Scottish Clan Origin Stories and the Ironic Beginnings of Good Leaders

There’s something you should know about me. I love Celtic things. And while I love all Celtic cultures, I have a Ron Swanson-esque sentimentality for Scottish culture.

If there is a Highland Games happening in Georgia this summer, I’ll likely be going. That’s actually what led me to the prompt for tonight’s post. I was browsing around for some highland games to attend, and I recalled that I have some Scottish blood – which may account for my strange desire to watch people throwing telephone poles around for sport.

My paternal clan, Clan Hay, is apparently pretty huge internationally. They have their own website. And, if its to be believed, the clan’s noble house has an interesting origin story (thanks Wikipedia):

“The traditional origin of the noble house of Hay is thus related:—In the reign of Kenneth III, anno 980, the Danes, who had invaded Scotland, having prevailed, at the battle of Luncarty, near Perth, were pursuing the flying Scots, from the field, when a countryman and his two sons appeared in a narrow pass, through which the vanquished were hurrying, and impeded for a moment their flight. “What,” said the rustic, “had you rather be slaughtered by your merciless foes, than die honorably in the field; come, rally, rally!” and he headed the fugitives, brandishing his ploughshare, and crying out, that help was at hand: the Danes, believing that a fresh army was falling upon them, fled in confusion, and the Scots thus recovered the laurel which they had lost, and freed their country from servitude.

The battle being won, the old man, afterwards known by the name of Hay, was brought to the king, who, assembling a parliament at Scone, gave to the said Hay and his sons, as a just reward for their valour, so much land on the river Tay, in the district of Gowrie, as a falcon from a man’s hand flew over till it settled; which being six miles in length, was afterwards called Errol; and the king being desirous to elevate Hay and his sons from their humble rank in life, to the order of nobility, his majesty assigned them a coat of arms, which was argent, three escutcheons, gules, to intimate that the father and two sons had been the three fortunate shields of Scotland.”

That’s right. The original Hay was a farmer. He fought off a bunch of Danes with a freaking ploughshare.

Of course, this story is a tall tale far from truth. But it set me to thinking. There is a true principle here: that leadership can come from the strangest and most ironic of origins. The formula for leadership has nothing to do with where you come from or what your name is or what your parents did. Yet if one individual has enough fortitude to do the right thing, it’s enough to create a legacy of leadership – a clan – that can last for more than a thousand years afterward.

This reminded me of another line from The Wheel of Time book series. Perrin Aybara is one of the series’s heroes – a blacksmith plucked from obscurity into the role of unwilling leader for his rural community of the Two Rivers. He becomes “Lord Perrin” after saving the Two Rivers from evil hordes of invaders, but he feels more than ambivalent about it, as he shows in one conversation with his hereditarily noble father-in-law:

“The fact of it is, I am not really a lord. I’m a blacksmith. You see, when the Trollocs came…” He trailed off because Bashere was laughing so hard the man had to wipe his eyes.

“Boy, the Creator never made the Houses. Some forget it, but go far enough back in any House, and you’ll find a commoner who showed uncommon courage or kept his head and took charge when everybody else was running around like plucked geese. Mind you, another thing some like to forget is the road down can be just as sudden.”

The fictional Aybara, like the Hays of legend, doesn’t have a drop of noble blood. Leadership is not in his veins. But he does have simple courage and a simple devotion to doing the right thing. They are what led him to save his community in the first place, while everyone around was hiding or compromising or fleeing. This is what leaders do. Born or bred nobility has nothing to do with it. But simple leadership has everything to do with earning you the reputation of being noble.

Speaking of actual nobles in history, I doubt that Bashere’s theory of origins is true. Most noble houses originated with some bloody robber barons who were really good at killing people – including Clan Hay, more likely than not. If the heads of noble houses of a country were ever “leaders,” they were simply glorified gang leaders who led invasions and led the occupying aggressors who eventually colonized a land and its people. Nothing to admire there. (To gloss over this fact is the danger of romanticizing your heritage).

But there are real leaders – whether in art or business or family life – who don’t use swords or guns to destroy. Yes, the good leaders we look to in the past were nothing special. They are just able to keep their heads and act virtuously. They are exactly who you wouldn’t expect to be leaders. Jesus was a Jewish construction worker. Frederick Douglass was an actual slave. Andrew Carnegie was a child laborer. We remember them all much more for their leadership than we remember the noble families of Europe.

The common-ness of leadership means something important. It means that the option of leadership is constantly open to us, in every situation. When we choose to respond to fearful circumstances with courage, responsibility, and rationality, we are exercising the same kind of leadership which inspires people and turns the tide against overwhelming odds. Rudyard Kipling put it well:

If you can keep your head when all about you

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Imagine if we all did that – keeping our heads, running our distances, taking responsibility. Maybe we could all be leaders. Maybe then we wouldn’t need the idea of “leaders” at all. We could certainly be rid of the politicians and nobles and all other false leaders. Until such time, there’s no reason for you not to take the lead for your own sake and for the sake of the people around you.