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Review of Cairney Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland
Originally Written for Private Email

by Sharon L. Krossa

Last updated 22 Aug 2002

Note that the article below was originally written as a private email in response to a query from a friend; it has not benefited from the same level of research and review as my web articles. Please keep its extemporaneous nature in mind while reading!

This is a review of Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland: An Ethnography of the Gael A.D. 500 - 1750 by C. Thomas Cairney. It is both paper published and available on the web. The short answer is, don't waste any money on this book!

Date: Tue, 19 Mar 2002 10:35:12 -0800
From: "Sharon L. Krossa" ...
Subject: Cairney's Book


I had a look through the book at


Frankly, I don't find him very persuasive.

He is claiming far too organized a system, for one thing, and doesn't seem to recognize or account for the differences between Ireland and Scotland. His bibliography does not reflect the extent of works he would have to have referenced in order for his theory to have enough fact to back it up -- and especially he seems to have consulted no primary evidence. (For some topics all that is needed is secondary sources, but for his theory I just don't think it could all have been found in secondary sources.)

I also spot some elementary mistakes which indicate he doesn't really know what he is talking about. For example, he claims the Picts were matrilineal, yet there isn't really any credible evidence that they were. (The source of the matrilineal Picts myth is an *Irish* story that the Picts agreed to allow matrilineal inheritance of the kingship where there was a problem in exchange for being allowed to marry Irish wives. In other words, the matrilineal idea came from the Irish and was even then only in cases where there was a problem, not as a regular form of inheritance -- even if we accept the Irish story at face value, that isn't the Picts being matrilineal!)

As best I can tell, what Cairney has done is imaginatively organize and systemize a clan structure in a very unhistorical way. Historical reality just doesn't fit such clean hierarchical organization. He is, in effect, just building on the myths of the 19th century Romantics (who first came up with the lists of Scottish 'septs' and the like) and wrapping it all up in a claim to "ethnography". (Which is pretty funny, since he claims to be getting at the historical reality rather than romance... ;-)

One thing I note is that there are no footnotes. He doesn't say specifically where he got any of his information. He has a long bibliography, but without footnotes we can't know if the information he included in his book was from the romantic works in that bibliography or from the sound historical works in that bibliography. (Both should be in the bibliography, mind you -- you need to know what the nonsense is as well as the sound scholarship for such a topic -- it's just that without footnotes we can't tell whether the author knew the difference!)

He also doesn't seem to have encountered any uncertainty in his research -- I have yet to find any section where he discusses uncertainty or gaps in the record that simply do not allow us to know for certain what was going on or who was related to whom. Given the nature of medieval records, especially of extant Gaelic genealogies, I find this level of certain simply impossible to believe. The surviving Gaelic genealogies are contradictory. There are even cases where one family was concurrently using two different and contradictory genealogies (one for Gaelic consumption, one for Lowland consumption). In such a context, no credible scholar presents all his information as certain fact without any discussion of the problems and uncertainties involved.

And, of course, right in the beginning he indicates he hasn't understood his subject. His first line (after the intro) is "This book is about the origins of the Irish and Scottish surnames of millions of Americans and Canadians." indicating that he doesn't really understand the relationship of modern surnames in English with historical Gaelic clans.

On the same page he claims "Though prior to the seventeenth century Ireland and Scotland were in many ways a single cultural unit, scholars since have skirted this issue". This is utter rubbish, and demonstrates that he doesn't even know the basics about pre-17th century Scotland.

Man, I should have started my examination with the first pages rather than diving into the middle -- it would have saved a lot of time! With each paragraph of this first part he just demonstrates the increasing depth of his ignorance.

For example, on page 4: "Thus the society expressed the vitality of an unbroken connection with its most ancient origins until the power of the Gaelic tribes in Ireland and Scotland was broken by the English." Apparently he doesn't know even the basics of Scottish history, nor of post-17th century _British_ history. Indeed, not even of Gaelic history. (Here's a hint -- Gaelic culture wasn't unchanging from pre-historic times ;-)

Reading on, I'm getting the impression that he has just willy-nilly assigned to Scotland various aspects of the history of Ireland. How is this any better than, as he claims has been done, ignoring Gaelic Scotland? (And he doesn't even seem to know where Gaelic Scotland was in the 16th & 17th centuries, as he keeps talking about "northern Scotland"...)

[I'd complain about his unquestioning acceptance of the theory of "feudalism", too, but alas that is something even some respected historians still all too readily accept -- though more and more are abandoning it and getting down to looking at what really happened rather than relying on modern constructs, however convienient ;-) Likewise his frequent use of "Celtic" -- as someone with a linguistics degree he ought to know better...]

Yikes, it just gets worse and worse with each page! Have you checked out what he says about clothing on page 10? What a mix of fact and misunderstanding... (I particularly like the ballet slipper comment ;-) oh, yes, and there is the district sett myth, right on schedule...

Anyway, all in all, I wouldn't trust any claim made in this guy's book -- some of the info about specific late medieval families may be true, but without checking the facts there is no way to judge which bits. On the whole, he has not demonstrated himself as being particularly knowledgeable about historical Irish or especially Scottish Gaelic culture. (Of course, I have a harder time judging the Irish side, since I don't know as much about it, so maybe he's equally ignorant of Irish Gaels ;-)

Sharon L. Krossa, ...

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