Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 25.07.19

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Iain at work on the family farm near Tain, Ross-shire. Photograph: Peter Jolly
Iain at work on the family farm near Tain, Ross-shire. Photograph: Peter Jolly

Argyll has a long tradition and history of Highland games and clan gatherings which people attend at this time of the year to hear the bagpipes and to watch kilted supermen throw things up and down fields under the eye of eagle-feathered and bonneted clan chiefs.

Clan gatherings are relics of a bygone era. Some see them today as no more than colourful marketing clichés, reeking of whisky, mothballs and damp tartan, while others liken them to the Resurrection as they meet people there they thought had died long ago.

Chiefs came about when family groups gathered to work the land and live on the food they grew. One among them would emerge as leader to whom they would give their allegiance in return for his protection.

The word ‘clan’ means children. But in Scotland young people show little interest and don’t seem to have much time for them now. Most clans have chiefs where sons follow fathers but, where there are no children, the line often jumps to distant cousins.

Trying to find a legitimate heir is seldom easy and generally a slow process. To be a chief, you must have a deep interest in Highland history and a belief in tradition, but this has to be tempered with an acceptance that the clan system is not as it was at the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A chief needs the skill of a tightrope walker. You can fall off by taking yourself too seriously, imagining that the position is what it used to be. Or, you can fall by saying that it is all tartan buffoonery and throwing away what matters to a surprising number of people.

The MacGillivrays are a clan that has been without a chief for 77 years but is making all the right moves to find one – and a young hopeful at that.

The MacGillivrays followed the MacDonalds, Lord of the Isles in the 14th century, and were rewarded with land in Mull and Morvern. After the lordship collapsed in 1493, they escaped into Lochaber where they were forced to accept Clan Chattan and the Mackintoshes as their overlords and eventually settled in Strathnairn near Inverness. Their last chief, John Farquhar MacGillivray, who lived in Toronto, died in 1942.

In 2015, a group led by the Clan MacGillivray International Association began a process to appoint a commander, which is the first step on a long road to the possibility of becoming full chief. The regulations set out by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, who controls such matters, are strict and a family convention was required.

Nominations were called for and a historic vote took place on April 15, 2016, at Culloden. There were four candidates and members of active clan societies in Australia, Scotland, USA, Canada and the Netherlands were able to cast their votes, along with leading members in the UK.

The only Scottish candidate, Iain Donald MacGillivray, who was born in Inverness in 1987, won the vote and was subsequently recommended to the Lord Lyon, who appointed him as commander making him one of the youngest to hold the title in modern times.

At the presentation of his Commission by the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh on January 16, 2016, Iain pledged to be an enthusiastic ambassador for the Clan and said: ‘I am very proud of my Clan MacGillivray roots and their worldwide associations and will endeavour to foster and grow them.’

When Iain was nominated at the family convention, he said he hadn’t expected his appointment to cause such a stir. But in the past three years the kilted Highlander has been invited to clan gatherings across the globe, visited the tomb of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican city state, and was asked to appear on Big Brother and Outlander – the highly popular drama television series, by author Diana Gabaldon. He also had a BBC Alba film crew shadow him for months which resulted in an hour-long film.

Iain, now 32, said: ‘I didn’t expect to be chosen but I think the fact I had youth on my side helped tick a few boxes in my favour.’

Over the past year and a half, he has been on a mission to do all he can to promote Clan MacGillivray, which has more than 500 association members. He has attended Clan gatherings in Melbourne, the Netherlands, Thunder Bay in Ontario and Ohio, with a visit to Nova Scotia planned in October. On top of all that, he is playing a part in the organisation of the clan gathering to take place next year in Inverness where it is hoped those attending will be able to pay a visit to the family farm.

There is no job description for a clan commander other than he or she should live fairly locally to the clan lands so that they can be on hand if there are members of the clan visiting the area and need information on what is of interest locally. A commander has to be well-versed in the clan’s history, knowledgeable of the places and buildings associated with it and have the time, energy and enthusiasm to attend Highland games and other public events. They have to speak up for the clan and be articulate, amiable, amicable and approachable but also capable of providing strong leadership and guidance.

Iain MacGillivray, who already displays leadership and has exceptional people skills, is well suited for the job which he will hold until 2021, when he can apply to the Lord Lyon to become chief. He was raised on the family farm of Calrossie near Tain, famous in agricultural circles for its sheep and shorthorn cattle, which is where he still lives and works.

Iain’s grandfather, Donald MacGillivray, won the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal for piping at the Northern Meeting in 1948. He was a prolific prize-winner during the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in piobaireachd. His son, Duncan, Iain’s father, emulated his father’s competitive success by winning the Northern Meeting Gold Medal in 1997. Duncan, who is Piper to the Clan, was a member of the renowned Battlefield Band and one of the first pipers to put bagpipes into traditional Scottish music. With that background, it is hardly surprising Iain’s standard of playing is high.

Gaelic, too, is important to Iain. He immersed himself in it through Gaelic-medium education in Craighill Primary School and Tain Royal Academy. He continued to study it and Scottish music at Lews Castle College, Benbecula, and Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye, where he developed a passion for the language and its revival. He studied in the United States at the College of St Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, graduating with a BA in International Studies, Business Management and Spanish.

Not since before 1609, when heads of clans were forced by the government to send their sons to be educated in English-speaking Protestant schools outside the Highlands, can a candidate for chief be as well prepared as Iain MacGillivray to represent the heritage and culture of his clansfolk on the world stage.

Iain Thornber