I have always considered myself to be more of a European Royal than warring Scottish clansmen. But with a name like MacDonald, I figured I should explore the heritage that comes with the name. I have never been to Scotland before and though my ancestors come from Inverness, I decided to spend my first time there in the two major centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The MacDonald clan is the most numerous and widespread of the clans who were warriors on both land and sea. MacDonald’s have their ancestry in the renowned Lords of the Isles who viewed themselves as their own law and not under the rule of the sovereign on the mainland. The clan (Gaelic for children) derived its name from Donald, grandson of Somerled who was one of Scotland’s most mighty and ferocious leader’s who was killed in 1164. Hence the name MacDonald, or son of Donald, Mac (Gaelic Mhic, signifying son). Some families’ abbreviated the name to McDonald; however, I can’t help but think they were the poor sect that couldn’t afford a vowel.
Prior to our trip, while visiting friends living in the Dominican Republic, we had the good fortune to meet a gentleman from Glasgow. I had thought going back to the homeland as it were might ignite a genealogical spark within me and help me identify more with the name to which I was born. As such, I had speculated that a kilt, and the full accoutrement, would be part of my future once I was surrounded by tartans, Prince Charlie coats and sporrans. So I pressed our new found friend on the best places to buy my ensemble. He impressed upon me that because of the number of tourists buying these outfits in Edinburgh you would pay a premium. In Glasgow, it’s mainly locals buying these traditional outfits and thus the prices are more reasonable.
Our first stop was Edinburgh, a city steeped in history. Though I didn’t have any plans to research my actual family tree, I did discover that there are several facilities which can help you do your research. To use these facilities, it is important that you have as much information about your relatives as possible, such as birthdates and which cities they were born in. We stayed directly across from one of these facilities at the fabulous hotel Balmoral, a railroad hotel opened in 1902 to service the well-to-do traveler.
We had a glorious view of the Castle from our room and determined to visit it the next morning. We arrived first thing and were welcomed by a fully clad piper into the castle. Hearing the bagpipes in their homeland really was a stirring thing, especially in this glorious setting. We also visited Holyrood Palace, where the Queen still stays and home to all the intrigue between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. We toured Mary King’s Close, a street which was covered over in the 18th century and is a time capsule into historic Edinburgh and the living conditions.
We then were off to Glasgow to hunt for my familial outfit. The wearing of kilts and playing of bagpipes was actually banned from 1746 until 1782. I hit the shops that our friend had suggested and soon learned that all kilts are custom made and take about 8 weeks to make. When the clerk would ask for my name, they would smile and start pulling our swatches of the many tartans for the MacDonald clan. I was surprised to learn that being one of the oldest clans in Scotland we had so many choices. There is a work tartan, an ancient tartan, an ancient dress tartan and a modern dress tartan. The cost for the full look would run me about two to three thousand dollars and they would be happy to ship to Canada.
I left the shops bewildered by my options and wondering if I indeed had felt that spark I was wondering about. I was struck as I wandered about these two Scottish cities, listening to bagpipes and meeting very friendly people at how much it reminded me of Canada. I have always associated bagpipes with Canadian ceremonies and as a people we are renowned for our friendliness.
I realized that as Canadians we have the luxury of amalgamating many aspects of our respective cultures and heritage into forming the Canadian experience. As such, being Canadian allows us to define who we are as individuals and are not restricted by our ancestral heritage. I settled on a silk bowtie and cummerbund in the ancient MacDonald tartan, but decided that I would also adopt Burberry as my other tartan and would wear them both proudly in the place I call home. My name in Randall Scott MacDonald, and I am Canadian.