All hail the chiefs: The unlikely leaders of Scotland’s modern clans

Author: By Andrew Spooner

Not since the famous Royal Pageant in 1822, when Sir Walter Scott assembled
the clans in Edinburgh to pay homage to the visiting King George IV, have
Scotland’s tribal groups been brought together in any meaningful way. Next
weekend, as part of Scotland’s Homecoming celebrations ? a year-long event
to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns ? Scott’s pageant
will be recreated as The Gathering 2009. More than 140 clans will attend the
event, which will comprise a Clan Village, Highland Games, Clan Parade and
the Clan Convention, where clan representatives will take part in a forum to
discuss what future role they can create for themselves.

What is certain is that since 1822, Scotland ? and the clan system ? have
changed beyond recognition. These days the clans don’t figure much in the
lives of Scotsmen and women, many of whom consider the chiefs as the vestige
of a distant feudal era, and an anachronism in a modern, social democracy,
still dependent on an arcane system of heraldry and hierarchy that needs its
very own lord ? The Lord Lyon ? to organise. Despite this, the present
Scottish National Party government believes clans can play a positive role
in shaping Scotland’s national identity. “While some may have differing
views on Scotland’s history, it is important we reflect on our heritage,”
says a Scottish government source. “A signature event of our Year of
Homecoming celebrations, The Gathering will bring thousands of Scots home to
celebrate their ancestry, providing a significant boost to the economy.”

There’s certainly plenty of ancestry to celebrate. Some of the clansmen and
women on the following pages can trace their lineage back to medieval
Britain, with blood-soaked histories of brigands, invaders and outlaws. Head
to a remote part of the Isle of Skye, for instance, and you’ll find Dunvegan
Castle, inhabited by the clan MacLeod for more than 800 years, their motto
of “Hold Fast” resonating throughout the castle’s thick stone
walls. There are the infamous MacGregors, relations of the legendary
Highland rebel Rob Roy, who were once hunted with bloodhounds thanks to the
royal bounties placed on their heads. Other present-day clans such as the
MacArthurs had to rediscover their historic lineage 200 years after the last
chief died. The Elliots of the Borders, meanwhile, were once part of one of
the most feared cattle-rustling gangs in British history. In contrast, the
Sempills were drawn from the upper echelons of Norman aristocracy, their
ancestors sitting in the House of Lords for generations, blue-blooded
statesmen from the off.

These days, chiefs’ lives are a little more subdued. Their clan duties largely
relate to their positions as the heads of clan associations ? loose
affiliations of mostly North American Scots émigrés who are eager to
maintain links to their Caledonian roots. Most of those The New Review
interviewed spoke with distinctly upper-crust English accents, reflecting
their decidedly privileged backgrounds and links to the wider British
aristocracy. Their lives are also far removed from fighting off encroachers,
and range from photographing Scotland’s most beautiful landscapes through to
the demands of bringing up four children in the leafy English shires. But
all are still happy to wear their tartan with pride.

For more information on The Gathering 2009, visit


Madam Margaret Eliott of Redheugh

“The Elliots were originally Border Reivers [families of rustlers/raiders
who were active in the area from the 13th to 16th centuries] and we were
well known for going south of the border into England and stealing people’s
cattle. The family ? who were one of the fiercest Reiver clans ? gained
notoriety after the Battle of Flodden in 1513, when most of Scotland’s
governing elite were killed and parts of Scotland became quite lawless.
Later, after the Acts of Union [joining the Kingdom of Scotland and the
Kingdom of England] in 1707, we became more respectable: statesmen, soldiers
and the like. We have quite a long lineage, stretching back to the 14th
century [though the spelling of the family name altered slightly in the
1940s]; it can seem like a lot of baggage at times.

“I was brought up in Suffolk, have quite a plummy accent and while I
consider myself a Scot, I see myself as a bit of a hybrid. Aren’t we all?

“The chieftainship and clan society were passed to me by my father when
he died 20 years ago and all I had to do was carry on what he’d started. We
have people from all over the world in the clan society, but mainly from
America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. They join, I guess, for a
feeling of kinsmanship, to find out where they came from.

“My role is to be the figurehead and keep it all together. It’s a hobby.
If I had a full-time job ? I would describe myself as a country lady ? I
probably wouldn’t do it. Both the Gathering and the Clan Convention look
quite interesting. I’m not sure that being a clan chief is that important,
but it’s a wonderful thing to do, and quite an honour.”


Hugh MacLeod

“Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye is the longest continuously
inhabited castle by one family in Scotland: the MacLeods have been here for
800 years. Our roots can be traced back to a Norse king, Olaf the Black, in
the 1200s, who married into a family that then owned Dunvegan. Throughout
Scotland’s bloody history we didn’t like to get involved in fights we
couldn’t win. Our main interest was to keep what we had.

“I inherited the chieftainship when my father died in 2007. When my
father took over the castle in the 1960s, he opened it up as a tourist
attraction. So, as chief, I have an additional role of managing the estate
and a tourist enterprise.

