Our Three Families

This sermon, delivered in Duluth on 27 August 1995 during the Clan Sinclair USA Gathering, was serialized in Roslin O Roslin in the Spring and Summer issues of 1996 (Vol 3 no 3 and 4).

by Rev. John Sinclair

Perhaps you are thinking that it is enough work to keep up with your own birth family and your Sinclair relatives let alone three families! However I would suggest this morning that as Christians, we belong to three families: Clan Sinclair (and our Scottish relatives are certainly the primary reason we came to Duluth this year); then there is the human family which is the origin of every nation on earth; and finally there is the family of faith which binds Christians together in a special covenant relationship.

It is estimated that nearly 20 million citizens of the U.S. are of Scottish extraction, perhaps 6 million more in Canada and another 5 million live in "the old country". I looked in the telephone guide in Mexico City and found a half page of MacGregors!

Sinclairs are scattered over the face of the earth and so we are humbly proud of being Scots and belonging to Clan Sinclair. Our Clan has all the strengths and weaknesses of any people. Our Sinclair family history has its dark chapters, but there are also paragraphs in those chapters which tell of their spiritual character, public service, moral excellence and spiritual vision. If you doubt any of the shadow and light of our story, read a few chapters from Calder's The History of Caithness or Prebble's The Highland Clearances where Sinclairs played a role as victim and oppressor.

My immediate family belongs to the Sinclairs of the Isles and in particular, to the Sinclairs of Caithness. My father said that Caithness was so barren and unproductive that all that grew there were "Sinclairs and potatoes." Yet, Caithness is more than an empty expanse. It is made up of ancient rock formations. A Caithness author, the Rev. John Horne, describes the landscape as he tells of a drive back to Wick by way of Lyth:

"It is as pancakey as any of the country. However, like other places in this home of mine, it presents the primal forms and outlines of creation. These were shaped by iceberg and storm... Life began to thrill here in this original mire many centuries before Pharaoh or his pyramids. Tap the rock or feel the soil of Caithness and you touch antiquity."

We find our roots in the wild barbarian ancestry of the Picts, the audacious and adventurous Norse Vikings and the gentler, more humane strain of Normans.

We have produced our share of erudites and eccentrics. One who combined both eccentricity and erudition was Sir John Sinclair, the founder, at the age of 26, of the Board of Agriculture of Scotland. He produced the Statistical Account of Scotland in 22 thick volumes. He was that Sir John, of whom the anecdote is told, who tried to introduce nightingales to Caithness to provide music for the countryside. The Caithness shepherds found robin's nests in which to place the nightingale eggs Sir John brought from England. The eggs hatched; the birds sang through the summer; in autumn they migrated and never returned!

And then there are the Sinclairs of Rosslyn fame who were brilliant besides the more pedestrian Sinclairs of the Isles. Scotland is old, its culture ancient, but who are the present day Sinclairs? Who are we as Scots? What is unique about our culture past and present?

The struggle for Scottish identity in a predominantly English-speaking, British oriented world is an ongoing struggle. Are Scots today just a second-hand, warmed over version of the essence of the ancient Scottish character?

An example of the search for Scottish identity took place in the late 1700's when the literati of Edinburgh attempted to "prove" the authenticity of the epic poetry purportedly written by  Ossian  centuries earlier. The poems were in fact the work of one James MacPherson - but what proved attractive to all Scots was the bid to lift up the values of the rustic, primitive society of yore. It tried to idealize that ancient culture and claimed that it could coexist in harmony with the gentility and erudition of modern civilization. The literati worked to infuse into the Scot a fresh dose of primitive virility and public virtue as a remedy for the problems of modernity of the 18th Century. The movement largely failed because the problems ran much deeper.

Scotland lost its political independence at the battle of Culloden but the search went on for deep cultural affirmation. Perhaps it is Burns the Scots can find their ancestral roots. These values come alive in lines like:

"The rank is but a guinea stamp.
A man's a man for a' that"

and his words as he watched a louse crawl up the bonnet of a pompous lady in Church:

"O wad some power the giftie gie us,
to see ousel's as ithers see us!"


The Apostle Paul stood on Mars Hill overlooking Athens with the blue Mediterranean Sea stretching beyond and proclaimed: "God has made of one all nations to dwell on the face of the earth.." Paul was affirming that our creator God knows no partiality toward Scot, Turk, Latin or Chinese.

