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A Short Case Study in Cultural Memory

A Short Case Study in Cultural Memory

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Published by Ian MacDonald
A Short Case Study in Cultural Memory: The Roots, Traditions and Events that Define Clan Donald in Scottish Culture and Society
A Short Case Study in Cultural Memory: The Roots, Traditions and Events that Define Clan Donald in Scottish Culture and Society

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Published by: Ian MacDonald on Feb 16, 2012
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01/24/2013

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A Short Case Study in Cultural Memory: TheRoots, Traditions and Events that DefineClan Donald in Scottish Culture and Society
Ian MacDonaldJanuary 2012
 
A Short Case Study in Cultural Memory: The Roots, Traditions and Events that Define Clan Donald inScottish Culture and Society
Introduction
In reading Jan Assmann’s, “Cultural Memory and Early Civilization” my interest washeightened by his reference to the Scottish invention of tartan. Even members of myimmediate family, including my Father who is no slouch when it comes to knowledgeof Scottish history (a point I will return to in due course), have questioned thisassertion whenever I have put it to them. It was therefore rather re-assuring for me toread this point in an academic text because it was consistent with what I discoveredin my own studies of the subject. However, because I am rather well-versed in thisparticular aspect of Scottish history, I also found cause to question Assmann’sversion of the events and the related reasons for tartan being so readily accepted asa distinctive part of Scottish culture. It was this, and the related history of ClanDonald – the extended family of which I am a part – that gave me to the idea to adoptit as a case study for this paper.Clan Donald is the largest clan in Scotland and the largest in the world, when oneadds the descendants of thousands of MacDonalds who emigrated to the USA,Canada, Australia and other countries. One estimate places the number of MacDonalds worldwide at over 2 million. The Clan’ history extends back to the 6
th
Century and to the legendary Irish King, Conn of the Hundred Battles, who embodiedthe poetry, grandeur and ultimately the doomed aspirations of the Celtic tradition inScotland.
It is no joy without Clan Donald;it is no strength to be without them;the best race in the round world,To them belongs every goodly man.The noblest race of all created,in whom dwelt prowess and terribleness;a race to whom tyrants bowed,In whom dwelt wisdom and piety.
Grimble,
Clans and Chiefs
(1980)
Ian MacDonaldJanuary 2012- 2 -
 
A Short Case Study in Cultural Memory: The Roots, Traditions and Events that Define Clan Donald inScottish Culture and Society
It is clear from the above verse and the following introduction to Williams (1984)single volume history of Clan Donald,
In after centuries, when much of the old fierce blood was diluted or dispersed, theSeannachies
1
would still remember . . . and many still young among the Highland menwould recall the stories of the Clan Donald in might: when the tribal genealogy was atestament of greatness, and the names of their ancestors could inflame theswordsmen of the clan to battle.
that the Clan was shrouded in glory – it was no ordinary clan. In fact, at the height of its power in the mid-1400s, Clan Donald controlled most of the western Islands,much of the western Highlands, and northeast areas of what is now Northern Ireland.
Territories of the Lord of the Isles
That this power was largely derived from prowess at seais reflected in the Clan’s motto,
 per mare per terras
(“bysea and land"). The head of the clan, the Lord of theIsles was as powerful as the then King of Scotland whoat that time presided over what was still an emergingnation. By contrast to Scotland’s King, the Lord of theIsles made no distinction between Irish and Scottish -there was only Clan Donald and its heritage was acombination of Celtic and Norse.In all histories of Clan Donald, Somerled (d. 1164), meaning
Summer Sailor 
, isconsidered the first in the line of the Lords of the Isles and his grandson, Donald, who
1
A very important class in every clan was that to which the seannachies and bards belonged. These men were historians andgenealogists. There were hereditary seannachies in the household of every Chief, and it was their business to learn from their fathers all the records of the past, to recite them at the banquets in their Lord's hall, and to hand them down to their descendants. Their knowledge was very rarely committed to paper until comparatively recent times, and some writers hold thatthe traditions, which have come down to us, are without any value for historical purposes.But three circumstances are worthy of consideration. In the first place, the seannachies were trained men. It appears that therewere colleges in Ireland, where history and genealogy were taught, and that many of our Highland bards and seannachies hadbeen educated at these seats of learning. Secondly, just as John Barbour put his history of "the Brus" into metrical form, so theold Highland traditions were put into the form of poems. This made it easier to remember them, and though it did not prevent afraudulent bard from interpolating spurious matter of his own, it made it less likely that he should do so accidentally. In the thirdplace, the bards and seannachies not only had to recite their effusions before chiefs and clansmen, who would be unlikely todetect any errors they might make, but also in the presence of other bards and seannachies, who would be perfectly capable of doing so, and who, as there was a great deal of jealousy amongst these men, would certainly not allow them to passunchallenged.These considerations induce me to believe that, in the old traditions which have come down to us, we have more or lesstrustworthy records of events which really did take place in the past. (Rev. Canon R. C. MacLeod of MacLeod, 1920’s)
Ian MacDonaldJanuary 2012- 3 -

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