By Jared Olar
While the majority of the books in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection deal with the history of Pekin, Tazewell County, and Illinois, the collection also includes volumes that don’t address “local history” at all, but are of a more general genealogical interest. One of them was featured in this column three months ago: “Burke’s Presidential Families,” which presents biographies and genealogies of the American presidents up to the 1990s.
Another book of that sort in the Local History Room collection addresses a historical subject that is about 3,785 miles from “local.” It’s a book entitled, “The Scottish Highlanders,” written in 1984 by Charles MacKinnon of Dunakin, a Scottish laird and official historian of his clan, the MacKinnons. The cover jacket identifies the author as owner of Dunakin Castle on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides, and “33rd in unbroken male line of descent from Findanus, the fourth MacKinnon chief.” (“Findanus” is a Latinized form of “Fingaine,” and the surname “MacKinnon” comes from the Gaelic clan designation Mic Fingaine, the letters “f” and “g” being silent in Gaelic pronunciation.)
Beginning in the 1600s, Scottish people from both the Lowlands and Highlands as well as the Ulster Plantations in Ireland began to settle in the English colonies of North America. Many Americans today belong to clan societies or take part in clan gatherings. Inevitably, then, many people in Tazewell County today are of Scottish descent, and so MacKinnon’s book is available in the Local History Room for those of them who may wish to learn more of the history of Scotland and the Scottish Highland clans.
MacKinnon’s book is 272 pages in length and is divided into two parts, along with three appendices. In the first part, extending to page 124, he gives an overview of Scottish history with a focus on the Scottish Highlands, explaining the origin and social development of the Highland Scots and how they came to be grouped into “clans” (tribes or groups of related families). In the second part, MacKinnon provides summary histories of 56 Highland clans, going in alphabetical order from Clan Buchanan on the east shore of Loch Lomond to Clan Urquhart from the Black Isle. Illustrating each clan history is a drawing of the clan’s official badge, which includes the clan’s motto in Latin, Scots English, or French.
One fact to keep in mind is the distinction between Gaelic Highland “clans” and Lowland Scottish “families.” Some people may think that every Scottish family is a “clan,” but in fact the clan system – featuring a tribe with a hereditary chief – was and is an aspect of the Scottish Gaelic Highland culture. Lowlanders didn’t belong to clans – though in time, branches of Highland clans sometimes established themselves in the Lowlands, losing their “clannishness,” while some Lowland families moved north to the Highlands and assimilated into the Gaelic culture there, becoming clans (perhaps the best known example being the Stewarts of Appin).
In the Author’s Foreword, MacKinnon briefly sketches the enduring “romantic” conceptions of Scottish Highlanders, explaining how authors such as Sir Walter Scott helped popularize “the misconceptions, the fallacious picture of the noble savage in tartan and silver finery, proud, pure, loyal to the death to his ‘rightful kings.’” He concludes his Foreward with the hope that “when the curtains of romantic balderdash have been slightly parted, the clansman of today will find something of real and lasting interest to him about his Highland ancestors.” It should be kept in mind, however, that the summary clan histories in MacKinnon’s own book sometimes incorporate some of the older genealogical traditions that modern historians have found to be “romantic balderdash.” Nevertheless, MacKinnon’s book overall serves as a helpful and handy guide to Highland clan history.