Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Of Scotland and Its Heritage


I was recently reading about Alasdair Mac Colla (c. 1610–1647) a Scotch-Irish solider from Clan Donald. One of the largest clans in Scotland, the Norse-Gaelic MacDonalds at this time held territory in Scotland, the Hebrides and Ulster. Notably, the MacDonalds were also Catholic, unlike their arch-rivals, the Campbells, who were Presbyterian. Alasdair Mac Colla and the MacDonalds fought alongside the Royalists and the Irish Confederation in a series of conflicts including the English Civil War, known collectively as the Wars of Three Kingdoms (ie, England, Scotland and Ireland).

Mac Colla was a man of great violence, and involved in atrocities against the Campbells, but though it does not excuse his actions, it would at least seem he was on the right side. Moreover, he is credited with inventing the 'highland charge,' a nifty tactic whereby Scottish armies, facing English opponents, would fire a volley, then throw down their muskets (and often hit the ground while the English fired a return volley), and then charge the English position with claymores and dirks while the poor English chaps were trying to reload their muskets for a second volley. It was a devastating tactic, particularly prior to the use of the bayonet, and it won the Scots a string of victories for roughly a century.

Duntulm Castle, a ruined MacDonald castle located on the Isle of Skye.

Well, such a dashing figure got me wondering, even hoping, if I might not be related to the fellow. And there is just a grain of possibility. You see, my great-great-great-grandfather, Alonzo Timothy Johnson Sr. was of Scottish ancestry (or so my grandmother told me, God rest her). A quick search of the Scottish clans, however, will reveal that there is no Clan Johnson. There is, however, a sept - a family division - named Johnson, belonging to Clan MacDonald of Ardnamurchan. You see, the MacDonalds are so large and sprawling that there are several branches of them. The MacDonalds of Ardnamurchan are descended from John (Iain) Sprangach MacDonald (d.1340), the third son of Angus Mor MacDonald (d.1292), the 4th chief of the Clan Donald. On his account, they are thus sometimes known as the MacIaians or MacIans (which simply means "son of John"). Some time when Alasdair Mac Colla was a boy, the MacIaians lost their lands through the duplicity of the Campbells, and thus the clan declined in significance. The Johnsons, one particular sept of the MacIaians, threw themselves upon the mercy of the the broader MacDonald community and Clan Gunn, another Norse-Gaelic clan in Scotland's western isles. So it is just possible that my ancestors, if not including Alasdair Mac Colla, at least knew him.

This is, however, a stretch. For one thing, MacDonald of Ardnamurchan is not the only clan to include a sept named Johnson; both Gunn and MacDonald of Glencoe have one as well. But there is another problem: what if my Scottish ancestors changed the spelling of their name at some point? What it if it was once "Johnstone," not "Johnson"? Because that, you see, is quite a different story.

Clan Johnstone is a lowland clan located on the Scottish-English border. For some time they resisted English incursions - and won the friendship of William Wallace for it. All the border clans were a wild bunch, bandit-types who enjoyed having blood feuds with one another. In the case of Clan Johnstone, the primary objects of these feuds were Clan Maxwell, put in its place in 1593, and Clan Moffat, more or less destroyed in 1557. However, like the MacDonalds, the Johnstones supported the Royalists in the English Civil War.

So which one is it? Did my family come from the Lowlands of southern Scotland, or the Isles of the West? Are my sworn enemies the Campbells or the Maxwells? Should I be wearing the tartan of the MacDonalds of the Isles (above left) or of the Johnstones (below right)? Well, funny you should ask about tartans...

The most authoritative work on Scottish tartans is the Vestiarium Scoticum, published in 1842. The only problem is that the Vestiarium is probably a fraud. The story goes that the tartans depicted in the Vestiarium are the ancient patterns used by the clans since time immemorial. The manuscript that helped produce this document passed through the hands of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and had now allowed his grandsons, John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, to share this authoritative knowledge with the world. However, the "Stuart brothers" were exposed as John Carter Allen and Charles Manning Allen and their tartans as bogus. But by the time that had happened, a funny thing had occurred: the Vestiarium Scoticum had caught on. Today, many of the clans still use the tartans given them by the Vestiarium, in spite of considerable evidence that these are not the ancient tartans of their clans.

Does this matter? Should Scots be outraged? Probably not. Let me submit two reasons for that. First, things like tartans are signs, and should not be confused with the things they signify. So long as it is understood that a particular tartan - or flag, or coat of arms, or song, or holiday - indicates a given clan, its history and its values, the sign itself is of little importance. Second, it seems to me that the stories surrounding the adoption of symbols become part of a heritage themselves. For good or ill, the Vestiarium is now part of Scottish lore, one of those strange quirks of history. To throw it out would be to get ride of part of the story.

So is my family from Clan Johnstone or MacDonald of Ardnamurchan? I am going to answer, "both". This is not to say that I believe this to be the case, in a biological sense. Rather, I accept stories and histories of each as my own. And the very means by which I came to that conclusion - and the fact that I did, when I am sure many others would not - says something about me as well. Call me crazy, but I intend to regale my children and my children's children with stories of Alasdair Mac Colla and the Highland charge.
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