40 Years a Chief

Last year, the Earl of Erroll celebrated 40 years as Chief of Clan Hay.  Here we re-publish, with permission, the magazine feature on the event, written by Clan Hay Archivist Alan Hay.

The 24th Earl of Erroll has recently celebrated both his 70th birthday and his 40th anniversary as Chief of Clan Hay.  These milestones were marked with a grand garden party at his home, led by his personal piper, his personal Officer of Arms (the Slains Pursuivant), his personal bodyguard (the Doorward Guard of Partizans) and his Clan pipe band.  The pageantry of the day would have turned a Chief of the 15th century green with envy.

Merlin Sereld Victor Gilbert Hay was born in Edinburgh on 20th April 1948,  His mother was Countess of Erroll and Chief of Clan Hay in her own right.  His father was an Edinburgh lawyer then known as Captain Iain Moncreiffe of Easter Moncreiffe, although he, too, would become a clan chief in the fulness of time.  Young Merlin grew up at the family homes in Edinburgh's Carlton Terrace, at his mother's seat at Old Slains on the Aberdeenshire coast, and at his father's Perthshire estate of Easter Moncreiffe.

The influence of both his parents is evident in his approach to the job.  As Chief of the Hays, he fills the ancient role of Lord High Constable of Scotland, an office that puts him first in precedence after the Royal Family and which has been hereditary in his family since the days of Robert the Bruce.  It is a role Merlin took over from his mother early in life, deputising for her during the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, shortly before her premature death.  "People say she was quite fierce, although being my mother I didn't notice it.  She wasn't a great person for pomp and ceremony.  She liked watching birds and being in the countryside.  In her younger days, she worked on the farm at home.  She wasn't very interested in parading around, but she liked family and had a great love for the clan and the people in it.

"My father never expected to be Chief of the Moncreiffes.  He inherited the baronetcy when his cousin burned himself to death, smoking in bed - and burned down Moncreiffe House at the same time.  My father was a great genealogist and herald and know more about most people's family history than they knew themselves.  In his mind, he had a great map of how people fitted together.  Scotland being a small country, most people are connected, they just don't know how.  But if you go back a century or two, it's hard not to find connections.  My father loved those connections."

The genealogical accident of marriage between two chiefs brought about the unique situation where two brothers are chiefs of different clans:  Merlin, Chief of the Hays, and Peregrine, now Chief of the Moncreiffes.  Why the ornithological names?  "My mother didn't particularly like William or Gilbert, which are the traditional Hay names.  The Erroll crest is a falcon, so Merlin was appropriate, and also recalled my father's great friend Merlin Montagu-Douglas-Scott, who was killed in the war.  Peregrine seemed to follow quite naturally."

Erroll's hereditary office of Lord High  Constable is not quite the sinecure it might seem: although now entirely ceremonial, there are still duties he is expected to perform.  Until 1707, the Lord High Constable held the keys to Parliament.  He would walk immediately behind the king at his coronation, carrying the Sword of State, gifted to James IV by Pope Julius II in 1507.  He has his own court, responsible for all matters of assault and riot within four miles of the king's person.  Nowadays, the parliamentary role is a thing of the past, but Erroll still occupies the place immediately behind the Queen on formal occasions, carrying his silver baton of office.  The present Constable never misses the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, for instance, where he attends upon the Lord High Commissioner, the Sovereign's representative.

He does, however, continue to sit in Parliament in his own right.  Following his mother's death, Erroll took his seat in the House of Lords.  When the hereditary peers were removed from Parliament in 1999, he was one of those allowed to remain, elected by his colleagues.  His activities there indicate that, notwithstanding his ancient lineage, this is one clan chief who lives very much in the 21st century.  He sits on the Information Committee, which looks at internet safety and privacy, and chairs a cross-party group on entrepreneurship and innovation, supporting the small companies he regards as central to our future.  "Most innovation and growth comes from small business; but the rules are biased in favour of big companies because they get the ear of the minister."

His historic role as Chief of Clan Hay plays a large part in Erroll's life.  "The chief is the father or mother figure of the family, which extends throughout the world.  People like to know their roots, and the feeling of belonging; as chief you try to direct it and keep it together.  Within the clan, there are always a lot of enthusiasts and the important thing is to encourage them.  Flexibility is important, particularly when there is some better purpose behind it."

So what does the future hold for these ancient officers of state, often seen as anachronistic in today's world?  "The Scottish Parliament didn't particularly want the hereditary element involved when first constituted, but what's interesting is how people like tradition, and you can see it creeping back in.  I think it gives a sense of continuity.  The Scottish Government has recently set up a fund for the clans, which has been very helpful for our gatherings in Aberdeenshire.

As the 21st century progresses the global aspect will become more important: how we operate and interact online.  Most Scots aren't in Scotland; we've exported our human talent so you find Scots everywhere.  So many of the systems across the world were set up by Scots."

An thus, however marginalised in the modern world, Scots of these ancient families still serve a useful purpose as a living, breathing link with our past, an embodiment of Scotland as a sovereign nation of long and proud history.

© Alan Hay 2018