As a traveler, this is a question you get asked by many people when traveling in a foreign country or even close to home. The answer to this question may vary based on who you ask – country, region, state, province, and/or city.
Where we are from says a lot about us. For many of us, our home is where we lay our heads most nights of the year or where we were born – nothing more. For others, they are proud to be identified by a region or area as the land that they call home tells their story.
Many travelers may be hesitant to say where they are from as the American versus Canadian tourist debate is one way travelers avoid the stereotypes.
However, a Scotsman is never ashamed.
Recently, I had the chance to meet some Scottish clans and talk to them about their heritage at the 136 Sacramento Scottish Highlands Games and Festival. Since clans are not something many people understand, I attended a lecture on Scottish clans, families, and septs so I can learn more about their heritage.
Scottish Highlanders are a very proud people. They were their kilts and display armaments proudly. Each family has a story to tell about their lineage and the roles their clan have played in Scottish history.
While many of us tell others where we live, the Scottish people tell their stories of family, history, and culture in the region they call home.
A brief history of Scottish Clans
The history of the Scottish Highlands people goes back to the Celtic days in Ireland. In the 6th century, a group of Celtic people left Ireland and went to Iona. The people spread out over Scotland moving to Mull and then to the mainland where they eventually settled.
As people moved to the Highlands, many of these families claimed large areas of land. As other people and families moved to the area, they agreed to work the land for these families as they all lived as part of a feudal system.
These families pledged allegiance to the landowners as they worked the land in exchange for protection. The idea of this commune was to work for the greater good of all who lived on the land – live, fight,and survive.
These days, the Scottish Highlands people are known for their kilts, bagpipes, and whisky. These Scottish Highlanders have called this area home for nearly a thousand years.
There are 95 principal clans in Scotland. As part of the Sacramento Scottish Games and Festival, I got to meet a couple of them and learn about the history of their family and the impact their clans have had throughout history all over the world.
Scottish Clan Gunn and a Maori tribe
On Saturday, I ended my day taking a few photos and some videos of some of the Scottish clans at the Sacramento Scottish Festival. While doing some filming, my presence got the attention of one of the clans.
After chatting with a few of the members, I learned a little about the clan as they were kind enough to share some cookies, waters, and some tattoos. I promised I would be back on Sunday to learn a little more.
Clan Gunn resides in the northern part of Scotland near the Orkney Islands. In the 1700s, many of the clan left and went to Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and Ireland.
In 1969, the Clan Gunn society was formed in Stone Mountain Georgia. Recently, they just celebrated their 40th anniversary. Rich Gunn was President of the Clan Gunn Society of North America in 2009 and took some time to share an interesting story with me about the relationship between Clan Gunn and a Maori tribe in New Zealand.
In September 2008, John Mahiti Wilson passed away in New Zealand. John was a member of Clan Gunn as his grandparents immigrated to New Zealand. However, John’s parents were both Scottish and Maori (a part of a New Zealand tribe).
When John died, his Scottish family went to New Zealand to be part of a special ceremony with his Ngati Awa tribe in which his spirit was returned in a Haku ceremony.
As part of this ceremony, Chief Pouroto Marae allowed the Clan Gunn tribe to be a part of this celebration.
A letter and acknowledgment was written to establish a relationship between Clan Gunn and the Ngati Awa tribe which included economic possibilities, cultural exchanges, and support of each other when members of either traveled to Scotland or Aotearoa, NZ.
As part of this ceremony in 2009, Rich and a few others were also part of a tribe initiation. He described the dancing and antics of the tribe as intimidating but the key was to always maintain eye contact. As part of their initiation, each of the society presidents was presented with a Tewha Tewha, a symbol of the Chief’s in a ceremony.
While the culture, history, and lifestyles of this Scottish clan and Maori tribe in New Zealand are very different, a member of both the clan and tribe have allowed them to become friends and brethren.
The history of Clan Fraser
On Sunday, Clan Fraser won the Best Clan award. Each year, this designation was given to the clan that had the best tent during the festival.
