There are nearly two million Australians who claim Scottish ancestry, which historically, when you add the Irish, helps to explain our innate national suspicion of the English. But after my adventures in Scotland, as a Scots descendent I must admit that in the case of my clan, the English are not entirely to blame. My Scots have been their own worst enemy. Last week I immersed myself in my clan history and I found it a salutary experience. Sometimes it is not a good idea to poke around in your family past unless you know exactly what you are going to find. Australians with their own dark convict history have always known that. But for some reason I expected a happier story on the other side of the world in the Scottish Highlands. I was wrong.
I had been invited to visit my Clan Chief, Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor. He was an impressive figure awaiting me in clan tartan in the gardens of his stately home (more of a pocket castle actually) dating way back before Captain Cook happened upon our distant part of the world. The Chief’s assuredness and quiet dignity immediately suggested to me that here was a man bred for the task rather than one who had learned on the job. Indeed, Sir Malcolm is the 24th Chief of Clan Gregor. He is a direct descendant of the fiercest highland warrior Rob Roy, but despite his blood soaked lineage he is a civil and generous host.
You can’t entirely disguise a pedigree as belligerent as the MacGregor. My old Dad, Charles MacGregor Wooley, formerly of the Isle of Arran, was a quietly spoken and gentle man. But as a kid I once saw him change in an instant and flatten a man who had been rude to my Mum in an Australian street. He once similarly sorted out two underground miners in the tough Tasmanian mining town of Rossarden who were merely making fun of his Scottish accent. (This was long before the universal popularity of Billy Connolly). The old man was never teased again and became a useful and valued member of the community. He was one of the few literate people in that backwoods town and he owned a pen. People were forever bringing their documents to our door for interpretation and signing.
Throughout history the MacGregors were as fiery as their (generally) red hair and this dispossession bequeathed them a grim and bloody history. They picked more fights with other clans and with their own Scottish Government and later with the English than they could ever hope to win. “We were not diplomats and perhaps we were sometimes too quick to raise the sword,” the Chief conceded. “But those were not diplomatic times. We were surrounded by bitter enemies whose dearest wish was to wipe us out.”
I am a newcomer to my violent heritage, but the way I see it, in Scotland the Proscriptive Acts of 1603 were something akin to an ethnic cleansing of the MacGregors. Their name and their tartan became illegal. A MacGregor could be killed on sight with legal impunity. Any woman who took up with a MacGregor was whipped and branded on the face. Seems to me that my mob probably didn’t have many girlfriends back in those days. For almost two centuries the clan was hunted, either emigrating or surviving somehow in the remotest wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. With no name and no lands we became known as “The Children of the Mist”, probably the most romantic title in Scottish history.
“While there’s leaf in the forest and foam on the river, MacGregor despite them shall flourish forever.” Sir Malcolm MacGregor quotes Sir Walter Scott as he brandishes the family claymore, the ‘great sword’ five foot long and six and a half pounds. It takes two hands to wield it and the chief summons up his ancestral demons and lunges at me, snarling. “A blow from this, Charlie would split your skull.” Happily he brings it down instead on the roast ham hock deliciously scenting the air of his baronial dining room. After that there’s enough single malt whisky to ease the pain of history and when I come to, the next day, I am in my kilt marching in a sea of MacGregor tartan to do battle with our enemies.
Thankfully as a new Australian recruit I discover clan battles are now ritualized and take the form of Highland Games. Gentle pursuits like caber tossing, hammer throwing and lifting impossibly huge granite boulders, which today satisfy the modern Scottish warrior. No doubt this also enriches the local physiotherapist.
This day I am marching with one of Australia’s greatest tartan tragics. He is fellow Tasmanian Frank MacGregor, the Chief’s representative in Australasia. Frank is a second generation Australian but his heart is in the highlands. “I love Tasmania,” he told me. “I’d never leave it for anywhere else in the world, except for Scotland.”
Earlier this year Frank organized for Sir Malcolm and his lovely wife, Lady Fiona, to visit our home state of Tasmania. It’s the southern-most state, a wee scrap of mountainous land the size of Ireland, hanging off the southeastern end of Australia. In its rugged grandeur it’s often regarded as an antipodean Scotland. In the historic sandstone heart of the old colonial waterfront capital of Hobart, a leading Hotelier Lloyd Clark generously hosted the MacGregors in his magnificent Lenna Hotel. It’s in MacGregor Street of course and built by the 19th Century shipping magnate Alexander MacGregor. No black pudding for guessing where he came from. As Tasmanians always fall in love with Scotland so too did the Chief and his wife fall in love with Tasmania. They are hoping many Tasmanians will make the pilgrimage back to the glens next year for the World Gathering of the MacGregors.
As Frank MacGregor points out to all Australians, “You might be a MacGregor without even knowing it, since so many of our forebears changed their names to avoid persecution.”
So if you are among the millions of Scots descendants living abroad and if like me you’ve got red-haired kids with a bit of a temper, it might be worth checking out your genealogy. You might be a MacGregor.