The story of the Scots storytellers – the Shennachies

The likes of CSI and Silent Witness playing out on small screens across the country may portray an unashamedly 21st-century take on telling a tale of what has gone before, but it would be wrong to think age-old tradition and custom no longer have a voice in an increasingly digital society.

Historically, a Scottish clan chief would have had a Shennachie, who was essentially the genealogist, historian, storyteller and keeper of the memories, traditions and ceremonies of a clan or family and its Chief.

These days, the recently launched Shennachie Network and the Council of Shennachies aims to offer support for just such a role.

The Network is a way to provide support and ongoing education for anyone interested in the business of a Shennachie, while the Council will include those properly appointed by a Chief as his or her Shennachie, once they have passed certain tests.

As Shennachie to the Chief of Durie, the Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA) and to the Order of Alba, my role isn’t new, but it is one that maintains a connection between past and present.

We perhaps need to step back in time to better illustrate the role. The McMhurichs (Curries) were hereditary Shennachies to the MacDonald Chiefs, especially Clanranald. On the accession of a new Chief, the Shennachie would recite the genealogy and hand over the white wand of Chiefship.

At the coronation of Alexander III on Moot Hill, Scone on 13 July 1249, he was greeted by ‘a man of the Highlands’ – who would have been a Shennachie – who addressed him with the proclamation ‘Beannachd Dè Rìgh Alban’ (God’s Blessing on the King of Scotland) and went on to recite the King’s genealogy.

Simple enough back then, but things are a little more complex these days.

With the internet, online genealogy, DNA tests, increased interest in heraldry, social media and clan gatherings, it would be impossible to have one person look after it all. However, it is a good idea to have a back stop in the shape of someone who understands enough to marshall the various components.

The difference between a Shennachie and a Bard may seem like a fine line. And at times they were the same person – economy of scale, if you like – but they did perform different functions.

Any self-respecting Chief should have a Shennachie, a bard, piper, harpist, bladier, sword-bearer, chaplain and so on.  An especially grand Chief might have had a hereditary physician (Beatons to the Macleans of Dowar and MacBeths on Skye), purse-carrier (MacSporran to the Lords of the Isles), steward, dapifer and the like.

The spelling itself has several variants – seannachaidh, seanchaidh, seannachie, sennachie, senchai – all derived from the Old Irish senchae, meaning a traditional Irish storyteller or historian. It is usually rendered in Scots and English as ‘Shennachie’ or ‘Shenachie’.

If the new initiative is to be taken seriously, become well established and provide a valuable resource for the Scots and the Scottish diaspora communities, it must have some credentials.

Everyone who wishes to join the Council of Shennachies will have to pass three online courses – Family History Research: from the Beginning (Scottish genealogy); Genetic Genealogy: an introduction (DNA); and An Introduction to Heraldry – offered by the University of Strathclyde, or provide evidence of similar attainment.

The university is involved because ten years ago, I set up a professional programme in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies. The tutors who went through the programme are the same people who now teach the online courses.

There is growing interest from a number of Chiefs, while the idea of the Shennachie initiative has the support of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, Rev. Canon Dr. Joseph Morrow, who is the High Shennachie of Scotland, The Society of Scottish Armigers (a US educational body that provides the public with information about the Scottish system of heraldry, its traditions and laws), the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs in the shape of its Convenor, Sir Malcolm MacGregor and the Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA).

There are a number of Shennachies already in existence, appointed as such by a Chief.

And for a Shennachie to be appointed and recognised, there has to be a Chief involved, it’s not enough to say, ‘I have appointed myself Shennachie to the MacSomethings’ or ‘I’m Shennachie to the Clan Association’.

In the case of Clans and Families currently looking for a Chief, or going through the process with the Lyon Office, there is good reason why someone in the group should get the qualification side of things out of the way and simply be a ‘Shennachie-in-waiting’.

That person would then be an invaluable resource for the Clan or Family while working through the Family Convention procedure.

Looking ahead, the formal launch of the network and council will take place in June or July, while a discussion on insignia is underway. However, as this touches on matters Heraldic, the Lord Lyon is considering whether a properly appointed Shennachie should have a special additament to Arms.

However, the big news is that a Shennachie – as a member of the Chief’s household – will be able to petition for Arms in Scotland on that basis alone.

A step forward to understanding more about the Scots’ past.

This feature was originally published in 2016.