Was this honor as big as winning the Scottish Highlands Games as a Scottish Games athlete? I don’t know but I wanted to find out more about the clan.
As I walked into the tent, I had a look around. I found the map and looked for Clan Fraser to see where they were in Scotland. Memorabilia and stories waiting to be told filled the Fraser tent.
After meeting Thomas Simpson, I found out the rest of the story.
The earliest Fraser was Gilbert de Fraser who, in 1109, was a witness to the Coldstream monastery along the southern border of Scotland. In 1160, Sir Simon Fraser gifted the church to the monks at Kelso Abbey. From there, the Fraser clan made a name for themselves in the Highlands around Loch Ness.
Sir Simon Fraser was a supporter of William Wallace during the Wars of Independence. Unfortunately, he met the same fate as Wallace – hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Later, his brother became Chamberlain of Scotland as Sir Alexander Fraser married Lady Mary, sister of King Robert the Bruce. From there, the Fraser clan started a town and fishing village granted from King James VI which led to a college that only lasted a few years.
The Fraser clan battled with the McDonald clan in the Battle of Shirts and lost nearly every member of the Fraser clan. The clan continued as a result of the women that were pregnant when the battle took place.
In the Second Jacobite Uprising in 1745, Simon Fraser (Old Fox) was executed. However, his son commanded the clan at Culloden. They suffered heavy casualties in the battle but the clan survived as many Frasers ended up serving in battles in the Americas.
Today, there are three Fraser clan societies in North America (two in the US, one in Canada). The Clan Fraser Society of North America began in the early 1970s on the east coast and is headed by the son of the founder, Blake Fraser.
After talking with Thomas and getting a brief history of the clan, I met his daughter who told me one of the most fascinating stories of the Fraser clan.
World Way II, the D-Day invasion, and a mad piper
Bill Millin was the piper of the 1st Special Service Brigade and the personal piper of Lord Lovat. As his crew made its way up the Hamble River, out to sea, and towards Normandy, Millin played the pipes.
As the time came for their ships to unload on the beaches of Normandy, Lord Lovat requested Millin to play a tune. As the battle ensued, Millin walked along the beach playing “Road to the Isles” as men dug into the sand.
As they went on the road to Benouville, he continued to play the pipes even as a sniper raced towards him. Lovat killed the sniper and the group continued. As they entered the village, they were under fire yet again. So Millin marched down Main Street playing the pipes as the men followed behind.
As they crossed over the first bridge toward the villages, mortars and shrapnel were hitting the bridge. Millin stopped playing. As he crossed over the end of the bridge towards the next one, he was ordered to play again. They crossed the bridge successfully and were met by French troops.
Upon entering a French village, a young French girl requested more music. So Millin played until shrapnel and and mortars flew once again.
Later, stories were told that that the Germans on the beach didn’t shoot him because they thought he was mad.
For many people, Bill Millin was mad. However, he was only acting on orders. The bagpipes were an encouragement to many but to others, it was a display of extreme bravery or insanity. This earned him the nickname “The Mad Piper” and he has gone down in history as an a fascinating character in the D-Day invasion.
Maybe Bill Millin was mad. Maybe he didn’t win any battles. However, many consider him a hero – especially those members of the Fraser clan.
Scottish Clans and their impact on world history
From William Wallace to World War II, Scottish clans have had a huge impact on history. The influence of the Scottish families with bagpipes, kilts, and whisky goes far beyond what you see in the movies.
You have to look at what’s underneath the kilt!
Today, these Scottish clans are proud of their heritage and the impact they have made on the world. From Scotland to New Zealand to the beaches of Normandy, you can’t dismiss the lives they have touched and the history they have made.
Clans Gunn and Fraser are just two of the original Scottish clans. Each clan tells a story, touches lives, and has played their part in Scotland and the history of the world.
So the next time you see a man in a Scottish kilt drinking a whisky or playing the bagpipes, ask him what stories he has to tell. You will be glad you did.