Clan – (n) A group of Scottish families with common ancestors, a common surname, and a single chief, who act together because they have the same interests or aims. (Oxford English Dictionary)
It was clan, Clan Gregor that brought us together from far and wide for one magical week to share the Gathering of 2009.
For my wife, Vina, (herself a McQueen) and me, this was our first visit to Auld Scotia, home of our ancestors. After years of studying clan heritage, listening to oral traditions, visualizing MacGregor history, and then serving as a chairman of a Society chapter for 8 years, it was time to “come home” and experience Scotland, and in particular, Glenstrae, Glengyle and Glenorchy for ourselves. And what better way to delve into this awesome beauty and moving history than to be a part of the 2009 Gathering of Clan Gregor! This was a most memorable week and one not soon to be forgotten! Here are some of our reflections.
For many, the festivities began in Edinburgh on Friday night on the eve of the International Gathering of the Clans. We were invited as guests of our Chief, Sir Malcolm and Lady MacGregor, to attend a special welcome party co-hosted with Clan Armstrong in the lobby and library of the Fettes School. It was a wonderful opportunity to renew old friendships and meet new friends in our clan from far and wide. The excitement and promise of the Gathering and Games the following day was palpable. Years in the making, the International Gathering had the potential of being the largest meeting of Clans since The ’45.
Saturday morning, July 25th , dawned clear and temperate, bringing a glorious sunny day to Edinburgh’s Hollyrood Park. HRH Prince Charles officially opened the Games. For the next two days, an estimated 47000 clansmen from all over world enjoyed Highland games, music and fellowship in the grandest of style and tradition. In the clan area, Gregors and Armstrongs shared space in a common tent. Traffic was brisk at our sales table, ably manned by Angela and Jimmie MacGregor, while Keith and Richard MacGregor connected people and history as well as signing up 18 new members. It was a wonderful time of connection and friendship.
The Saturday night parade of the clans, from Hollyrood up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle, was the highlight of the weekend. For 3 hours, wave after wave of pipe bands from all over the world led over 140 clans up the Royal Mile, cheered on by crowds of tens of thousands lining the streets. It was a true tartan extravaganza! We Gregors, almost one hundred strong, boasted one of the largest turnouts and were well received by the cheering throngs! As we marched proudly past the Mercat Cross behind our Chief and his standard, I could not help but reflect upon how our fortunes have changed since that dark day in 1604 when our Chief, Alastair, was hung there with 30 some MacGegors convicted of participating in the route of Glenn Fruin. Later, as we approached the Castle, the pressing crowd gave way to images of another Chief, Sir Ewan, who figured prominently in the 1822 royal visit of King George IV and the return of the Honours of Scotland to be kept in Edinburgh Castle. How fitting to be marching into Edinburgh Castle behind the standard of Sir Malcolm!
For those fortunate enough to have secured a ticket, the march culminated in the castle esplanade. Here, a dramatic pageant celebrating our common Scottish roots artfully depicted the meaning of homecoming by a tracing a single family through a thousand years of history. A loan woman, representing Alba, ended the evening with this powerful reminder. “You are all my children. Welcome home.”
This wonderful and historic evening ended for many Gregors with a few drams and toasts into the wee hours, fittingly, at the Royal MacGregor pub on the Royal Mile. Throughout the rest of Sunday, The Gathering and Games continued, enjoying another clear and bright day of great attendance and fellowship. In all, this was a wonderful and special weekend for the thousands who ‘came home’.
On Monday, it was on to the beautiful campus of Stirling University, where Clan Gregor’s Gathering began in earnest late afternoon and evening with registration and a wine and cheese mixer. It is hard to properly convey the sense of excitement and adventure as one by one we arrived, registered, and fell into the open arms and hearts of family and clan, known and unknown. A particular joy was seeing our faithful and trustworthy Secretary, Ishbel, busily checking and rechecking programme details as we arrived in groups throughout the afternoon. These were the people, nearly 100 strong from 11 countries, who were gathering together to share the same space and a common purpose for the next week.
