Robert Amyot MacKinnon is proud to be the commissioner of Scotland’s Clan MacKinnon in France and in continental Europe.
He lives in Aubigny-sur-Nère (Cher) in central France, a town with historic Scottish roots dating back six centuries.
“During the Hundred Years’ War, when the French king Charles VII was losing, he appealed to Scotland for military aid, and Scotland, in the spirit of what was even then known as the Auld Alliance, sent thousands of knights, archers and soldiers to help,” says Robert.
“After the victory, the grateful Charles gave them part of what is now the north of Cher department.
“The Scots ruled it for over 300 years until finally the line was extinct and the area reverted to France.”
Property for loyal Scots
Many of the Scots there were allowed to become naturalised French.
Scottish noblemen who had helped France were also rewarded with prestigious property such as Châtillon-sur-Indre for John Stewart, Earl of Buchan, and Concressault and Aubigny for John Stewart of Darnley.
Charles VII also created the garde écossaise, an elite military corps of 100 Scotsmen who formed the personal guard of the French sovereign.
The Château des Stuarts in Aubigny-sur-Nère is witness to this close history and the town still holds a week-long Franco-Scottish festival every July in honour of the Auld Alliance.
Visitors come from across the world to enjoy Highland dancing and piping, as well as feasting on haggis and whisky.
“It will be absolutely massive next year, as 2023 is the 600th anniversary of the Scots coming to help Charles,” says Robert.
Kilts, museum and Scottish pub
The town has a tartan flavour all year round and it is not uncommon to see people in kilts. There is also a thriving Scottish pub.
Robert’s wife Chrystel is a noted kilt-maker who even gets orders from people in Scotland, he says.
The town council is keen to celebrate the connection between the two countries and a museum in the town explains it in detail.
“Kids in Scotland are taught about the Auld Alliance in school but it is not taught in France, which is a shame. People do not know anything about it until they come here.”
‘More Scottish than the Scots’
Robert was born in Canada after his clan was exiled to Nova Scotia – it reputedly helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to France in 1746 following his defeat at Culloden. They lost their ancient clan lands because of their support for the Jacobite uprising.
“As is often the case in a diaspora, my family is very Scottish. Almost more Scottish than the Scots in Scotland. I grew up surrounded by tartans and pipe bands, and have always played Scottish music.”
Having dreamed of visiting Europe for years, Robert made his first trip as a young hippy.
“I went to Amsterdam and then hitch-hiked to France and just fell in love with it. I stayed for 10 years. When I returned to Canada, I missed it so much that I came back and worked as a musician.
“My first set of [bag]pipes were Spanish, mainly because they were cheap, and then I played Flemish pipes until I read Les Mâitres Sonneurs (The Master Pipers) by George Sand.”
The book inspired him to buy French pipes, which he says are more mellow. They come in different sizes: the larger they are, the lower the sound.
He toured France playing music until he retired five years ago.
“During my career, I have seen many more young people interested in pipes. There is a blooming interest in traditions and cultures.”
He met his wife at a festival in the Alps: “I was acting and singing and playing, and she was making all the costumes.
“We have been together for 30 years and have two adult daughters. Before we moved here eight years ago, we lived in Haute-Savoie near the Swiss border, but I love it here in Aubigny-sur-Nère.
“I wear the kilt every day and a lot of people are starting to do the same. Some have Scottish roots and others just think it’s cool.”
Read more: France’s own kilt-maker
He has adopted hundreds of people of all nationalities into the clan.
“They toast with whisky, eat haggis, wear the kilt. It is colourful and joyful and historic. Being adopted by a clan gives you new roots and contacts.”
Robert, who was asked to become clan commissioner six years ago, says his duties are simple: “To talk about Scotland, hold clan tents at various festivals, and adopt people into the clan. I also organise cultural events, including Burns Night, which is rapidly turning into Burns Week!”
He has also written a guidebook on correct Highland wear. “People used to really dress up, mixing daywear and eveningwear. They like wearing swords and axes, feathers and ruffles.
“So I try to ensure people’s outfits are coherent. French people love knowing how to avoid une faute de goût.”
Despite an emphasis on having fun, Robert says events are based on culture and history.
“To be adopted, people need to be curious about the clan and Scotland and be ready to learn new things. We do things seriously but we do not take ourselves seriously.
“We like to read books, watch films, go to conferences and learn more. When people ask to join, I want to know that as well as wearing a kilt and drinking whisky, they have a cultural heart.
“Remember, our clan chief, Madame Anne Gunhild MacKinnon of MacKinnon, is the 38th chief of the name and arms of MacKinnon and her line goes back 900 years.”