A pipe band competes marching at the annual Braemar Highland Games
A pipe band competes marching at the annual Braemar Highland Games

The chiefs of 40 Scottish clans and families are to gather this month at Bannockburn, the battlefield where Scotland’s independence was secured 700 years ago – but do not expect them to rally in renewed support for liberty from London rule.

The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, which has been helping to organise the gathering as part of Bannockburn anniversary celebrations, has made clear that it is staying out of the debate before Scotland’s independence referendum.

Roger Beale cartoon

“There are varying views amongst chiefs and clans over what is best for Scotland,” says Sir Malcolm MacGregor of the clan MacGregor, convener of the chiefs’ council. “Because of these differing opinions, the SCSC will not comment on independence.”

Political differences among Scotland’s Highland gentry should come as no surprise. The clan system was in its early days when Robert the Bruce defeated a huge English army at Bannockburn in 1314 but neither he nor later Scots kings could take the loyalty of the aristocrats of the Gaelic-speaking Highlands for granted.

There were also Highland lords on both sides of the often bitter national debate that preceded and followed Scotland’s 1707 parliamentary union with England. John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and chief of the clan Campbell, was a key player in promoting the union and led an army that helped suppress a 1715 Jacobite rebellion that threatened it.

This time around, few of Scotland’s aristocrats, whether from the Highlands or the more populous Lowland areas where the clan system never held sway, have chosen to take a leading role in the referendum debate.

Some pro-union campaigners were pleased when the most prominent living descendent of Robert the Bruce, Andrew Bruce, the 11th Earl of Elgin, told The Times that he opposed independence in May.

And the Yes Scotland campaign has welcomed the declaration of the Dowager Duchess of Hamilton that she backed independence and that her late husband, the 15th duke, would have agreed.

An early Hamilton duke is infamous among nationalists for abandoning opposition to the 1707 union and then using toothache as an excuse to duck out of the crucial parliamentary vote.

But aristocratic machinations are thankfully not a feature of the current independence debate and analysts agree that clan chiefs’ influence would be negligible.

In the 18th century, powerful chiefs could muster hundreds or even thousands of armed men, calling on the bonds of mutual loyalty and protection that bound them with extended family and associated groups under the clan system.

But Sir Tom Devine, professor of history at Edinburgh university, notes that the traditional system was already under strain in 1707 from the growing power of central government and an increasingly commercial economy.

By the 19th century, the clan system had been destroyed as chiefs changed from “protector to capitalist landowner”, many willing to clear kin off the land in favour of more lucrative sheep.

Modern clan culture is largely a creation of the later romanticisation of the Highlands by Lowland Scots, fuelled by enthusiasm for “heritage” among the Scottish diaspora.

Today, few Scots would care about the political opinion of a chief, Sir Tom says, not least since many would associate them as a group with the widely unpopular Conservative party.

“The vast majority of them do still come from the upper class and to some extent the landed class of Scotland,” he says.

Danus Skene, chief of the clan Skene, backs the independence campaign but says chiefs are right not to try to play on clan loyalties in the debate – not least because few Scots would pay any attention.

“This is all of great importance to the diaspora but not so much to people in Scotland,” he says.

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