The Modern Clan Keith
To begin with, there were no “clan societies”. Each clan in itself was an association, reaching far into the lives of those who belonged, by birth or by choosing. In old Scotland individuals were “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 defence-capable. Through these functions in peacetime and war, what we know as the “Clan System” constituted a form of feudal government.
With our advantage of hindsight, we ought not be surprised that the British would act somewhat out of paranoia, after the rebellions of the early 1700’s. Britain sought to disable merely the fighting capability of Scotland’s clan system. But the instituted “proscription” 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 king no substitute for the clans existed–that fully functioning clans were essential to the Scottish societal infrastructure. Thus, the proscriptions 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, had long been ingrained in clan function. Proscriptions 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 proscription. 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 fuelled 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 days of proscription, which helped kin and clan 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 Clan 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 suppression measures were finally dropped in 1782, the “Clearances” of the early 1800s impacted in a similar manner. Affected clans were further thinned, as 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 “Bonnie” 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 formalised.
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 side-tracked 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 cousins, having no similar vehicle for the purpose founded the Clan Keith Society USA in 1970.