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WHAT IS A CLAN?

A personal perspective

 

Since the dawn of time, the clan and tribe have been the enduring wellspring of woman and mankind. From within its familial womb, it offered communal protection, mutual sustenance and an integral shared spirit of togetherness. It was our only hope in a harsh and brutal world.

 

As agrarian, architectural and military technology advanced, much of the 'fertile crescent' and Mediterranean world left its aboriginal societal origins. City states, kingdoms, and later empires embraced religious, military and possession-based hierarchy and stratification. In Celtic Europe, however, the focus remained on the intertwined triune of the individual and the well-being of the familial clan or children and expanded chinnidh or tribe. The clan and tribe also centered on its collective relationship with the environment and seasonal rhythms of the sacred tuath, or tribal country. By 100 AD, this essential balance was crushed in Spain, Gaul and southern Britian under the commercial, military and cultural heel of Rome.

 

From isolated and rugged Kernow, Cymru, Breizh, Eire, Mannin, and Alba (present day Cornwall, Wales, Brittany, Ireland, the Isle of Mann and Scotland), the Celtic world remained intact and defiant, surviving the fall of 'Pax Romana', as well as Saxon, Angle and later Viking depredations. A hundred and fifty years after the turn of the first millennia, our Scottish, Welsh, and later Irish ancestors found their true nemesis in the Norman and English genocidal campaigns of eventual military, cultural and social eradication.

 

Up in the Scottish Highlands, however, the old tribal ways died hard. The clans continued the element of traditional leadership by Tanistry: the Chiefs, often called 'first among equals', and Chieftains of the related sept houses, as well as the numerous Daone-uassail ('gentlemen' of the clan) led as buachaille (shepherds) by example, deed and strength. While each was able to call out a few hundred to a few dozen proud warriors into the heather, each had an even more important responsibility in maintaining and adjudicating the well-being and prosperity of the clan and extended tribal family.

 

Despite a thin patinae of feudalism, all were related through a blend of territorial interdependence, patriarchal and matriarchal blood ties, and the ancient tradition of fosterage. This wove both rich and poor together . . . the clan Chief to the simple herdsman, the sturdy tacksman to the clan Chieftain, and the Daoine-uassail to all in an unending circle of mutual care, respect and survival. This way of life would find harmony and understanding with that of any Lacota Souix, Zulu chief, Australian aboringine or ancient Hebrew tribesman. Would that we all had been simply left well enough alone.

 

As we now reach the turn of the second millennia, a small but enduring shred of our Highland tribal culture still comes down to us. Our not too distant ancestors lovingly preserved those collective ways, and when they were threatened, they fiercely fought and died to protect as well.

 

Today, we too have before us the mission of carrying forward those beliefs, not just by merely wearing a swatch of tartan, but by working hard to weave a continuing, intertwined tapestry of preservation of the Gaelic language, music and dance, history and culture. Our ancestors took their inclusion into the clan very personally, as we should in the present day. This was and is not an artificial entity emanating from a list or requiring dues and a membership card, but a living spiritual link of togetherness with the worldwide clan family, tuath and Chief. In the uncertain worlds of both the 16th and the 21st centuries, the clan remains as a mutual living tradition and history past . . . then and now, the clan just was and still is. Then and now it also involves an intense relationship or at least a knowledge of our ancient tribal lands, be they in Rothiemurchus, Strathnairn, Deeside, the Western Isles or in Eire, they all sing refrains of the same sacred harmony.

 

When all of modern society seems to be losing its way, the fosterage of our ancient clan, tribe, traditions and culture is the most precious and vital gift we can give, from our grandparents to ourselves and to our children's grandchildren. It is an essential continuance that links us all with this earth and with the primal first breaths and steps of man and womankind.

 

Nine months after this writer's friend, uncle and Chieftan died,* I had a vivid dream, both personally upsetting yet comforting as well. I dreamed my wife and children and I were at a typical American Highland Games, standing centrefield between the march of the clans and the opening ceremonies with various local clansfolk and friends ( a seasonal exercise many American Gaels share). In my dreaming second sight, amidst the heat, the crowds and colours, the noise, swirl and bagpipes, I deeply sensed but could not see the quiet presence of my late Uncle Bill next to me. I heard, if not strongly felt, his comforting voice: "Billy, I will always be there beside you . . ." As his Tanist, I will always wear his sgain dubh and eagle feather and carry his cromagh with pride. My family and I also carry and share his deep commitment to the traditions, land and tribe of his (and our) Clan Seamus and Rothiemurchus forefathers and foremothers. It is his love that we treasure the most.

 

He will be with me, and with us all, aye.

 

Fide . . . et Fortitudine, Uncle Bill.

 

* The senior representative of the Shaws of Crathienaird and Glenshee, William Iain Gordon Shaw of Easter Lair died 14, July 1997 at the age of 83.

 

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All written content copyrighted by William G.A. Shaw of Easter Lair ~ May 2000/March 2008. No part of this website can be used in entirety or in part or in reference or in paraphrase without proper credit to the author, or if republished,
without prior permission of the author.