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How My Ancient Scottish Ancestors Shaped Nature Quest and Spiritual Retreats to Scotland

Date: 03 Feb 2019


  I come here to the Orkney Archipelago every year in May, to lead a Spiritual Nature Quest. During the eight days that participants spend in Orkney, we visit ancient sites, view majestic vistas, and participate in a nature based spiritual immersion program. Participants connect deeply to the land, the ancestors, the animals and trees. We hike to remote and beautiful places to view wildlife like puffins, harbor porpoise, and seals known locally as selkies. Orkney is a place of contrasts alternating between, past and present, bucolic beauty and stormy weather, and intimacy and grandness. It is a place where one can enter into realms beyond the veil of our day-to-day world. The land bestows upon residents and visitor’s the clarity that can sometimes be found in sacred places around the world.  Perhaps this is why so many great poets and writers came from here. On my first trip to Orkney, I saw visions of people, beings and happenings from another time. My consciousness was further filled with beautiful geometric images that seemed to download from thin air. These visions reinforced the fact that the underlying structure of the Universe has a perfection of symmetry that infuses all things.

 

          Scotland was my mother's home, and in many ways it is home to me as well. The Quests that I lead to Ancient Orkney, Scotland reflect not just a personal interest but a tradition of familial and ancestral connection to the soil of Scotland. While I was always aware of our family's MacGregor roots, and our mother taught all her children Scottish Sword dancing and instilled a Scottish sensibility in us, I was not aware of our clan's ancient past until after my mother had passed away in 1982. Yet, in an interesting moment of synchronicity, I was to learn of our relation to the indigenous people of Scotland.

 

        Many years ago, my sister Anne and I were traveling throughout Scotland together.   It was a journey that was to bring us closer to each other and, unwittingly, to our ancestors. When we arrived in Orkney by ferry from the Scottish mainland we found ourselves in the midst of the Annual Science Festival. Scientists from over a dozen countries were converging in Orkney to discuss their findings and feature their areas of expertise. We decided to town later that evening to catch one of the many presentations being offered. As we walked downtown after dinner, we stepped into a narrow alleyway with a smooth cobblestone path across from Saint Magnus Cathedral.

           Each stone seemed to hold the memory of the millions of footsteps that passed this way. When we came to the end of the alley, we saw a small group of people waiting eagerly outside a church. Curious, we asked them what they were waiting for and they cheerily said they were going to see a talk by a DNA expert.   The group’s enthusiasm was contagious, so we decided to join them. The church’s thick double wooden doors then swung open and we entered and climbed-up the narrow staircase in the midst of the tight cluster of about 15 people. When we reached the second story, we entered a large room filled with hundreds of seated guests.  Somehow we managed to find the last two empty seats in the Great Hall just in time for the presentation.

        As we took our seats, the presentation was just beginning and the speaker introduced himself as Jim Wilson, Professor of Human Genetics in the Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics at the University of Edinburgh.   He explained that he would be discussing the results of his many years of studying the DNA  lineage of people from Britain.   He began his talk by explaining how the study was conducted and also explaining specific linags that he had been tracking. Astonishingly, midway in his presentation, a slide appeared with the bolded title “MacGregor”. My sister and I looked at each other with amazement. He was about to embark on describing an in-depth genealogical study of the MacGregor clan. Not only was he studying our clan, but the synchronicity of the two of us being together in Orkney AND just happening to unexpectedly walk in on this presentation was remarkable. We were all ears.

           

         The MacGregors are one of the most maligned people in history. In 1604, James the VI (Yes - the same James that vigorously hunted and killed "witches") passed an Act of Council that outlawed the entire clan. According to the Act; “The name MacGregor should be altogether abolished, and that all persons of that Clan should renounce their name and take same some other name, and that they nor none of their posterity should call themselves Gregory or McGregor thereafter under the pain of death.” This meant that MacGregors couldn't travel more than two at a time and were not allowed to bear arms or even carving knives. Many MacGregor men were executed unfairly.

      The popular Celtic song "You Take the High Road" is a lament by its author, a MacGregor held in prison in London and later executed. In some places, MacGregor women were stripped bare, branded, and whipped through the streets. MacGregors were denied food, water, and shelter, which caused them to have to commit, acts of thievery to survive. The proscription against the MacGregors was not permanently lifted until 1784. The laws against them were not just patently unfair, they were downright cruel.   So how did one people, one Clan come to be outlawed for almost 200 years?

