From Chile to Australia, Mackenzies gather as one

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THE NAME Mackenzie is hardly uncommon in these parts, but the same cannot be said in Chile. It is in this South American nation that one John Mackenzie emigrated in the late 19th century from Scotland, and his name and heritage remain intertwined with the two nations today.

Mackenzie set sail for Valparaiso, the business hub of Chile at the time, where he established a printing firm, a business eventually moved to Santiago before ultimately closing in the 1970s. He married another expatriate Scot, Margaret McEwan, in the 1880s and had six children. One of the four boys, Douglas, became the father of another John Mackenzie, who today is visiting Scotland on a tour with great purpose.

John, his brother Alan and sisters Gail and Sheila all journeyed with their partners the 7,300 miles from Santiago to Scotland for a Clan Mackenzie Gathering in Strathpeffer, Ross-shire, that featured hundreds of Mackenzies from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and, yes, Chile.

"There was quite a strong Scottish community in Valparaiso in those days," John Mackenzie notes of the time when his grandfather lived and worked there. "The main British school there was the MacKay school."

John is now the head teacher in Santiago of Dunalastair school, which was founded by a Robertson. There is still a Scottish community in Santiago, with a St Andrews Society.

"I think that may even be growing," Alan Mackenzie says of the Scottish influence abroad. "The opening up of the Chilean economy has brought a lot of new people from all over."

The party from Chile were all splendidly arrayed in Mackenzie kilts for the opening ceremony and group photograph at Castle Leod, including the husbands of the two ladies, one of whom is Chilean and the other Italian. Sheila Mackenzie said that both were immensely proud to be at the gathering wearing the tartan and absorbing the clan traditions.

"I think as you get older, you become much more aware of that kind of tradition and history," John Mackenzie says, "and you want to explore and assert that connection. We have never been to one of these events before, but we are delighted to be here this year."

The gatherings are held every five years, presided over by the Hereditary Clan chief, traditionally known as Cabarfeidh. The current chief is the 5th Earl of Cromartie, whose family seat is at Castle Leod in Strathpeffer. Clan Mackenzie Societies from five countries were officially represented amongst the 350 registered participants in the week-long event that concluded on Sunday.

More than 2,000 visitors attended the traditional Highland Games on a disappointingly wet Saturday, but it did not dampen their spirits.

The president of the Mackenzie society, Ian Mertling-Blake, felt that much of the appeal of these events stemmed from the way in which many Scots were obliged to leave for foreign parts, and not only in the infamous Highland Clearances. That nostalgia for a lost homeland and ancient clan associations finds a ready focus in the gathering.

The current growth of interest in matters genealogical has intensified research into such origins. The Mackenzie society have been working on a DNA project in Canada, the result of which will doubtless appear on the organisation's website, which also carries full information on the genealogy of the clan and its various septs.

Organising an event like this gathering – with its museum visits and other outings, classes in Gaelic and Scottish dancing, ceilidhs and dinners - is a prodigious amount of work for an all-volunteer staff. The event received funding from the Awards for All lottery scheme and Ross-shire & Cromarty Enterprise, but Mertling-Blake was hoping for more help elsewhere.

"The smaller museums and so on that we have approached individually have been very helpful in extending deals and so on," he says, "but it is a struggle."

For those from near and far who attended, it was a rare opportunity to connect the past with the present.