THAT'S THE McCOY!
Albert H. Morehead
Generations of school children have read about Robert the Bruce, the Scottish king who was inspired by the persistence of a spider, and every now and then one of them is bound to ask, "Why was he called Robert the Bruce? What did the the mean?"
When Robert the Bruce lived, hundreds of years ago, Scotland and Ireland used the clan system. Each clan was virtually an independent nation it was also a single family. There might be a community of 10,000 souls, all named MacPherson, or all named O'Donnell.
Among clanmates there would be the usual variety of Christian names, of course — James MacPherson and Andrew MacPherson and Mary MacPherson and so on. But the head of the clan had no Christian name. He bore the family name, nothing else.
Take the head of the MacDonald clan. His name was MacDonald. His wife called him MacDonald, his children called him MacDonald, his servants called him MacDonald. And he was referred to as "The MacDonald."
In the clan system, "The" was the highest possible title. One English historian wrote, in a tone of outrage, "The O'Conor considers his 'the' a prouder title than the King of England's." The English, who were then at war with both Scotland and Ireland, called their enemies "the O's and the Macs." Mac means “son of,” O' means "grandson of.”
For some hundreds of years, it wasn't only the English who were at war with the Scots and the Irish. The clans fought lust as bitterly among themselves. In fact, when a Lowland Scotsman spoke of a "savage" he was referring to the Highland Scotsman, no one else; it wasn't until the l800's that he began to apply the term to American Indians and South Sea Island cannibals. James Boswell, the celebrated biographer of Dr. Johnson and now a more celebrated diarist, who lived in lowland Scotland on the estate called Auchinleck (pronounced Affleck), wrote about "the savage in his mountain fastness, soothed by the strains of the bagpipe." That "savage" he spoke of might have been the Duke of Something.
Caste-conscious Britain has a prescribed form of address for almost every rank; a duke is His Grace, an earl is His Lordship, and so on. But the proper way to address a "The" has almost been lost in antiquity. An American, visiting London, wanted to write to the head of the Maclnnes clan, being slightly acquainted with that personage. He knew the official name was "The Maclnnes," but how to address the envelope? None of the social arbiters knew, but a librarian at Oxford finally discovered that it should be "The Right Honourable The Macinnes."
The biggest of the clans, the Campbells, never used "The" as a title. The head of the clan was not "The Campbell"; he was called Mac Callum More, which means “son of Colin the Great" and is pronounced McCollimore. His wife called him McCollimore, his children called him McCollimore, his servants called him McCollimore, everybody called him McCollimore.
Until a man became the head of the clan he could have given names, but since he was always named for his ancestors they tended to be a bit monotonous. One of the MacDonalds was named Donald MacDonald MacDonald Donald MacDonald. When he became chieftain, of course, he dropped the first four names.
The clan chieftains had their "feudal" titles, too. The Campbells were Earls of Argyll, the O'Conors were Kings of Connaught, and Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland. But he was still the head of the Bruce family, and as such his title was "The Bruce." It was his proudest title.