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A Chat with Alexander Leslie Klieforth and Robert John Munro


Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA

Alexander Leslie KlieforthQ: With so many books out on this topic over the last couple of years, why did you choose to write another one? Why is your book different from the others?

A: Our book is original and revolutionary in that we argue and document that the real roots of liberty and freedom extend many centuries before John Locke and the English Whigs of the 1600s to the radical political thought of the ancient Celts, John Duns Scotus (c.1290s) and the Arbroath Declaration (1320). No other book has presented an integrated account of the ancient Celts, the formation of Scotland, John Duns Scotus, the Scots’ fight for independence, the role of the Scottish people and philosophy in the formation of America and the role of Scottish philosophy in the march of democracy, human progress and human rights in the 20th and 21st centuries.

     Garry Wills’ Inventing America (1978) did locate the recent source of some of the intellectual thought of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in the Scottish Enlightenment of the 1700s. Wills failed to place this historical connection in the larger context of ancient Celtic and medieval Scottish history and to mention the Declaration of Arbroath and the critical role of Scotus. A broader view of history found in Duncan Bruce’s The Mark of the Scots (1996) does relate the Declaration of Independence and the Scottish Enlightenment to the Declaration of Arbroath but not to the ancient Celts, Irish and Scots. Neither work relates the ancient and medieval periods, Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence to the historical development of human rights that followed the creation of the American Republic. Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001) incorrectly located the origin of the doctrine of the “consent of the governed” in George Buchanan. Herman’s error was the result of not grounding his research in ancient Celtic and Scottish history and medieval Scottish history. His erroneous comments about the Declaration of Arbroath, the National Covenant, Scottish religion and Celtic culture originate as well in focusing on the Scottish Enlightenment as if it appeared “presto.” Edward Cowan’s book, ‘For Freedom Alone,’ The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 (2003), made excellent contributions to the specific history of the Arbroath Declaration but erred in failing to mention John Duns Scotus and in finding the origin of Scottish liberty in the Scottish Wars of Independence rather than in ancient Celtic and Scottish history.

Q: How important is John Duns Scotus and his writings to the thesis of your book?

A. Absolutely critical. The great Celtic theologian was the finest mind of the middle ages, far more brilliant than Aquinas, and he was the first person in history to write of the doctrine of “consent of the governed.” This writing was in the late 1290s, quickly became well known in Scotland and Europe and was the intellectual and spiritual foundation of the rebellion of William Wallace (c.1270-1305) and the author of the Arbroath Declaration (1320), Bernard de Linton. Scotus’ theory of human society was to revolutionize not only the thought but the practice of the Western world.

Q: One of you lives in Florida and the other in California. How did you communicate to write a 435-page book? What were some of the problems you encountered by being so far apart?

A: It was a very interesting process for all of us. Alexander (Alec) and his wife, Gloria, would write and type the chapters (Chapters 1-18) and mail them to me. I would then input them, mail them back to the Klieforths and they would proof them further. While this laborious process was going on, I was writing my own chapters (Chapters 19-35) which were then read, proofed and edited by wife, Louise, and the Klieforths. We communicated by mail and phone. The labor of the project was not only in the writing but in the proofing and editing. This issue would have occurred regardless of our locations. The advantage of being on different parts of the continent is that we worked at our own pace without deadlines and without getting in each other’s way. It worked beautifully.

Q: I remember reading your original manuscript sometime back, so I’m interested in knowing from the time you first discussed writing the book, how long did it take you to complete it from beginning to end?

A: Alec and I corresponded on issues of Scottish history beginning in the 1980s and in November 1999 we agreed to create the manuscript. We labored on it for five years with publication in 2004. It was a labor of love: it was written for the Scots, past, present and future. Alec and I have written over twenty books (independently of each other) but this project was the most difficult, intense and rewarding.

Q: There are 50 pages of chronology in the book, the most comprehensive I have ever seen. Why so long?

A: The chronology in the original draft was over 100 pages long and I seriously edited it down for the final publication. It is long as I wanted to note the complex inter-connections between the Romans, Celts, Irish, Scots, Americans and the English over three thousand years. Secondly, I wanted to help readers who were new to Scottish and American history to be able to follow the flow of historical events. Thirdly, the chronology is simply fascinating.

Q: What are some of the books and authors you mainly relied on for your research?

A: We are in debt to many past and current authors. I have mentioned Wills’ Inventing America (1978), Bruce’s The Mark of the Scots, Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World and Cowan’s book, ‘For Freedom Alone,’ The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320. Father Allan Wolter, the world’s authority on Scotus, provided guidance in understanding Scotus’s thought in the context of social and political freedom. Duncan MacNeill, the author of The Scottish Realm and The Art and Science of Government Among the Scots (both are out-of-print), was valuable for his lucid analysis of Scottish society and the brilliance of the Scottish Constitution. Alexander Broadie’s The Shadow of Scotus was very helpful. We take great pleasure in bringing Scotus and MacNeill to the attention of the world.

Q: How did the two of you come to work on this book as co-authors? How long have you known each other? Who came up with the idea to write the book? Please tell us a little about your relationship.

A: We met at Clan Leslie meetings in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1980s and corresponded about Scottish matters. We both had the same idea to do the book in 1999. Alec focused on Chapters 1-18 and I focused on Chapters 19-35 but we read, proofed and edited each other’s chapters.

Q: How did you go about getting your book published? How did you settle on University Press of America?

A: University Press of America reviewed our manuscript and offered us a contract that we accepted. UPA has a proud history of publishing scholarly works and did a beautiful job of producing ours. The UPA staff has been a delight to work with on this project.

Q: Is there another book coming from the two of you or perhaps individually? If so, can you give us an idea of what it will be about?

A: I am starting a book comparing constitutions of different nations and regions, such as the European Union, and I will use the lessons of constitutional governance in Scotland, particularly the wisdom of John Duns Scotus, George Buchanan and Duncan MacNeill, as standards for other nations to follow.

Q: Are you both active in the Scottish community? If so, please tell us a little something about your Scottish activities.

A: Alec is the founder and first Chieftain of the American Clan Leslie Society. He has been a vibrant and steadfast leader in Scottish-American activities for decades. My wife, Louise, and I are members of Clan Munro and Clan Leslie.

Q: On my part, it has been a good experience working with you over the past two years. Thank you for the courtesies extended to me. Is there a final word for our readers?

A: I would use the trite but true saying: Know Your History. Every person of Celtic and Scottish blood and background should understand the heroic epic of the Scottish peoples in expanding freedom and democracy over the past three thousand years. The democratic revolution that began in Scotland was the mightiest revolution in the history of the world. This revolution is not yet complete and we are the witnesses to this dramatic evolution. (FRS: 11-08-2004)