I was raised in the Highlands and encouraged to feel proud of being a Maclean and belonging to a great clan. My maternal grandfather and uncle were chiefs, and I grew up in awe of their Mafia don-like reputations as "fathers" of Clan Fraser of Lovat. Leaders of men in war and peace, splendidly unconcerned that the clan system had been abolished some 250 years before, they were among the last of their kind. Or were they?
Curious to know what it means to be the head of a clan today, I visited five chiefs who see themselves more modestly as historical links in a family chain that loops the world. What has survived of clan spirit may be mere sentiment or yearning for identity, but as every chief told me, it is a powerful enough force to make anyone with even the vaguest Scottish connections want to claim affiliation. Of course you don't need Highland blood to appreciate a landscape still resounding with the clash-of-steel echoes of Braveheart, Rob Roy, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the heroes who inspired the romantic (and Hollywood) view of Scotland. All you need is a map and a car.
As you drive through one of the last great wildernesses in Europe, past hilltop castles and desolate battlefields, you see no signposts indicating old clan territories, but Highlanders have long memories. In many places the commonest name in the phone book still corresponds with the heartland of a clan. Argyll, for instance, where I live, is unmistakably Campbell country, not least because the chief of Clan Campbell maintains a high profile at the imposing clan seat of Inveraray Castle. A Maclean usurper in the home of our former enemies, I am myself a chieftain (the head of a cadet branch of a clan), and the hereditary keeper of an uninhabited, wave-swept rock in the Firth of Lorn.
My journey into the clan territories took me through some of the most extraordinary scenery in Britain. Starting from Strachur in Argyll, I made my way up the west coast to Oban and crossed by ferry to the Isle of Mull. Joining the mainland again at Lochaline, I drove on through Morvern and Lochaber and over the Skye Bridge to the Isle of Skye; then up the Great Glen to Inverness and the Moray Firth on the east coast.
Dropping by some of the most inviting chiefly spreads, I discovered that besides being knowledgeable guides to their regions, many of today's chiefs have embraced the hospitality business. Yet those who have held on to their estates remain more than just colorful figureheads. I was struck by how seriously they take their clan duties, responding with genuine warmth to being hailed by stray kin from all over the globe.
Patriarchy is by its very nature enduring, which perhaps best explains why chiefs, clans, and their trappings (eagle feathers, tartans, sporrans) exert such a hold over our imaginations. In the modern age, clanship proves the lasting appeal of that most basic of human ties: the blood bond, which, as the Gaelic saying puts it, "can withstand the rocks."