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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - Jun/Jul 2002
COSCA - Where next for Clan Societies?

Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to finish this article in time to be published in the past Family Tree. With my wife's visit over the Christmas holidays and then an unexpected bout with cancer I didn't really dedicate the time to many of the things I had begun. As I attempt to meet this deadline it again comes at the very last minute with Beth pacing back and forth in the US trying to keep space open for me.

In my last article I told you there are many things changing in the Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA) from which you will reap the benefits both at the games, through the Internet, and we hope ways to improve our societies and associations. It is for the latter that I want to focus my attention here.

Many have insisted that I've taken the reigns of COSCA at a critical point in the existence of Scottish Clans and Associations. Charles LaSalle, from Flushing, MI, best expressed this view when he cited that organizations today suffer from a combination of problems. I agree with his view that many of our groups face serious problems with declining membership, advancing average age in their membership, difficulty in attracting members under the age of fifty, leadership that hasn't changed for a number of years, difficulty in finding individuals who will accept positions as officers, and difficulty motivating their membership to become active in organizational affairs and events.

These problems are not new but many of you to whom I've talked with in the past have had difficulty putting this into something tangible to help your group. Charles, on the other hand, has documented in a paper titled, "Is the Past Our Future Of Do We Have One At All?" in which he expresses the pending seriousness our groups face.

Reading through this article two exceptions to what it focus on came to mind but I know there are more of you out there. Not everyone can have as many members as Clan Donald so that you have to invoke specific criteria before accepting new members. Clan Henderson is the only group I am aware of that has the lowest membership fee and maintains a rapidly growing, family oriented focus. Most of the other organizations are somewhere in between and as such I feel reading Charles LaSalle's article may help you and your organization to effect the change you are trying to make.

In addition to the societal factors that contribute to the problems our organizations face today the ability and willingness of organizational management to recognize and deal with the impact of these trends is a deep source of concern.

Without serious examination of challenges facing us today your organization risks any chance of having a long-range future. Without commitment to effective plans of action, that risk increases. After discussions with officers and members of a number of Scottish groups over the years, Charles LaSalle found that too few are examining the impact that societal change is having on their operations. Even fewer seem to engage in long range planning within the organizations to counter the impact these changes are having.

Too often observers of the celebration of Scottish heritage may feel that the appreciation of the history, culture and traditions of our forebears is in a healthy state. They point to the attendance at highland games and the demand level for pipers to perform at special occasions such as weddings and funerals However, Charles seriously questions whether these indicators adequately measure the dedication American Scots have to their heritage.

Games attendance and the hiring of pipers for ceremonial purposes has little if any relation to the success and longevity of clan organizations or Scottish groups. These forms of celebration may well continue long after any formal Scottish organization has left the scene.

Charles expresses a fear that in the next few years, formal clan organizations and societies will cease to play as significant a role in celebrating our Scottish heritage as we are doing today. Charles' paper deserves your attention and I have asked and received his permission to reprint it here.

If you have no long-range concerns for the viability of celebrating our heritage through effective and dynamic Scottish organizations, you may put aside this article. If you have no incentive to become part of the solution, then go no further. However, if you share some concern about the future of your organization, it is my hope you will add some of the ideas contained herein to your mental agenda. I hope that you will be able to get others in your organizations to seriously consider what might be done.

Elements of this article pose significant challenges to the future of many organizations, Scot and non-Scot, today. Unless effective ways are found to adapt to them, the future of your organization may be in the past.

Part 1

I recently received an announcement from The Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA) to the effect that they have added the names of three clans who are establishing organizations to celebrate their heritage. COSCA currently has 184 organizations on its roster.

My first reaction to the announcement was to question why anyone would go to the trouble of establishing a new clan organization in today's climate. Though I am sure the individuals who have embarked on this venture are well intended and have a desire to gain recognition of the family heritage, I doubt they have interviewed officers of existing clan organizations or Scottish societies to learn something of the realities of operating such a venture.

I feel sure they have not carefully examined what may be referred to as "The Scottish Marketplace" nor the potential appeal such an organization might have for their clansmen.

It is highly unlikely they have considered what precisely they will offer to prospective members as reasons for them to join such an organization. What will they provide to members in return for their dues? If they have investigated what is happening in many existing organizations today, they might have second thoughts.

