Chapter Six: Ancestor Worship


The Value of Family History

A Sermon for All Time


The interests of dedicated professional genealogists and the enthusiasm of amateur family historians should not be denigrated merely because they have been known occasionally to lead to eccentric passions and careless misjudgements. The pursuit of a specific family's past can contribute much to the general understanding of life in other centuries, and ought to be encouraged as early as possible.

Obviously, amid the contemporary deconstruction of the traditional family unit it is necessary to introduce the subject to children with a measure of sensitivity, and at times it may rightly be considered improper, but at some stage all humans have to recognise they are the product of their forebears, even if these forebears must remain individually anonymous.

George, 5th Lord Seton, concerned for the memory of his family's origins, asked his nephew, Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, to "collect, gadder and set furth the historie and cronicle of his hous and surname, quhilk has been verray ancient and honorable." A copy of Lethington's manuscript, annotated by George Seton, 4th Earl of Winton, includes a memorable preamble. It is divided here into two parts, the first of which is the more famous. The second is a pedagogic counsel that reads pompously to twentieth-century eyes, yet it is not without a naïve charm, and reflects much of what some great houses truly believed.

And the Setons were ever a great house, zealous of honour, loyal unto death.

The Maitlands of Lethington and Thirlestane, ancestors of the present Earls of Lauderdale, were then as eminent as the Setons. Sir Richard, whose mother Martha was daughter to the 4th Lord Seton (and sister to the immortal Mary Seton, devoted companion of Mary, Queen of Scots), was a Lord of Session, Keeper of the Privy Seal, a formidable lawyer and a talented poet. Although blind from the age of 65, it may fairly be said that he remained an acute observer of the Scottish political scene until his death 25 years later, and retained a devastatingly scathing tongue for the failures he perceived there.

The Value of Family History

It were very good, honourable, pleasant and profitable that every great noble, and gentleman of heritage, and specially men of great houses, put in remembrance and made chronicle of their house and surname; of their beginning and progress of their predecessors' lives, particularly of acts and deeds that they did in their time; what succession they had, with whome they were allied, and what was their end.

It were great pleasure to a man to know the origin and beginning of his house and surname, and how long it has stood; and it were right profitable, because when a nobleman remembers the good beginning of his house and surname, the long standing thereof, the honourable and virtuous acts of his predecessors, it will give occasion to every man to conserve and maintain the house that his forebears has constructed, and he will be the more loth to do anything that may be the hurt or decay of the same. And moreover, when he hears or reads the noble acts of his predecessors put in writ; that howbeit they be dead bodily, their fame and honour is yet recent, it will give them occasion to exercise themselves in virtue and honour, so it may be written of them, as of their good predecessors; that their fame and name may live and last long, and many years after their body be dead.

And if any of their predecessors has been vicious, and their vice set forth in remembrance, it may give every man occasion to eschew all things dishonourable or detestable, in the event that it may be spoken of many years after their decease from this world, to their slander and shame.

A Sermon for All Time

There is but certain manners of beginning of houses in this country of Scotland. One is by gift of Princes or great men, for true and thankful service. Another is by just acquisition by a man's silver or goods. The third is by marriage of ladies of heritage. And fourthly, in the event that the heritage falls to a man by his mother or some other female his predecessors. And if so be that a man's house has had beginning by gift of Princes or other great men, it will give occasion to their posterity to be true and thankful servants to their superiors, to that effect that they may augment their house. And if it has begun by just acquisition by a man's silver or goods, it will give occasion in like manner to their posterity to be virtuous and not wasteful, that they may add to their heritage. And if it has begun with marriage of ladies of heritage, it will give like occasion to their posterity, when such a thing happens, to praise it. And if it has come by succession of family, it will give occasion to every man to ally his son and apparent heir with the best and most honest house and party that he may win to, in hope that such chance may fall to his posterity.

There is certain manners of beginning of houses which are very detestable, and contrary to all laws of both God and man, which I would exhort all men to forbear, howbeit they be overmuch used in this country. That is to say, by circumvention of the ignorant and the innocent, or by extreme necessity of the poor compelled thereby; or by invention of new laws, and practices of other evil conceits; and worst of all, by robbery and oppression. Which things I cannot call beginnings of houses, because they are oft times to come to an evil end; for we may see by example and experience how many great houses there has been in this realm, and now so far decayed that scantly is left any of their posterity, and their house and heritage is translated from their surname into the Prince's hands, or some other stranger.

Lord Seton and his nephew, Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington



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Chapter VII ~ The Misty Origins of the Barclays

Mists of Antiquity: Introduction

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