Today the world needs to hear this message more than ever. Even the effectiveness of fragile expressions of unity like the United Nations are being questioned by some. But yet we know that we are all here together in "one spaceship earth" and all of us increasingly depend on each other in the emerging global economy. The chances for peace in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East continue to hang on these fragile ties among the human family expressed in the U.N.

Scottish people have long had a broad view of the world. Perhaps it was because of geographic location, poor natural resources and the forced immigration in recent centuries. Scottish people can talk about far places and distant relatives; about world issues of justice based on their own Scottish national experience.

I am particularly aware of the contributions of the churches and universities of Scotland to the world. It was Alexandra Duff who pioneered higher education in English in India, and David Livingstone who opened up Africa to the world to the world. It was William Morrison who linked the English-speaking world with China, and James Thomson, the Bible colporter, who began a modern protestant reformation in Latin America.

Whether it was MacAdam who taught how to pave highways or Stevenson to build our steam locomotives, Scotland has paid its dues as a member of the world community. Yet we still need to contribute more of our world vision and creativity to world peace and order.

The roots of Christianity are buried deep in Scottish soil. We give thanks for St. Columba who brought the Christian faith from Ireland to Iona in the sixth century. It was from that tiny monastery that missionaries went to Britain and Europe. It was Columba who announced the gospel to The Bruce.

There are still many churches in Scotland with pre-Reformation foundations. "The old Kirk" in Wick celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1974. These roots are reflected in many of our fammilies.

Maggie Malcolm, a schoolmate of my father said to me: "Your grandfather Henderson Sinclair was good man. Whenever I was in his home at eventide, he always took down the family Bible and we each read a verse. And it no mattered who was in the house, all joined in."

Certainly some of religion in Scotland was formal and rigid and turned people off. I remember the words of my father about the super-pious schoolmaster in Wick, Mr. Fullerton: "His pupils said of him that he went to church on Sunday to pray for strength to lay the strap on them on Monday." Yet there was also a warmth and depth in the Scottish religious heritage. This spirit breathes through the psalms we sing and the poems we recite.

Our religious heritage is reflected in the Clan motto: Commit thy work to God. Based on Proverbs 16:13: "commit thy work unto God and thy purposes will be established." There other related verse in Scripture, such as: "Commit thy way to Jehovah. Trust in Him and God will bring it to pass." (Psalm 31:5) "Establish now, Thou, the work of our hands." (Psalm 90:17).

Ours is a good motto to live by. It reflects something of Burns in Cotter's Saturday Night when he wrote of the father of the family who takes the Bible from the mantle:

"From scenes like these old Scotia's grandeur springs
that makes her loved at home, revered abroad ...
an honest man's the noblest work of God."

Most of the Sinclairs of Rosslyn were staunch supporters of the Stewarts, and later sided with the Anglican Church. They took their licks because of their opposition to the dominant Presbyterian version of the Reformation.

Today it is a congregation of the Episcopal Church of Scotland that occupies the chapel of Rosslyn. The Sinclairs of the Isles were largely of the Presbyterian or Church of Scotland tradition. In fact, even a few of the first Baptists in Scotland were Sinclairs and among those was an Earl of Caithness. However, it is the St. Andrew's cross which we Sinclairs all bear with pride.

On our Clan crest is the crowing cock. Peter Marshal has a beautiful reference to the cock. He speaks about the mysterious and varied ways by which God comes to our rescue.

" God has hundreds of ways of plucking at a man's sleeve. Whether it is the songs that our mother sang to us or the sound of the pipers of the Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders sweeping down from Edinburgh Castle on Prince's Street, these sounds are like the crowing of a cock to bring us back to reality."

The symbolic crowing cock on the family crest reminds us to be alert and aware of the pitfalls which face fragile people like us. The cock also reminds us that the Grace of God will still awaken the conscience, it leads us to seek forgiveness and to try again, as did Peter, and to then finally succeed.

So to conclude: We are members of these three families:

  • the Sinclair family -- a small but beloved grouping of humankind;
  • the human family, all loved equally by God; and
  • the family of faith upon which continues to rest responsibility as great as when John Knox had to confront Mary Queen of Scots and speak of God's judgement.

And may I add with pride: the mother of John Knox was a Sinclair!


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