“I view it as a full-time job. I previously spent most of my life in
London. My wife and children are still there ? my schedule is like that of
an offshore worker, with a few weeks in each place. Before 2007, I worked in
TV and film as a cameraman. I’m still trying to keep that going. But my main
concern is the castle’s restoration and to find funds to save the building.
I don’t want to be the MacLeod who broke 800 years of history.” ‘


The Lord Sempill

“The Sempills are one of the smaller Lowland families who had the benefit
of being of Norman origin. It was a huge advantage being on the winning side
and after conquering England, the Normans moved up into Scotland. Just so
we’re clear, I’m not really a clan chief in the strict sense of the word, I
just happen to have equal rank to them ? Chief of the Name and Arms of
Sempill. We have a family association of about 40 people, but we’re not
really a great example of a clan. Having said that, my family did rule over
its estates and establish a sort of kinship with the local population.

“The family were given the title back in 1480 and I’m the 21st Lord
Sempill. We historically held large lands in Renfrewshire but these were
sold in the 1700s and the family moved to Edinburgh, where we joined with
the Forbes, a family with more distinct clan ties. I had a seat in the House
of Lords but was shown the door when the House was reformed in 1999.

“My role as a clan chief is pretty low-key but I’ve been taking part in
the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. I’ve also stood as a candidate for
the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament on a couple of occasions. I
believe firmly in the Union, but have also been a strong supporter of

“These days I’m heavily involved in running the Gathering, which I think
will have a key role in defining how clans are organised in the future. The
Clan Convention will be key to figuring out our direction in the 21st
century. At the moment, the clan system in Scotland is withering on the vine
? the clan system in the US is much more vibrant. I see the clans’ future as
not only being custodians of history and culture but also an opportunity to
raise funds for good social causes. Hopefully the Clan Convention can help
set that off.”


Madam Arabella Kincaid

“The Kincaids share their roots with the Lennox clan ? we can trace this
lineage back almost 1,000 years. Back then, the Lennoxes were one of the
biggest and most powerful clans and their traditional seat was at Lennox
Castle in Lennoxtown. This was sold off in the 1920s.

“My grandmother was Kincaid chief and my father Lennox. So when she died
I took over the Kincaids while my brother, after my father’s death, heads up
the Lennoxes. We are the only brother and sister on the Standing Council of

“My father was a larger-than-life character who was greatly loved. He
inherited two estates, but by the time he died they were both gone. It’s a
bit difficult to go into detail about the reasons.

“The Lennox clan were always more dominant and important, but my brother
is not really involved. Today, we have the choice as to how much we want to
take on ? a few hundred years ago, a clan chief had to take a serious
leadership role. When I became chief it was almost like being a mother for
the first time. I get letters all the time, mainly from the US, and we’ve
had an active clan association for more than 50 years.

“One of the estates was in Shropshire and this was where I was brought
up. I still live in Shropshire with my husband and four children, with a
fifth on the way. I used to work as a director of a charity but don’t have
much time these days beyond my family or clan work.

“I didn’t go to Scotland often as a child but, nonetheless, I consider
myself completely Scots. This is what is so great about the Gathering ?
bringing people like me back to their roots. I still have a real passion for
the idea of family ? both the extended and the nuclear ? and I worry about
the breakdown of that. I believe the clans can still play an important role
in promoting the notion of people having a common bond.”


Major Sir Malcolm MacGregor

“During the 17th and 18th centuries, the MacGregors were proscribed ? it
was, in effect, a legal duty to kill a MacGregor, an act for which you could
claim a reward. So we have this incredible history that is, at times, hard
to live up to. But the struggle now is to find the clan’s relevance in the
modern world. To be honest, the local Scots don’t seem to care too much
about their clan heritage ? we’ve been trying hard to change this but not
really succeeding. The Gathering is a great idea ? people come to Scotland
all the time trying to find out their roots and the clans play an important
part in this.

“The main family home is in Angus, near Dundee. My father sold the place
the family had lived in for about 150 years, in 1980. The estate was about
4,000 acres of mostly rough hill land with a big house at the centre. We
were losing money hand over fist, so had to sell. I was an Army Major for 17
years and have been in lots of scrapes ? the MacGregors, unsurprisingly,
have a huge martial background. These days I’m a landscape photographer;
I’ve a great love for Scotland’s wilder places.”


John MacArthur

“In the 1980s, some Americans set up the MacArthur Society of North
America but they didn’t have a chief. So they studied the genealogy of the
chiefly line and came across my father. He was retiring and thought it would
be a good hobby. The evidence was presented to the Lord Lyon, who is in
charge of all heraldry in Scotland and grants chiefships and, in 2002, my
father was officially recognised as chief. Unfortunately, he died in early
2004 and, as I was heir apparent, I took over.

“The image of most clan chiefs in Scotland is of people in big houses,
removed from most people’s lives. There’s some truth in that, but I live in
a tied house and am the head gardener for the Earl of Stair, so my
background is quite humble.

“I’m honoured to be the chief. I do it for Scotland and to be a
figurehead of all the clan’s members. It involves a lot of correspondence
and sending letters of welcome. I have a full-time job but I do as much as I
can and often attend gatherings. I believe the clan system has a huge
relevance in Scottish culture ? it helps give us our identity and links to
our history.”

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