When my twelve year-old son Jeffrey wanted to learn to play the bagpipes, I thought it was cool. I honestly did— I have always loved highland bagpipes, and find them haunting and beautiful. While our surname is an obviously Scottish clan name, I never really gave it much thought beyond knowing we were one of thousands of families whose “Mac—” became “Mc—” during the emigration to the United States. I knew my ancestors came down through Canada via Nova Scotia, but I somehow missed picking up Nova Scotia is NEW SCOTLAND.
So when Jeff picked up the pipes, I started poking around. (He is also a tuba player, and his younger brother plays the bugle. Take a moment to grieve for our neighbors) Jeffrey also wanted a kilt. My uncle is a judge who wears full Highland Dress for formal occasions, and I discovered our family has a tartan. A specific tartan, tied to very specific ancestral lands in the northern highlands of Scotland. Cool, right? We don’t just have a modern tartan- we’ve got an ancient tartan, a hunting tartan, a formal tartan…
Out of curiosity, I went to the Family Search website and started entering the handful of names of my ancestors- I didn’t have many of which I was certain, beyond my great-grandparents, but it turned out to be enough. Files started linking up, and I experienced that moment I’ve heard other people speak of, where the generations almost literally open up before your eyes. There were photos, emigration records, even birth certificates with signatures and dates in their own hands. And they were all there. Other than my immediate grand and great grandparents, they had already had ordinances performed for them, and I had immediate and current links to people who also claimed the same family line.
Turns out we’ve been around a loooong time as a clan- direct lines back to 1085. We’ve got more than bit of history. We fought with William Wallace in 1296. Remember Braveheart? Yeah, that William Wallace— though his real story is not as romantic as Mel Gibson made it seem, the battles are firmly established history, as is his horrible demise and cry for freedom for Scotland. After Wallace, in 1306, we followed and fought for Robert the Bruce and helped win Scotland’s independence at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It’s not like things were all roses after that though…
Life in Scotland was hard. There were centuries of retaliations and bloodshed and fighting amongst clans and others. Our name means “sons of fire” and the family motto on our crest is “Manu Forti” with a fist clenching a dagger. It means ‘with a firm hand’ and we had a warlike reputation for being a good ally and a formidable foe. History reports more than three thousand Mackays fought alongside William of Orange.
Finally in the late 1800′s, the clan suffered greatly as a result of the “Highland Clearances” and my family’s ancestors emigrated to Canada. There are still ancestral lands in the northern highlands that bear our name, as well as two ruined castles.
One of the more interesting things I’ve discovered is that we became known for our piping. To exert control over people, some music was outlawed, kilts and tartans were banned (clan identity was dangerous) and the bagpipes were outlawed. We played anyway. From 1629 on to the modern day, our piping as a clan is renowned. We have clan society pipers in Scotland, Nova Scotia and throughout Canada.
Discovering these rich veins of ancestry turns our forbears from dusty pages in a colorless book into rich, passionate and full blooded people. I’m utterly fascinated how my children’s red hair and freckles are tied directly to blood that runs in my veins from these very people. It’s lovely to imagine my own willingness to stand up for my beliefs, to battle if the need arises, might stem from these very same mitochondrial strands in every cell in my body, passed on in my children’s bodies… And so it goes. Hearts to our forefathers, indeed. All because my son, out of the blue, wanted to learn the pipes.