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Watch now: Searching for my Scottish roots at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

  • 2 min to read

My friend-since-college Becky Campbell long ago said my middle name is not Henderson. She’s been know to introduce me with the descriptive “John All-or-nothing Osborne.”

I’ve never argued it isn’t an apt insight on her part. I found out last weekend maybe it’s genetic.

I don’t recall ever coming up with a similar name-change for Campbell, which is my default way of addressing her. But I did embrace making her last name a verb in her honor, as in “Boy, if he ain’t careful she’s going to Campbell-up on him.” That would mean “he” is headed for a world of hurt, a comeuppance.

Campbell pointed out the crest for her Scottish surname is a boar’s head and carries the motto Ne Obliviscaris (Forget Not). I almost bought her a T-shirt once that said “Clan Campbell: wreaking havoc since the Middle Ages.”

For me, this year’s Grandfather Mountain Highland Games were the best to date. Because I felt I belonged. Finally.

I’ve enjoyed going to the GMHG, which I’m told is the largest such gathering outside of Scotland, for many years. But I always felt like a spectator. A lookie-loo. I’d walk along browsing charts at various clan tents trying to find a way to make myself at least a wee bit Scottish. Osborne? No. Ward? Couldn’t find it. Wallen? Not found. Johnson? No place I looked (but I felt surely there was a connection to the fairly prominent Johnston).

The key phrase in that rattling off of my immediate ancestry surnames (my parents and grandparents) is the “no place I looked” for Johnson.

Mom’s mom was a Johnson: Pearl Faye Johnson, daughter of Moses Johnson (and Mary Willis Johnson).

I didn’t think a lot about this until I wrote two columns back in the winter about my and Mom’s DNA test results. Mom’s largest chunk of “ethnicity” is rooted firmly at 41% Scotland. England and Northwestern Europe logged in at 37%, Ireland at 16%. From there down it was single digits, with Sweden the highest at 4%.

I’ve long loved all things Scottish. My DNA results, which arrived a week or 10 days after Mom’s, knocked a bit of the wind out of my imaginary bagpipes. But not all of it.

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games 2021, march of piping bands during opening ceremony on Saturday, July 10.

Turns out my DNA revealed roots in Scotland at only 25%, compared to 46% England and Northwest Europe. I’m a wee bit more Irish than Mom, at 20%. Her 4% Swedish is countered in my results with 4% Norwegian. We don’t have Dad’s DNA. But I’m assuming his ancestry watered down my Scottish percentage.

On the other hand, my sister Pamela (Fagans) has since gotten DNA test results that show her roots are 33% Scotland.

After I wrote the story about my results and mentioned my Johnson grandmother, I got an email from Justin Mann, Kingsport, telling me if my Scottish roots are through the Johnson line (and that seems likely), I belong to Clan Gunn. Johnson is a Sept of Clan Gunn. Septs are other surnames that forged allegiances to a larger, dominant clan (that’s my summary, and I’m new at this, so take it with a grain of salt).

Sure enough, when I eagerly made my way to the Clan Gunn tent at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games last weekend I was met with open arms.

I spoke mainly with Allen Robinson, but also his wife Kim and their daughter Kymbre. Robinson is another Sept of Clan Gunn.

They gave me a sort of starter kit for learning more about Clan Gunn and Allen explained to me some basics. Allen and Kim, by the way, are co-commissioners of the Chesapeake Branch of the Clan Gunn Society of North America.

I learned a lot. Most of it can wait. For now, getting back to Campbell’s descriptive nickname for me, I’ll tell you I learned Clan Gunn’s crest is a sword held high with the motto Aut pax aut bellum (Either peace or war). I’ll tell you more about Clan Gunn, the sword, and that motto next week. I think “either peace or war” is close enough to “all or nothing.”

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