In conversations with officers of a number of clan organizations and societies, the same problems are mentioned again and again. It appears that, nationwide, membership in many of these organizations is declining. The average age of members is well over fifty years. Few have been successful in attracting younger members. Attempts to get members to pay dues in a timely fashion are like pulling teeth. The vast majority of members are unwilling to accept any responsibility for running the organization or accept a role as officers. Though most members like to read the newsletter, if the organization has a good newsletter, few will contribute anything to it.

I also feel sure none of these new organizations have considered, specifically, the purpose for having such an undertaking. What do they want to accomplish? Whom do they want to reach as potential members? Do they have any idea of the competition they face for the time, attention and money of potential members? Are any of the well-intentioned founders experienced in operating a nonprofit, social organization?

Though I applaud the intentions of these obviously motivated individuals, I seriously question the future of such organizations, as we know them. Thus, in the title of this piece I ask, "Is the Past Our Future, Or Do We Have One at All?

To understand something about today's organizations, it might be useful to review some history of Scottish organizations in the United States and factors that are affecting all heritage organizations today.

The Early Days

The first recorded Scottish society in America was established in Boston in 1650. Immigration from Scotland was only a trickle in early Colonial days but future waves of settlers constituted almost twenty percent of America's population by the Revolutionary War. The first St. Andrew's Society was established in Charleston in 1729, with others in Philadelphia (1749), Savannah (1750), Annapolis (1755) and New York (1756).

Membership in these organizations consisted primarily of professional persons, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and investors - individuals who were considered as being in the upper and upper middle class. Most were Lowlanders. All were male. The purposes of these organizations were to provide support and financial aid to newly arrived Scottish immigrants, to share their cultural heritage with their countrymen and to gain whatever support they could for their own endeavors through contacts made in the organization. The early members either had been immigrants themselves or were the first generation to be born on American soil.

Wave after wave of Scots fled their homeland during the period between 1720 and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War when the British curtailed emigration. They came to escape the torturous life they had been forced to live, or to grasp the opportunity for land and a freedom from the burdens of high rents, overbearing landlords and payments of tithes to churches to which they did not belong. After the war, emigration to North America resumed, primarily from Ulster.

Two groups made up these migrations. Huge numbers of Scots/Irish from Ulster moved into the eastern colonies, particularly to Pennsylvania where they settled in the Pittsburgh area and in the southeast around Philadelphia. As the population increased, the Scots/Irish tended to move south along the eastern seaboard to the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, and then into Tennessee and Kentucky. The Scots/Irish preferred pioneer life in the wilderness to city life. Life on the frontier, away from cities and towns was not conducive to the establishment of organized Scottish societies. Most of the Ulster Scots had an intense dislike for the English and sided with the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War.

Highlanders tended to migrate in family groups, or in groups from the same village or parish in Scotland. Often groups of highlanders settled on land that had been granted to some wealthy individual favored by the King. Since the majority tended to live in settlements of their own, they had little need to form societies or clubs. The relatively small number who lived in larger communities and were agents or officials in English businesses were usually considered among the upper or upper-middle classes and thus would join the same existing groups as the Lowlanders. Scots who spoke English, were Protestants and had a decent livelihood seldom were subject to the discrimination that faced the poor, Catholic, Gaelic-speaking, Irish immigrants. These Scots were quickly absorbed into the general population. The further they were removed from the immediate exposure to their heritage, the less impact that heritage had on their everyday lives.

As the American population grew and expanded westward, and large communities were established, more organizations were established. Such groups were oriented to both sharing of heritage and to charitable activities. The chances to enjoy the music, traditions and company of others of their heritage and to celebrate special occasions were the main features. Membership consisted mostly of those in the community who were in the higher economic levels of the population.

With the rapid expansion of industry in the U.S., technically trained Scots from manufacturing and ship building industries in the Scottish Lowlands found jobs in American companies. Lowlanders comprised the majority of these immigrants. Many eventually joined existing Scottish organizations and societies in industrialized cities and towns. Here again, membership most appealed to those most recently arrived from Scotland, and to their immediate families.

Highland clan organizations did not become popular until much later. At the end of World War II, the British Labour Party took over control of the government. Among the laws that were passed were huge increases in inheritance taxes. Scottish clan chiefs, who still controlled large portions of traditional clan lands and had planned to follow tradition by passing along these lands and buildings to their offspring, found that "Death Duties" would consume around 90% of the value of such legacies. To save the clan lands, many of them established "land trusts" to which the properties were given. As a way to support the financing of these trusts, independent societies were established in countries around the world to which clansmen had emigrated over the years, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Local organizers of such clan societies tended to be those interested in clan heritage and sufficiently affluent to organize such endeavors. They tended to view themselves as selected agents of the clan chief and the organizations took on the aura of an oligarchy.

