Working as I did, for more than 40 years, in various museums involved in research and display I developed an antipathy for certain phrases such as:-
it is widely recognised that
local tradition tells us
it has been conjectured that
besides being a personal bête noir, it has particular relevance in the study of clan history as such phrases are common in 19th and early 20th century accounts and indeed not unknown today.
A major current problem, at least as I see it, is the apparent need of audiences for certainty and the willingness of presenters to offer it. History is not a science and therefore does not lend itself to absolutes. Peoples perception of recent history varies widely and if one can not be sure of something one has lived through how can you hope for certainty about the distant past?
For a large part of my museum career every label and text was hedged about with perhaps, may have been and possibly to emphasise the uncertainty of interpretation. The search for the early MacLachlans will inevitably be influenced by these factors but, I hope, not enough to distort the facts.
The question of the origin of the MacLachlans is bound up with the origin of the Scots and the growth of the Kingdom of Scotland itself. Before the history of the Clan can be discussed it is necessary to look briefly at the earlier history of the whole of the West Coast of Britain and how it has been regarded in the past.
Throughout the 19th century and for a large part of the 20th it was fashionable amongst academics and public alike to consider mass migration and invasion as the main, if not the only, mechanism of cultural change. In Britain of course, this was coloured by its own Imperial History as well as that of Ancient Rome.
Whilst it cannot be denied that there have been examples of large scale movements of peoples this has now been largely discounted for prehistoric and medieval Europe. It is no longer considered reasonable to believe that the Bronze Age, for example, was ushered in by waves of bronze wielding warriors and from DNA and place name evidence it is obvious that the Anglo-Saxons did not either wipe out the indigenous population or drive them all into the far west. Besides which there are far too many cultural similarities to support such theses.
For some reason this re-thinking does not seem to have been applied to the origin of the Scots, which still relies on the hypothesised invasion of Argyll from Ulster some time in the 5th or 6th centuries CE. Scotland is left with a mythical origin much the same as the inhabitants of Britain and Ireland believed during the Middle Ages. Then it was fashionable to link your national origins to classical antecedents much as ancient Rome did to Troy.
In those times it was postulated that Britain was named after Brutus an escaping Trojan and the Irish were convinced that they were descended from the Milesians of Spain and through them back to Noah.
The collapse of the Invasion hypothesis has re-opened the question of the origins of Scotland and Ireland and the old foundation myths. It is quite evident from the archaeological evidence that there were strong links between the lands on both sides of the Irish sea from at least the Neolithic. It is often described as the Irish Sea Province which is a useful expression, but it should not be taken to imply any form of political association. It does however emphasise the importance of the Irish Sea as a highway rather than a barrier. This was first proposed in 1912 by O G S Crawford and expanded by Sir Cyril Fox some 20 years later. They both saw the Irish Sea and its extension as far as the Orkneys as the end (or beginning) of a long-distance route which reached as far as Spain. Recent excavations on the Ness of Brodgar emphasise that this area was at the centre of development not as is often thought a backwater.
It was probably only the growing reliance on wheeled transport that encouraged the idea that water, either fresh or salt, was a hinderance to trade and travel rather than an encouragement. This seems to be a rather strange concept, particularly in a country like Britain whose empire was linked by sea transport rather than road.
In the days when roads were non-existent water was the best way for the long-distance transport of both goods and people. The movement of the Bluestones from Preseli to Stonehenge is an example of what could be accomplished by methods which are usually considered primitive by the denizens of our high-tech world. Our ancestors may not have had modern technology, but they had brains and could solve complex problems without the help of visiting aliens.
What is beyond doubt is that despite similarities between the material remains on both sides of the Irish Sea, their relationship is that of cousins rather than siblings. Contact for trade was probably fairly frequent and intermarriage between families was surely not unknown. Individuals would have moved between areas for longer or shorter periods and sometimes, permanently but this was no more than the kind of interaction which would take place in areas not bounded by such a useful transport route as the sea. Indeed in certain cases it could be easier than on land, witness Druim Alban the barrier between Argyll and Central Scotland which was still a hinderance in the 18th century.
Similar conditions were present during the whole of the pre-historic and early medieval period before the growth of the centralised states of later periods. The question of language is relevant here. One theory was that the Bronze age saw the introduction of Gaelic which was supplanted during the Iron age by a Brythonic language from which Welsh grew. This of course fitted well with the cultural change by invasion hypothesis but in fact there is no evidence for the widespread use of Gaelic in Prehistoric Britain. The two languages probably developed from a common root stock and changed over time, but it is likely that Gaelic and Brythonic were closer in form during much of that time so that speakers of different languages were able to communicate in much the same way as Saxons and Scandinavians could at a later period.
Whilst there is evidence for contact between Argyll and Ireland in the Prehistoric and Early Medieval periods there is no concrete evidence for a major invasion from Ireland. The material cultures, though similar, have local differences which give them strong individual identities.
It is of course quite possible that Irish leaders may have moved to Argyll and married the daughters of leaders there, but it is just as likely that leaders from Argyll moved to Ireland and founded dynasties of their own.
None of this is conclusive either way but it does highlight some of the problems which have to be faced when considering the origins of any Highland Clan given that accurate documentary evidence for genealogies does not appear before the 15th century. The other major factor that must be considered is the influence of the Scandinavians which was particularly important in the west of Scotland. The traditional feeling was that many of the Chiefly families were descended from Gaelic men who married Scandinavian women, but it would seem from DNA evidence that it was often the other way around. The supposed great Gaelic hero Somerled (or Sorley, Somheirle, Sumerlithi depending on your preferences), the founder of the important Clans MacDougal MacDonald turns out, after much sampling, to have been Scandinavian in the male line.
There is to date no DNA evidence for the MacLachlans but given that their original lands were right on the West Coast it would seem very likely that the Chiefs at least had Viking blood to go with their Viking name.
I know that this has been a rather rambling blog as I have tried to cover a long complex period of time with no written history, but I felt that it was a necessary prologue to the study of MacLachlan history.
Crawford O G S 1912 Distribution of Bronze Age Settlements in Britain.
Fox C 1932 The Personality of Britain
Moore D ed.1970 The Irish Sea Province in Archaeology and History
Laing L 1979 Celtic Britain
This article is entirely the responsibility of the author and in no way reflects the views or opinions of the Chief of MacLachlan, his family, members of the Clan or Clan Society.
Comments will be welcome.