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

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They are landscape photographers, TV cameramen, gardeners and housewives. They're also the chieftains of Scotland's clans – and they're gathering next weekend in their first powwow for 250 years. But do they still wield any power – or is the concept now too arcane to inspire 'family' loyalty? Andrew Spooner meets the tribal leaders to find out

Think of a Scottish clan chief and you'd be forgiven for imagining a claymore-wielding Highlander, adorned in tartan, kilt and sporran, wandering misty Scottish hills. The 21st-century reality couldn't be more different: today, the chiefs can count among their ranks housewives and gardeners, hill-farmers and landscape photographers. And, for the first time in nearly two centuries, the clan chiefs of Scotland are gathering.

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 www.clangathering.org

Elliot

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."

MacLeod

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." '

Sempill

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 devolution.

"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."

Kincaid

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 Chiefs.

"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."

MacGregor

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."

MacArthur

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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