Two common threads seem to have appeared in all Scottish organizations of the time. One was that membership consisted primarily of those with an immediate experience of their Scottishness. The second was that membership consisted of only a small percentage of the local Scottish population and they, often, were members of the more economically successful portions of that population.

Over time, three social factors were to impact the motivation of those of Scottish heritage to join Scottish organizations:

1. They rapidly became absorbed into the general population. They moved from being Scots in America to American Scots and thence to Americans of Scottish heritage. 2. The further they became removed from their immigrant ancestry the less they depended on fellowship with their own kind. 3. Federal and state legislation and local programs began to provide alternative sources for economic assistance that once were available only from heritage groups. Social Security, welfare, wage and hour laws were established. Individuals benefited from pension plans, insurance programs and public health efforts. Still, the desire to relate to cultural aspects of heritage organizations existed, particularly among the older generations.

Social, cultural and ethnic organizations today must be aware that significant changes have taken place over the years in the public's desire to join such organizations. Some of these changes are identified on the following pages.


When one looks back to the period between 1850 and 1950, one finds high levels of membership in a variety of local civic, social, ethnic and fraternal organizations. This was a period of substantial immigration. Immigrants from all over Europe poured into the United States. People of various ethnic backgrounds formed or joined organizations of their own for the same reasons as did the Scots . . . for support, camaraderie and enjoyment of being among "their own."

In most towns and cities the country, one cold find dozens of social, civic and fraternal organizations as well as ethnic ones. In reading local histories and obituaries, one can find that citizens often belonged to two, three or more organizations. Social life often revolved around these activities. Status in the community was typically measured by which and to how many organizations individuals belonged. "Connections" made in these organizations often contributed to business as well as social success.. It was expected that successful people had an obligation to donate their services, time and money to the community.

During this period, we were a nation of joiners. After World War II, social, economic and technological change, and the population explosion began to impact nature of joining dramatically. Research data complied since 1960 by social scientists, political scientists and by publications such as the U.S. Census and the Encyclopedia of Associations show a distinct downturn in the interest Americans have in joining or being active in social or civic organizations of any kind. We moved from being joiners to being watchers.

Organizational membership

After World War II, the population exploded. The levels of affluence increased. Society became much more mobile and transient. The age of technology and seemed to shift people's attention to the acquisition of "things." Those born after 1946 (the baby-boomers) developed into a "Me" oriented society rather than the "We" society of their forebears. Interest in civic, fraternal, religious, ethnic, social and political organizations peaked between 1955-1960.

After 1960, enrollment and active membership in virtually all types of organizations began a significant decline which continues today. The recent shift in employment from manufacturing based industries to serve and information processing industries has reduced union membership dramatically. Even in businesses with substantial numbers of union members, active participation by the membership has dropped off.

Organized recreational activities such as bowling leagues, or sports activities, which required regular attendance at team events, have diminished. While people still engage in recreational sports, they do so on a spur of the moment "pick-up" basis rather than as members of a constituted team. National statistics show a decrease in interest in keeping up to date on national and local civic events especially among the "baby boomers."

Some Interesting Statistics:

  • Voting participation decreased from 62.8% in 1960 to 48.9% in 1996, a drop of 22% in 36 years.

  • Newspaper readership dropped by almost 50% in the same period.

  • TV news viewing declined by 11% between 1960 and 1996.

  • The number of people who had ever served as officers or on committee assignments in any social organization fell by 42% between 1960 and 1996.

  • While the number of non-profit organizations doubled in this period, the total number of their membership dropped by 90%.

  • In 1960, almost 50% of all Americans belonged to some kind of organization. By 1995 this number dropped to approximately 20%.

  • The percentage of leisure-time dollars spent on involvement in organizational activities dropped by 50% between 1958 and 1997.

  • While persons who claimed membership in a particular church dropped by 13% between 1950 and 1990, those who claimed regular attendance at services dropped by 34%.

  • Those who served in church related groups diminished from 25% to 12.5% between 1950 and 1990, a drop of 50%.

  • While the numbers of those in the professions of medicine, law, architecture, etc. have increased dramatically since 1960, their respective professional associations have shown a marked decrease in membership.

By the 1980s even old-line national organizations such as the Masonic Order and the Knights of Columbus began experiencing membership decline. Some long established fraternal organizations disappeared altogether. Even more apparent has been the declining willingness of remaining members to accept responsibilities or to hold officer positions.

