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The heads of all the clans and members of The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs

Jamie Macnab, the 24th chief of the Clan Macnab, is staying out of the Scottish independence debate for good reason. “The Macnab clan were on the English side at Bannockburn,” he says. “We were apparently a huge and very powerful clan prior to Bannockburn, but now we’re a very small clan, probably as a result of the side we took… I don’t think we’re very good at choosing any of our battles.”

His reluctance to be drawn on which way he will be voting on 18 September is shared by the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs (SCSC), of which about 120 of Scotland’s 140 clan heads are members. This week it issued a statement saying it would be remaining neutral on the issue of independence.

“2014 will be a great year for clanship for many people and a momentous year with the referendum,” it read. “There are varying views amongst chiefs and clans over what is best for Scotland. Because of these differing opinions, the SCSC will not comment on independence.”

The announcement was included in a press statement welcoming Bannockburn Live, a two-day jamboree to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s victory over the English in 1314. Taking place over a weekend of 28 and 29 June at the famous site near Stirling, it will include the largest battle reenactment ever seen in Scotland. The symbolism of the event has not been lost on supporters of the Yes campaign.

Many clan chiefs plan to attend and one might assume that it could prove to be an awkward social occasion for the Macnabs, given their history. But their 51-year-old chief, an estate agent who lives in Edinburgh and specialises in the sale of country houses, told The Independent the idea that Scotland’s clan leaders are automatically more likely to side with Alex Salmond on the issue of independence is nonsense. “There’s an assumption that chiefs would be tartan-wearing, claymore-bearing people who are into a Yes vote – I don’t think that’s true at all,” he says.

It is an opinion shared by Sir Malcolm MacGregor, 55, who became the 24th chief of his clan in 2003, and who is also the convenor of the SCSC. “Outwardly, I suppose we wear the attire – kilts and tartan – which might designate a nationalist, but I would never suggest that because of that the clans are biased towards the nationalists,” he says. “If you look at the history of Scotland and the clans you will find many who are in fact unionists. I’d be wary of saying ‘If you’re in a kilt, you must be a nationalist’.”

Sir Malcolm also refuses to say which way he will be voting, but Danus Skene, 70, who has been chief of the Clan Skene since 1994, is a committed supporter of independence. “I’m a patron of Yes Scotland. For me, it’s a matter of management common sense,” he says, adding that he believes the concept of Britishness has “fulfilled its usefulness and its relevance”. He believes the majority of the other chiefs are likely to vote No, but says his own decision had nothing to do with his status as the leader of a clan.

Of course, political differences among Scotland’s clan leaders are nothing new. While some supported the 1707 union with England, others opposed it. The Campbell clan also played an important role in defeating the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

These days though, some of the chiefs do not even live in Scotland. While some still own grand estates which are important to Scottish tourism – Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, the historic seat of the MacLeod clan, is one example – for the majority their main task is replying to emails from their enthusiastic namesakes scattered around the globe.

“An academic in the west coast of America asked me within a month of me being chief to write an address to be read out at his son’s wedding,” says Jamie Macnab. “Another amusing one was a clansman who wanted a Macnab crest tattoo put on his arm and wanted to check he was using the right version, so he referred it to me for approval.”

If the chiefs do have any real influence any more, it is more likely to be found overseas than at home. In North America in particular, Scottish heritage is an enormous draw for the diaspora and when invited to join their kinsfolk, clan leaders are treated like celebrities.

“I’m asked on a regular basis to go to America, to Canada, to Australia or South Africa to speak at dinners as a guest of honour,” says Sir Malcolm. “That is very much part of a modern role – you’re an ambassador for Scotland, basically. People overseas will be far more interested to hear a clan chief speak on matters, say to do with independence, that perhaps they would a politician.”

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