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Of Clans and Tartans

2011-11-23

Clan MacPherson hunting tartan

While contemplating my first kilt, I decided that I should try to find out where in Scotland my ancestors the MacLaurys came from; up until now I had been assuming an affiliation with Clan MacPherson based on a couple of independent resources which listed the MacLaury name as a sept of that clan. I’m quite fond of the MacPherson Hunting tartan and had already woven a couple of scarves in it, but before taking the plunge and buying yardage for a kilt it seemed appropriate to verify what I could. So, I signed up for a 14-day free trial at Ancestry.com and set about tracing the MacLaurys back to Scotland.

To my surprise, I learned that one Thomas McClaughry came to the colonies from County Longford, Ireland. His descendants changed the spelling in various ways, and by the time my great grandmother came along it was “MacLaury.” I had long assumed the name was Scottish because of the Mac versus Mc spelling, but names were once far more fungible than they are now, especially when families emigrated to America.

Clan Munro tartan

My long presumed Scottish ancestry disproven, I continued tracing other various ancestors back and learned that one of my 8th great grandfathers was William Munroe, a Scottish soldier who was exiled to the colonies as an indentured servant after being captured in the Battle of Worcester. He was descended from George Munro, 10th Baron of Foulis, one of the earliest verified Chiefs of Clan Munro. George Munro was my 14th great grandfather. This Scottish link is far back in my ancestry, but generations deep and seemingly quite well-documented. I have found my clan and some pretty deep roots around Easter Ross in the Highlands of Scotland.

The whole clan tartan tradition is really a bit silly, having been largely invented in the 19th century well after the clan system had been subjugated by the British; it was a visit by King George IV to Scotland in 1822 which launched a tartan craze. Nearly 200 years later it continues to capture the imagination of people all over the world; I think that Scottish tartans provide a visual link with a romanticized past and instill a stronger sense of kinship than looking at a family tree on paper. Humans love their tribes, even if they’re little more than what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon, “a proud and meaningless association of human beings.” From tales I’ve read at X Marks the Scot there is no shortage of people who are quick to question who is “allowed” to wear which tartan. For someone like me who is pretty far removed from Scotland in terms of direct lineage, it’s largely academic; I’m bound to offend somebody, somewhere by wearing the Munro tartan, or by even wearing a kilt at all.