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The Tucson, Arizona, Celtic Festival and Discovering a Family Connection

Chuck enjoys traveling, and over the years, has had the opportunity to visit many fascinating places in the U.S. and the world.

My wife at the entrance to the 2021 Tucson Celtic Festival.

My wife at the entrance to the 2021 Tucson Celtic Festival.

Tucson's Annual Celtic Festival Resumes

On a Saturday this past autumn, after a couple of years of delay due to COVID, the 35th Annual Tucson Celtic Festival and Highland Games were held once again. With the weather turning colder, the snowbirds (i.e., retirees who migrate south each fall) and tourists began arriving yet again for Tucson’s winter tourist season and associated outdoor festivals and events.

As with the previous Celtic festivals, the focus was predominantly on Scotland, its clans, and history. Except for most of England, the rest of the British Isles are populated mainly by descendants of the ancient Celts whose Celtic culture remains strong. Americans of Scots descent appear to be the major force behind the festival. This year there was only one booth representing a Welsh-American organization, the rest of the festival was focused on Scots. In previous years some Irish-American organizations were represented at the festival.

My wife and I have been to the festival three or four times in the past, but it has probably been about five years since we last attended. This year there was a big turnout of both presenters and vendors as well as visitors. Many major clans had tents where they proudly displayed and talked about their history along with lists of lesser associated clans (referred to as septs) and other family names associated with the clan. Clans are basically large tribes headed by a chief with smaller clans also led by chiefs. At some time in the past, the smaller clan or sept had been allied with the larger clan.

Men, women, and children's formal attire is sold at the event.

Men, women, and children's formal attire is sold at the event.

Finding Your Clan Today

"Clan" comes from a Gaelic (the Celtic language) word describing a close-knit group of relatives. Clans were originally tribes made up of families living in the same area. Clans had names and in time the name became the last name of the members of the tribe. As clans grew in size, they were often joined by other smaller tribes or clans that were brought into the fold through an alliance or conquest. The leader was the High Chief, a position which, along with the clan’s castle and lands, was usually passed on after death to the high chief’s oldest surviving son.

Like many of their brethren from other parts of the British Isles, numerous Scots left their Scottish homeland in search of better opportunities in other parts of the world, especially in the vast English speaking areas of the globe. However, while their homeland was left behind, they didn’t forget their heritage, a part of which was their clan.

Use Your Surname

A large tent at the entrance to the event had tables with books listing Scottish surnames and the clan the surname was associated with. Of course, people with last names like Stuart, Campbell, and similar famous names didn’t have to look their name up as their clan probably already had a tent displaying the history, arms, tartan (the unique plaid design used on clan member clothing), etc. of that clan. They likely also had information about some of the septs associated with the clan.

Shirt with a freedom quote from a 14th century  Scott declaration

Shirt with a freedom quote from a 14th century Scott declaration

Descendants of the Ancient Celts

Celts were a culture that thrived in much of Europe north of the Alps. After Roman conquests, they were driven out of much of the area and forced to settle in the British Isles.

Later invasions of England by the Romans, and especially by various Germanic tribes following the decline and fall of Rome, resulted in a dilution of the Celtic language and culture in England. However, the Celtic language and culture have survived to a large degree in the Spanish region of Galicia, Cornwall in England, Brittany in France as well as Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Mann, and Wales.

Scot-Irish

Many of the family names in the books listing Scot names and associated clans were Scot-Irish or Ulster Scots, both of which refer to people primarily from the lowlands of Scotland, predominantly Presbyterian Protestants. Some Ulster Scots fled to the north of Ireland (Ulster Province of Ireland) escaping religious persecution and the poverty of lowland Scotland at the time. Others were forcibly moved from Scotland to Ireland by the monarchs of England or Scotland for political, military, or religious reasons.

The English Queen Elizabeth I, who died on March 24, 1603, had never married and had no children to succeed her on the throne. In addition to Elizabeth I being childless, her siblings (Edward VI and Mary I) both of whom preceded Elizabeth on the throne, were also childless. That left her first cousin, King James VI of Scotland next in the line of succession.

Since they were separate independent kingdoms with their own parliaments, laws, and customs, the King of England was also the King of Ireland resulting in three separate kingdoms being ruled by the same person.

Marchers in full Scotts regalia marching with drums and bag pipes.

Marchers in full Scotts regalia marching with drums and bag pipes.

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The First Migrants to Colonial America

Many of the original settlers of what is the present day United States, came from the British Isles. The eighteenth-century mass migration of Protestant Ulster Scots or Scotch-Irish was the largest group of Irish immigrants in that period. However, there were also some Catholic Irish who migrated to Britain’s original 13 North American colonies.

Eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were from Ireland or of Irish descent. Three had migrated to the colonies from Ireland, while the other five were born in one of the original colonies—their parents or grandparents being migrants. Seven of the eight were Scot Irish Protestants from northern Ireland and one was the Catholic son of earlier colonial migrats.