Tuesday morning, we loaded into two buses and began the first of our daily tours to a variety of sites of cultural and historic significance to both Gregors and Scots in general. No account of our week is complete without mentioning the detailed and entertaining commentary provided by our Chairman, Richard MacGregor and historians Keith MacGregor and Peter Lawrie on the hundreds of sites, scenes, incidents and battlefields we passed through on our travels. Their combined knowledge, sound historical perspectives and passion for faithfully retelling stories related to these tours was truly impressive and much appreciated. Each day, on all legs of our tours, we learned many things with the passing of every mile. On our first outing we visited the innovative Falkirk Wheel, a technical and practical solution to reopening an old commercial canal system by replacing a number of crumbling locks with a single wheel that ”lifts” outbound canal traffic to the upper level while “lowering” inbound traffic on the other side of a giant rotating beam. Scottish ingenuity at its best! In a stark and almost whimsical contrast of technologies, on the same grounds we visited the remains of Antoine’s Wall and an early Roman fort from around 124 AD. Back in the bus, we moved on to Bannatyne, where we were afternoon guests for tea, sandwiches and sweets graciously hosted by Sir Malcolm and Fiona. The Chief welcomed us to their home, and entertained us with stories of our history by pointing out some of the many artifacts passed down from his ancestors and our former Chiefs. Bannatyne is a beautiful country home in a private and pastoral setting. Lady MacGregor exuded grace and presence as our charming hostess. We are much indebted to Sir Malcolm and Fiona and their willingness to share their home and hearts with so many visitors from afar.
Wednesday was a wonderful day, a personal highlight in a week full of superlatives! We began by winding our way around the stunning west shore of Loch Lomand, past Luss, Ben Lomand and Craigroston on our way to Loch Awe and Dalmally. At the beautiful and historic kirk, we were treated to two very powerful experiences. In a special memorial service given by one of our group, Pastor Rob Johnson (?), we paused to hear the roll call and reflect upon the lives of those Gregors who had passed into the spiritual world since the last gathering. It was a beautiful and reflective time to be inside a place so steeped in history.
From the serenity of the chapel, we then moved to the outer courtyard where Keith shared with us the impressive history and magic of the Dalmally grave stones. After fund raising and supporting this project from afar for a number of years, to finally move this powerful experience into the first person was truly poignant. I was not fully prepared for the full weight and significance these important clan artifcacts would bring to bear on me in that moment. An overwhelming sense of connectedness and their relevance to our once proud and landless clan came to me in that magic time. This then is the significance of the Dalmally stones! Preserve them we must, for this is our modern rallying cry, calling out from across hundreds of years.
Once beyond the kirkyard, we divided into two groups; one to explore Kilchurn Castle on the loch side and one to climb the hills above Loch Awe in search of remnants of Stronmilchan, ancestral lodgings of our early chiefs. Keith and Peter, assisted by a local gentleman familiar with the terrain, led a small group high up into the heather, bracken and peat. We fanned out over the hillside to look for the outline of the chief’s longhouse, long ago cannibalized by Campbells in an effort to expunge any trace of the Gregorach once the land had been wrested from their rightful ownership. After much scouting and speculating, we believe we found discernable traces of a structure equal to the recorded dimensions of Stronmilchan. Once again, to stand on the ground of our ancestors and to look out across the loch and sweep of Cruachan (and the mountains beyond, where once we roamed strong and free, was a very powerful experience. On our way home we were treated to a full course roast beef dinner at the charming Bridge of Lochay Hotel in Killin. This was a fitting conclusion to a day full of emotion, discovery, passion and reflection.
Thursday was a day of free time for all. Several of us chose to head out to Inch Caillach, island site of a historic kirk and burial ground of MacGregor on Loch Lomand. After a lovely drive through Buchanan territory, we hired a small boat to take us across the bay to the landing on the island proper. A lovely walk through the ancient oak forest eventually led us to the kirk and cemetery. Here is a silent and timeless collection of headstones and monuments, as well as foundation ruins of a thousand years old kirk predating Christian influence. Many Gregor remains are resting here, as this was a traditional burial site in use for centuries. Perhaps, most notably, we have record of the 1693 internment of Gregor, chief of the clan, in what was to be one of the last observances of the ancient Celtic burial traditions. The island has a pensive and mystic feel and is literally steeped in the history and customs of an old civilization. On the way home, we stopped at the Rob Roy Inn where we shared ale, bread and tales with the locals of Bucclyvie. Back in Stirling, the evening was rounded out in grand style with our own bard, Paraig Macneil, giving us over an hour of spell binding clan tales and songs. We are fortunate indeed to have the living link with the past that Paraig presents so vividly.
