peacetime and war, what we know as the “Clan System” constituted a highly successful form of feudal government. Indeed, it was the duel strength of Scotland’s clan system, quick to the fight and deeply imbedded, that proved an undoing once the foreign Hanovers came to rule.

The new rulers were at once confronted by a people vastly different from Europeans and different even from their closest associates, the English. With our advantage of hindsight, we ought not be surprised that Hanovarians would act somewhat out of paranoia, after the rebellions of the early 1700’s. England sought to disable merely the fighting capability of Scotland’s clan system, and to punish a little bit. But the instituted “suppression” measures, conceived in bewilderment and ignorance the social dynamics at work, very nearly decapitated the country, not by beheading but in the severing of Scotland’s all-important roots. There weren’t any Sociologists, then, to tell the English king no substitute for the clans existed–that fully functioning clans were essential to the Scottish societal infrastructure. Thus, the suppressions became a punishment much more cruel even than the king intended.

Always before, the source of what we know as “social programs”, “relief”, tuition grants, and numerous societal support mechanisms, and patronage too, had long been ingrained in clan function. Suppressions cut deeply, and at dawning of the Industrial Age. Widows, orphans, the poor and infirm no longer found comfort through traditional channels; the young lost support in education and the trades; and in countless other ways the old role of clans in Scotland’s social structure ebbed under the suppressions. As well, just as world change was gearing-up for speed, loss of the “belonging” that Scots had enjoyed within a well-oiled clan further fueled both emigration and migrations toward the strangeness of city life. What clan business was conducted at all, over much of the 18th century, took place inconveniently and in secret, ineffectual toward stemming clan disintegration.

We may only speculate over the extent of unnamed and unrecorded gatherings, in the dark days of suppression, which helped kinsmen and country to at least survive. History alludes only to a mystique surrounding this long period of “underground” activity. But we do know a few of the early successes, launched publicly and thinly veiled, and with reference to “Clan” discretely omitted, “The Buchanans Charity Society” emerged in 1725, becoming the first Clan Society of record. Nearly 30 years passed, however, before the Buchanans were given charter “…to assist the poor of the name and clan, to further education of boys at school and university and their training for respectable trades, or other like pious uses.”

In 1727, the widely dispersed tribes of Chattan made agreement to fund lawyers “to watch over and defend interests of the clan against all who would seek the injury of any of the subscribers.” The Graham Charitable Society, formed in 1759, was granted sanction by Magistrates of Glasgow in 1770, making it third and last of the clan societies recorded in that century.

Though official clan suppression measures were finally dropped, the “Clearances” of the early 1800’s impacted in a similar manner. Affected clans were further thinned, as added emigrations and migrations increased in pace. Wherever a sufficient number from a clan collected in the cities, they often banded to aid kinsmen in the transition from farm life. In 1806, “Mackay’s Society” was formed for this purpose by ordinary tradesmen of the clan. A group of Gregor “gentlemen”, at the suggestion of their chief, founded a similar charitable society, in 1822, limiting office and benefits “…to persons of the name and clan”.

First of the “modern” clan societies was inspired by several hundred downtrodden Macnaughtons. Their properties had been lost after Dundee’s Rising, and the line of their chief had long since failed. After fifty five years without a chief, a new one was acknowledged (1828) from a cadet branch of the family in Ireland. Though a clan once more, they functioned much as a society, and finally, at a meeting in Edinburgh in 1878, “Clan Machaughton Association” was formalized.

In 1888, nearly six-million people were attracted to Glasgow for that city’s International Exhibition. This brought expatriate Scots from around the world, reacquainted them with their homeland and family roots, and inspired renewed interest in all things Scottish. The decade following saw formation of 17 clan societies, overseas, as well as new ones in Scotland. During this wave of activity, Clan Fraser Society came about in Canada (1894), some years before such society emerged in Scotland itself.

During this period, the focus of clan societies was directed away from strictly social welfare issues, and concentrated mainly upon Scottish history and culture. Some societies looked to remnants of clan landmarks, beginning restoration of castles and other vestiges of their history, or laying cairns and other markers at the various battle sites of old. Written histories, genealogies, books and articles poured forth from clan enthusiasts, and gatherings grew more frequent and elaborate for, a time. The two world wars sidetracked proliferation of societies, while at the same time fostering greater cooperation between the clans, in particular to better distribute comforts to Scottish soldiers.

Following World War II, a new wave of clan and society activity was aided by formation of a “Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs”, with attendant communication and cooperation between them. For the British Festival of 1951, a “Council of Clan Associations” was formed to handle Scotland’s pageant –a most historical Gathering of the Clans, in Edinburgh. The now familiar arrangement of tents and marquees –resurrecting pageantry of medieval times– and the awe- inspiring march of the clans were here displayed to fifty thousand visitors from many nations. Again, as with the Glasgow Exhibition of 1888, clan societies proliferated near and far. By 1970, there were over fifty. The list has continued to grow, thanks to the example set, and to a still glowing ember in far-flung Scottish hearts for those nurturing roots in the old sod.

Our American ancestors of the clan, having no similar vehicle for the purpose–one by which to evolve a functioning clan precedent on these shores– left modern Keiths dangling here on the near end of history. Clan Keith Society USA, did not arrive on the scene until 1970. As a late-blooming clan society, we are still deciding what course we may follow, to what extent members will associate together and use this “regathering” of our clansmen, and to what common purpose. Thus far, our involvement in and contribution to clan business has been but a small spark which, it is hoped, will light a beacon shining into the future.

If history teaches, what direction are we to draw from the struggles and successes of the old clan societies? Will we actively aid in meeting the needs of kinsmen? Will we help to preserve some surviving monument to mark the Keith role in Scotland, or here in America? Shall we uncover and finally write the “lost” genealogies, and the clan history added to in the American experience? Or should our society in the scheme of things be confined more or less to what many modern counterparts have become: re-enactors of the quaint aspects of old Scotland –those things visible in dress and pageants? Will we not aspire to that higher stature among clan societies, that earlier Keiths earned among the clans? History answers none of these questions, but leads us only to the mentioned spark, our beginnings as a clan society. Further answers, and the brightness of whatever beacon ignites, will come from Scottish heart within us all, collectively. If you have interest in Scottish heritage activities in America, see Clan Keith Society, USA as discussed in this web site.