EDINBURGH (Reuters) - When the ancient system of Scottish tribes risked fading away two decades ago the 30th chief of the Carmichael clan turned to the Mormon Church.
That’s where Richard Carmichael of Carmichael found thousands of genealogical records and the addresses for people around the world who shared his surname.
Today, many of the 140 officially recognized clans have morphed into massive online associations, whose ranks have been swelled by enthusiastic Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans keen to have a link to their Scottish heritage.
Descendants abroad are often delighted to discover that hundreds of years after the MacDonalds and MacDuffs first organized themselves into loose family associations that many kilt-wearing clan chiefs still live on the ancestral lands and pass their titles down to the next generation.
“It’s very difficult to take on a role that’s historic and redundant. In the 80s, we often heard that the clans were finished because no one lived in the locality any more,” Carmichael told Reuters.
“A few of us fought hard to defy that and the clan has got back on course. The world wide web has made the global clan a reality.”
When Carmichael became chief in 1981 -- taking over the clan’s estate north of Glasgow -- he used the Mormon Church’s extensive genealogical records to track down thousands of Carmichaels and sent every one an invitation to a gathering.
One hundred and fifty of the Carmichael descendants traveled to the revived clan gathering that year, and the chief resolved to hold them every few years. He estimated the clan numbers around a quarter of a million people around the world.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a succession of land improvement schemes by landowners in Scotland resulted in the “Highland clearances”, which drove tens of thousands of people from their homes to make way for sheep. Many, facing deprivation and starvation, emigrated to the New World and beyond.
Rather than waging war against the English and keeping clan members in check, today’s chiefs see their role as educational. They also keep in touch with each other at the standing council of chiefs.
“If the chief has a role at all, it’s to serve the people, especially abroad, who are interested in their forebears. A lot of my jobs are social or administrative,” said George MacMillan of MacMillan and Knap, chief of the MacMillan clan.
As well as looking after the estate and farming livestock, MacMillan finds himself increasingly traveling to countries where Scots emigrated.
Americans in particular are fascinated by tracing their genealogy, but MacMillan has also been invited to clan gatherings in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He has even been invited to celebrity-obsessed Los Angeles later this year.
But the newly revived interest among the Scottish Diaspora has not been echoed at home, even though most Scots carry a traditional clan name, and the ancestral homes still exist.
“To Americans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, it’s a completely staggering fact that I‘m still living here near 1,000 years after the name began,” Carmichael said.
“The disinterest in the UK is quite marked. To them, it’s just about an old building right on their doorstep.”
Editing by Paul Casciato