Conversely, memberships in some groups, such as environmental groups and self-help groups have increased dramatically. Environmentally groups are little more than mailing lists requiring no direct involvement other than some periodic contribution.

Self-help groups focus on making the individual feel better, look better, or feel more socially acceptable. They are "Me" oriented rather than focused on community, social, cultural, or political objectives. The vast majority does not require personal interaction, attendance at meetings, or expenditure of much leisure time.

When people do join a club, it is often a professional society or business-related group that might help advance their personal careers. Some charitable organizations now are faceless groups run by a small group of professional administrators without the need for their "members" to ever come in direct contact with the recipients of the largesse. Involvement is a matter of writing a check.

Since the interest in personal roots has shifted from identifying with ethnicity through heritage organizations to the more specific investigations of family through genealogy, we must acknowledge its impact . . . People can engage in this interest at their own convenience, and without belonging to an organization. They are not called upon to contribute their time or pay dues.

If they take satisfaction from finding a Scottish connection, they might occasionally attend some Scottish entertainment, such as a highland game. Their only investment in this case is to pay for parking and admission. No commitment to their heritage is required.

Membership in most Scottish organizations suffers effects similar to those in all other organizations. People are less likely to join them, and if they do, they are less likely to take active roles. They look to someone else to take operational responsibility, do the work, produce entertaining activities, write the newsletter, and man the organization's tent at Highland Games. All will point to the very good reasons they have for not participating. As valid as these reasons may be, the impact on the organization is no less detrimental. As the average age increases, the "old guard" who could be counted upon to contribute time and effort becomes more limited for reasons of health and mobility.

Interest in heritage

In the early days of large-scale immigration, there were both emotional and practical reasons for close identification with one's heritage and ethnicity. From days immemorial, great importance was place on family lineage. Particularly among Celtic peoples, one's current status and sense of whom you were was closely identified with ancestral links within any given population.

When immigrants came to a new country, they found greater economic and emotional security through association with those who spoke the same language, shared the same culture and ties to the homeland. As they competed with those of other cultures for survival, they found advantage in the unity with their "own kind."

Succeeding generations depended less on this identification as they established themselves in the new world. In families, which actively fostered the traditions and culture of the old country, the celebration of heritage was passed along to the young. The generation that had personally immigrated generally clung more closely to the past. Second and third generations typically struggled to be identified as citizens of the new country. Those groups who found less discrimination based on national origins, religion and culture melded into the general population more quickly.

Those who encountered resentment and rejection often clustered into their own sub-communities within larger cities and established enclaves with such nicknames as Little Italy, Germantown, Corktown, Poletown, Chinatown etc. Here, various nationalities established their own churches, newspapers and ethnic business. Marriages to others of their "own kind" were encouraged. Celebrations of their own holidays were common.

In recent decades, the forces that produced such isolated existences have been minimized. Immigrants from countries other than European, such as Asians, Arabs, Latin Americans and others, have inherited this legacy.

Scottish organizations must realize another very real factor about heritage. The number of individuals with Scottish heritage on both sides of the family is very small. Inter-marriage has produced offspring with two, three, four or more national heritage identities. While there are many more individuals who have some Scottish heritage, fewer have been raised with awareness of that heritage. Less emphasis has been placed of passing along traditional cultural elements from the old country. Fewer have been exposed to the traditions at the knee of parents of grandparents. Many are genetically, sociologically and emotionally removed from what Scottish heritage they do have. Add to these facts the reality that young people today are more interested in where they are going than where they came from.

Infrequent attendance at Highland Games or a musical performance is often the only identification some have with their own Scottishness. Occasionally, movie such as "Braveheart" or "Rob Roy" will stir interest in Scottishness, but such interest is short-lived.

Interest in heritage has shifted from ethnic identification to personal family lineage. Interest in personal family genealogy has exploded. Alex Haley's popular book "Roots" and the TV mini-series based upon it, had great impact on people's interest in their own family history. However, they can engage in this interest at their own convenience, and without having to belong to an organization to do so.

The combination of the lessening of interest in heritage and the growing resistance to joining groups and organizations has important ramifications for Scottish heritage groups. The situation is intensified by the levels of understanding most groups have of the characteristics of the people who constitute "The Scottish Market" today. There is resistance in many organizations to identify and react to the changes.

In the next Family Tree issue we'll see the rest of Chuck's article in which he poses the question, "Do I need a Scottish Organization" and will go on to show us the impact of change on our organizations.

Return to June/July 2002 Index


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