From colonial times to the present, people have migrated from Ireland to the United States and Canada. While many, but not all, were fleeing poverty and/or religious strife and persecution in Ireland, others were simply looking for better opportunities in North America or seeking to rejoin families who had emigrated earlier and had been sending letters back describing their success in their new land.

One of the many food wagons serving both Scott and American food

One of the many food wagons serving both Scott and American food

My Ancestors Came From Both Parts of Ireland

Since all of my mother’s family came from the north of Ireland, I knew those ancestors originated in Scotland. But, by the time they were moved to Ireland, they were probably too poor to be involved with the clan’s military or political activity other than paying their taxes and moving to Ireland when ordered to by their king. My great-grandfather’s ancestors on both his father and mother’s sides came to America during the first great emigration, just before the American Revolution (some of them fought in the Revolution) and the decade or two following it. Her maternal grandparents came over in the last quarter of the 19th century. On my father’s side, his great-grandparents and grandparents were Catholics from Ireland who emigrated to Canada and the U.S. in the last quarter of the 19th century.

While I can only speculate on the motivations of those who came over in the late 18th and early 19th century, those on both sides of my family who came over the the last quarter of the 19th century were lured by letters from relatives who had emigrated to North America a few years earlier whose letters told of a better life in North America. While like many others in that era, they weren't rich but they also were not fleeing poverty or persecution.

My Big Surprise

We were having a good time visiting the different booths, watching the many bagpipe playing groups marching around in full Scottish regalia playing their pipes and drums, visiting tents entertaining visitors with traditional song and dance events and, my wife’s favorite, visiting the tents selling all things Celtic.

Traditional Scottish clothing, especially kilts, is popular. The kilts ranged from relatively inexpensive polyester kilts, probably now manufactured as authentically, to more expensive woolen ones from Scotland. Among the upscale kilts was a formal tuxedo-like kilt outfit for wearing when getting married or other high society formal events and cost over a thousand dollars.

Leaving my wife to continue shopping, I proceeded to explore some other booths. Rounding a corner while heading toward another row of booths I saw a big banner across the top of the booth in my path identifying the booth as Clan Fraser Whisky. This was personal and I had to check it out for two reasons.

My wife with the bottle of Clan Fraser  whisky we purchased

My wife with the bottle of Clan Fraser whisky we purchased

Memories of My Great-Uncle Walt

My great-uncle Walt’s last name was Fraser. He was married to my great aunt Helen who was one of my grandmother’s younger sisters. This made him a relative by marriage. However, he was like a grandfather to my siblings and I since both of our grandfathers had died before we were born. Also, he and our Aunt Helen had never had children, so I guess he looked upon us as the grandchildren he had been unable to have. Like the rest of my mother’s side, he was Scot Irish and very proud of his Irish background. In addition to his pride in his Irish heritage, he was also very proud of his Scot Irish heritage.

There are actually two Clan Frasers, the Scottish Lowland Clan Fraser and the Highland Clan Fraser of Lovat. Since he didn’t know which Fraser Clan he was descended from, two of his neckties were plaid—one the tartan plaid associated with the lowland Clan Fraser and the other with the tartan plaid associated with the Fraser of Lovat clan. While Aunt Helen tended to be more serious and somber, Uncle Walt was an easygoing and relaxed fellow with a great sense of humor. He was also a successful small businessman and great storyteller.

Seeing the Clan Fraser Scotch Booth brought back many fond childhood memories of times with Aunt Helen and Uncle Walt. However, my very first thought upon seeing the booth was how they would have reacted to the idea of their family name on a bottle of Scotch. Both opposed drinking on religious and moral grounds but they were also tolerant.

They always showed up at our frequent family gatherings and never criticized the other adults for drinking. Aunt Helen always felt that the repeal of prohibition in 1933 was a mistake and she continued to register and vote for Prohibition Party candidates throughout her life.

While Uncle Walt was just as opposed to alcohol consumption as Aunt Helen, he had no problem joking about drinking. Aunt Helen took a more rigid view believing that alcohol should be neither mentioned nor consumed.

Both Aunt Helen and Uncle Walt died nearly 40 years ago, long before the Clan Fraser Whiskey, which is a recent product, hit the market. Aunt Helen would have hated having the family associated with any type of alcoholic beverage, while Uncle Walt would have had a good laugh at the idea of a whiskey associated with the family name. Even though he didn’t know which of the two Fraser Clan’s his ancestors were a part of, he probably would have used the fact that there are two Clan Fraser to jokingly point out that the whiskey was named after the other Clan Fraser.

Of course I purchased a bottle of the Clan Fraser whiskey and ended up taking it with me on a trip back east to visit with my siblings and their families. We had a good time sipping the Clan Fraser Whiskey while reminiscing about our great times with Aunt Helen and Uncle Walt.

© 2022 Chuck Nugent

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