Friday morning took everyone on a tour of magnificent Stirling Castle. Commanding an impressive panoramic view of the surrounding valley and town of Stirling, the castle sits high atop a prominent outcrop formation and gives the impression of being carved out of the very rock itself. The castle structure was at the height of it’s prominence and finish under the reign of King James V, replete with a great hall and many other features built to rival any of Europe’s great castles of the times in opulence and grandeur. Because of the strategic and central location of Stirling as a gateway to the heart of Scotland, over the years many famous battles have been fought here where Scotland’s freedom and independence were often at stake. Here we find important battle sites within a short distance of the castle like Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn to name a few. Nearby is the impressive monument to William Wallace, commemorating one of Scotland’s important freedom fighters. Leaving the Castle, we walked down the narrow old streets past the Duke of Argyle’s house and through St Andrews cathedral, where the infant son of Mary, Queen of Scots, James VI, was crowned King. We then moved on to the Smith Gallery where we were treated to a wonderful lunch, and welcomed to the City by the Provost and Council, followed by a private tour of the comprehensive collection of artifacts and art housed in the Gallery. Later that evening, we put on our best tartans and celebrated a traditional Robbie Burns Dinner, complete with the Ode to the Haggis, Tam o’ Shanter and many of the very best of Scotland’s Bard’s poems for the common man taking us long into the evening.
Saturday morning came early for the revelers from Burn’s night. In true Gregor fashion, we loaded up promptly with enthusiasm and purpose and headed out for our last day of extensive tours through clan lands too numerous to mention. Peter, Keith, Jimmie all took turns doing a wonderful job of retelling many of the familiar stories such as the hership of Kippen and others on our way to Balquidder. In this long sleepy glen steeped in Gregor history, lie the old Kirk and the graves of Rob Roy, Mary and several sons. Across the road are Coll’s farm and the field where Rob fought his final duel in a show down with the MacLarens. From there we moved on to Lochearned and into Killin, were we visited the dark and brooding ruins of Finlarig castle. Three hundred years later, one still feels a perceptible weight and foreboding sense of the terrible things that happened there under the rule of Grey Colin and Black Duncan. The castle and chapel behind are now in advanced decline and are being overtaken by time and the forest, leaving one feeling quite unsettled and happy to move on. And this we did, back to Stirling for our final banquet at the dining hall on campus.
The banquet was an evening to remember! Imagine the impressive beauty of all major MacGregor tartans, worn by almost 100 men and woman in seemingly unlimited variations, filling a festive room full of your clansmen from all over the world! Wearing black ties, lace, rustling skirts and kilts, we feasted, toasted and danced long into the evening. Joined by our Chief and Lady MacGregor, we set about celebrating our week together and what we had learned of our history and each other. Many will not soon forget the bonds we shared and feted.
On our final morning together, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and then moved into the lecture hall for the Annual General Meeting. This is reported in detail elsewhere, but I will note there was a widespread feeling of optimism and hope for the future of the Clan Gregor Society. Sir Malcolm made is clear he has a vision for the future and keen interest in keeping our traditions alive. Many affirmed this desire. The business before the meeting was well handled by council and I felt a strong sense of unity.
For our final time all together, we headed up to Loch Katrine to enjoy a beautiful, sunny, albeit windy afternoon cruise of MacGregor sites from the deck of the Lady of the Lake. We took in important sites such as Stronachlacher, Factor’s Island, where Rob Roy hid Graeme of Killearn while seeking restitution from the Duke of Montrose, Portnellan, location of a number of important gravesites preserved from the rising shoreline of the loch when it was dammed in later years. The highlight was a close up of Glengyle. A smaller boat went before us to plumb the draught and allow our cruise ship to move all the way up loch’s end into 6 feet of water in front of the old chieftain’s home and site of Rob’s birth. From there we chugged back down to the pier at the head of Loch Katrine where we enjoyed a final meal of BBQ together before returning back to the dormitory.
The bus ride home was purposely reflective as we began the difficult work of saying good bye and many partings. Back at the university, processing multiple farewells and Godspeed, was not easy as we knew it might be years until we met again. The time spent together and the bond of common roots and history, have forged life long friendships and a sense of belonging. We share a dramatic, colorful and at times tragic past. We have come through this and emerged successfully on the other side. Together, we share a bright and international future keeping the promise of this flame and the blood of the sons of Gregor alive.
Will ye no come back again?
Post Script: No account of this Gathering would be complete without mentioning the incredible work and efforts of the many who put this wonderful week together. Special thanks go out to Ishbel MacGregor for all her work as the primary coordinator. To Peter Lawrie, Richard, Keith, Guy, and Lewis MacGregor for the daily activities and brilliant history lessons, often long into the night. And to Jimmie, Angela, and Caroline for the supporting roles played throughout the week. You have all helped to make our time together very special indeed. Thank you for all that you have done, please know it is greatly appreciated by many!
Wayne MacGregor Parker