        Growing up I was mystified at the terrible treatment that the Clan endured.   Like most Clans, the MacGregors have a Clan motto and the MacGregor motto is "'S Rioghal Mo Dhream" which means  "Royal is my Race". The Clan’s history was yet under a cloud of contradictions. It was claimed by some that the Clans descent from Kings was pure mythology in spite of literary references to this fact.  
“All men admit the clan Gregor to be the purest branch of the ancient race of Scotland now in existence. - true descendants, in short, of the native stock of the country, and unmixed by blood with immigrants either of their own or of any other race. About this point there is no dispute; and the name of Clan Alpine, commonly adopted by them for centuries, would almost alone suffice to prove their descent from the Albiones, the first known inhabitants of Scotland.” * (Smilbert, Thomas, from his book “Clans of the Highlands of Scotland", 1850"          

       Then as my sister Anne and I sat in the church auditorium in Orkney, Jim Wilson proceeded to interpret the thousands of DNA samples that he had obtained from men with the last name MacGregor.  He found that MacGregor DNA had a very special DNA marker, which indicated the existence of a chromosome that distinguished them from many modern-day Scots. The newly discovered chromosome is known as belonging specifically to those of ancient Pictish lineage and are related to the Dalraidic Kings of old.

The discovery of this Y-chromosomal marker thus supports Clan MacGregor’s use of their Royal motto. MacGregor's are descendants of King Kenneth MacAlpin the very first King of a United Scotland then known as Alba. King MacAlpin joined the Picts and the Gaels (known as Scots) (from Ireland and the western isles) into residents of one country.    The Picts had a largely matrilineal culture, and since Kenneth’s mother was Pictish, he came to his kingship via matrilineal succession.

          Kenneth took his throne as both “King of the Picts” and “King of the Gaels” via ancient traditional methods by sitting upon the Stone of Scone outside on the land in ancient Pictish territory. This Stone also referred to as the "Stone of Destiny", is made of Sandstone with a hollowed out surface for a chair. It was on this Stone that all new Kings were coronation to seal the relationship between the King & the Land that he was to rule. Kenneth's uniting of Alba (later Scotland) was the beginning of the fusion of two people’s who already shared many similar customs and beliefs. 

Yet, it was not just the Romans and the Vikings that gave the Picts and the Scots a hard time. In 1066, the Normans invaded England and Scotland.   This invasion was led by Duke William II of Normandy, later referred to as William the Conqueror, with Norman, Breton and French soldiers. Under this invasion, lands formerly held by Pictish and Gaelic families and Clans were seized and deeded to Breton and Norman soldiers and nobility. Over 200 years later, in 1292, King Edward of England also began to get a hold on the country. Under King Edward s command over 1800 Scottish nobles were required to pay formal homage to him or die. Norman and Anglo Saxon Kings seized the Scottish throne, often betraying or killing other potential claimants to the throne with ancient roots to the land. The new rulers or  “usurpers” as some might all them, especially distrusted the highland clans especially those clans that might have a claim to the Scottish throne by way of ancestral lineage, like Clan Gregor.

They took away lands held by MacGregor’s and gave it to Clans like the Campbell’s and Stewarts that helped the new Norman and Anglo Saxon Kings dominate Scotland. Once MacGregor land was taken away and given over to a clan loyal to the Norman or English King. The new landowners would sometimes burn the MacGregor dwellings and force them off the land, keeping the more stately castles and buildings for themselves.   

      Over time, the more ancient clans with a lineage going back to the royal line of the first Kings of Pictland and later Scotland; like the MacGregors, Grant, Macaulay, Mackinnon, Macnab, Macfie, and MacQuarrie, lost the majority of their independence and their land to the Normans and to the Anglo Saxons.Over time, the more ancient clans with a lineage going back to the royal line of the first Kings of Pictland and later Scotland; like the MacGregors, Grant, Macaulay, Mackinnon, Macnab, Macfie, and MacQuarrie, lost the majority of their independence and their land to the Normans and to the Anglo Saxons.

    By the late 1500s, MacGregor Clan, that had lived in some of the most beautiful places in Scotland for generations such as: Loch Awe, Glen Orchy, Glen Strae, Glenlyon, Strathfillan, Balquhidder, Breadlebane, and lands near the Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond areas stretching all the way to the sea scarcely owned a single piece of land. Even MacGregor tenants living on land owned by a Lord or “Laird” were not safe. Since landlord’s were answerable for the misdemeanors of their tenants, MacGregors would often be asked or forced to leave. (Pg 25 Historical Notices of the Clan Gregor from Authentic Sources, collected and arranged by D. Gregory 1831.) 83 After being pushed to the brink of ruin, MacGregor's eked out a living by hunting game on land owned by others, and cattle thieving. In those days, one's wealth was in land and cattle and without land one either had to become a tenant on someone else’s property or poach wildlife and cattle to survive.   

