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
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
, isconsidered the first in the line of the Lords of the Isles and his grandson, Donald, who
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 -