              Yet, not all MacGregors buckled under or were killed. Some even became heroes. Rob Roy MacGregor was born in 1671 to a senior member of the MacGregor Clan.   He lived out his life during the terrible proscription against the MacGregors, and his own father was subjected to the ghastly punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Rob was well educated, fluent in two languages Gaelic and English, an excellent swordsman, and had an excellent sense of humor as shown by his letters and writings about his turbulent relationship with the Duke of Montrose. Montrose was related to a Breton Knight and mercenary, whose lineage (later known as Stewart) seized the Scottish throne from the indigenous line of Kings.

            Rob Roy later became romantically likened to a Robin Hood type character that managed to outfox cruel Lairds and unfair laws. He did this through his charm and intelligence and by escaping and or hiding from the clutches of the authorities. For example, Rob Roy’s house was between two streams at the head of Glenshira just nine miles from Inveraray. These streams that came down from hillsides were covered by ferns and large boulders and surrounded by Alder, rowan, hazel, oak, ash, and birch trees. When the authorities came hunting for Rob, he would often hide in the many crevasses and small caves along the stream. Some of these appeared too small to hold a man of Rob's size at the entrance but expanded into larger spaces after the openings. These naturally occurring hiding places preserved Rob Roy's life on many occasions.

      Rob Roy was not the only one who depended upon natural hiding places and misty weather. Some MacGregors managed to live by moving further up into the wilderness areas of the Highlands and becoming astute at slipping away from the sight of man. They became known as  “The Children of the Mists “.  "Children of the Mists" is a reference to their ability to synchronize their movements with local weather patterns, disappearing into the Scottish mist, which often covered the mountains and lowland areas. Ironically, the proscription against them ended up creating a Clan that was known for its independence, stealth, intelligence, strength, love of nature and above all loyalty. Perhaps, those ancient ones, and more recently the Children of the Mists had a hand in shaping my destiny to be a lover of wild places.

      The proscription against the MacGregors not only had the effect of uniting the Clan more strongly to their name and heritage, but it also dissuaded non-family members from using it. Perhaps most astonishing of all, after not being able to use their name or own property and purposefully discriminated against and killed, MacGregors are still around today. It’s not just the MacGregor’s that have seemingly miraculously survived but the Picts themselves. While the Picts may be considered an extinguished race, they are still here living through their descendants and through the beliefs and practices that were passed down through the generations. When the Picts and Gaels united under a common country of Alba, later Scotland, they united as a people, intermarried and adopted each other’s customs and ways. Thus Pictish influence includes and goes beyond genetic lineage, in influencing today’s’ Celtic culture.

           According to Historian Stuart McHardy,  
“The Picts of the ancient world did not disappear nor were they conquered and destroyed; they remained, the indigenous people of northern Scotland, and their ancestors still walk their lands and fields in the present day.  Of course, it is assumed today as well by historians and archeologists that the Clan system still in use in Scotland and many of the cultural, artistic and philosophical leanings of Scotland’s people is a reflection of the ways of the ancient Picts that shaped this land, and who were in turn shaped by her.”

Today when I ponder my ancestors, I am proud to have inherited their independent-mindedness & their knowledge, and love of the land. MacGregor’s survived in spite of incredible hardships. Their singular story is a reflection of the indomitable human spirit to survive and thrive in spite of adversity.

 

After spending a few days in Orkney, my sister and I traveled to _ and the location of the grave site of Rob Roy MacGregor.  In spite...

 

 

There is scarcely a lineage of people on Earth who have not, at some point, been treated unjustly in some way. History is filled with stories of war and conquest.  Today, we all face a new challenge, one that will require all of us, the entire human race, to Unite. The growing peril of the planet alert’s us to the fact that the human family is one family. Just as DNA has proven that everyone on Earth is related to everyone else.  There is simply no  “pure” race of humans on the planet.  

For example,  10,000 years ago, every human being who was alive then, is the shared ancestor of everyone today. In other words, if you go back 500 generations, all of us have a common ancestor.   If you go back just 200-300 generations, or 5,000 years when the ancient Pictish people were still using the Ness of Brodgar, and living in their Brochs, a family reunion, would require that almost everyone on Earth be invited as Kin. This may give one pause when considering the scope of one's relations.   The fact that we are all related genetically proves our undying link to each other. To me, this scope of relations is further widened beyond even our singular human species to all life on Earth. Our animal and plant brothers, sisters need us to stand up and save the world for them, for us and for all life.

       The Earth, the trees, the animals are all our relations.   Our descendants include all life forms on the planet.   Whether we choose to be motivated by greed and expediency or a devotion to valuing and protecting life, our choice resonates around the globe to impact all beings now and into the future.

 

 

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