The Russian Scots


As someone who spent almost 14 years training in the RAF preparing to ‘go to war’ with certain countries east of Dover, it may seem strange to be working closely for many years to promote Scotland’s cultural relationships with Russia. But… it doesn’t take a master’s degree in anthropology to wake up to the fact that it’s not ‘people’ who make war on each other, but ‘governments’.

My ‘peacetime’ visits to Russia where I stayed, mixed, drank, played, laughed and conversed in exuberant broken English, facial expressions and extravagant arm gestures, showed me that they’re . . . .  surprise! surprise! . . . just the same as we Scots.

The following article was written quite a few years ago with the intention of getting it translated into Russian and given some coverage in the media over there. However, it didn’t seem to find favour with ‘our people’ in Moscow and has gathered dust for a few years. But, dust or not, it’s still as relevant and I’ve been lucky enough to design a few more ‘Russian’ tartans that tie us all together just that little bit closer.

Are you entitled to wear a Scottish clan tartan? Many tens of thousands of you most certainly are since you’re descended from the legions of Scots who, from the 13th century, spread eastwards through Europe and took up a wide range of professions and occupations in the Russian Empire.

Are you one of those who has genetic links to some of the greatest Scottish clans whose members came to Russia to fight for your Tsars? Or perhaps you’re a descendant of more peace-loving Scots who came to Russia as entrepreneurs to trade and establish business dynasties that survive to this day? Alternatively, perhaps your ancestors were doctors, architects, church leaders or simple traders . . . pedlars who travelled from village to village selling a variety of spices and fabrics – linen, silk and possibly even tartans.

Highland Scots are said to be descendants of the ancient Celts of central Europe whose migrations around 1200 BC took them to the west and north but also to southern Russia and even as far as China. Historians believe that one of the many Celtic art forms that they took with them was the weaving of patterns that today we call ‘tartan.’ As proof towards that belief, almost 3,000 years later, the mummified remains of a Caucasian family were found in the desert in Xinjiang Province in the Peoples Republic of China some 1300 kms south of Russia’s third largest city of Novosibirsk. Dated to around 1000 BC, that clothing and its special twill weave – including a complex tartan – was of the same type as the Celtic remains found in ancient Austrian salt mines some 5,500 kms to the west.

How far the Celts penetrated into Russia is not known, but what we do know, is that there is a remarkable natural affinity between the Scots and Russians, no doubt strengthened by those generations of Scots émigrés who were absorbed into Russia’s gene pool. Moscow’s Caledonian Society even goes so far as to suggest that:

“Perhaps no other nation in Western Europe is so like us . . . both nations dwell in a northern environment with a difficult climate, both are Christian, sharing a common patron saint (St. Andrew), both are polyethnic and culturally diverse, both had to wage fierce and protracted struggles for self-determination, both exerted an enormous influence over large areas of the globe, and both societies have a strong sense of kinship. What one writer describes as the fiery imagination. incisive intellect, tough stoicism and gentle affection that are aspects of the Scottish character’ can be applied to the Russian nature too. Then there is the famous fighting spirit; experts would doubtless agree that few nations make better warriors than the Scots and the Russians.”

The Society then goes on to more lowly but equally interesting comparisons:

“On the gastronomic plane both prefer simple peasant fare, good (and neat!) grain spirits and plenty of sweets. This closeness, which certainly requires a fuller examination, can account for the tremendous popularity of Ossian, Burns, Scott and Stevenson in Russia. It is also the part answer why Scots settled there in great numbers and, by and large, felt very much at home.”

Many of the early Scots contributors to Russia’s military, business and cultural spheres are probably household names in Russia and it’s said that some 400 modern Russian surnames may owe their origin to those and many other Scottish ancestors. Names such as Barclay, MacKenzie, Gordon, Hamilton, Bruce, Stuart, Rutherford, Sutherland, Leslie, Greig, MacPherson, Baird, Erskine, Cameron – a huge range that stretch from Abercrombie to Wood that embraces Scots and Russo-Scots who covered the whole spectrum of Russian society.

Charles Cameron was court architect to Empress Catherine II, General Patrick Gordon was principal military adviser to Peter the Great; Prince Mikhail Barclay do Tolly was commander-in-chief during the Napoleonic wars; soldiers George Ogilvie and James Bruce became Field Marshalls; thirteen Russian generals came from Scottish stock; Admiral Samuel Greig reformed Russia’s Baltic fleet and nearly 30 Russian Scots achieved flag rank. James Wylie was personal doctor to three Emperors; industrialists Baird, Gascoigne and MacPherson carved out thriving business empires; intellectuals like James Bruce and Robert Erskine bequeathed unique libraries and collections and then of course, we have one of Russia’s favourite sons – the poet Mikhail Lermontov whose ancestor is held to be George Lermont who left Fife in 1613 as a mercenary.

Many of the names mentioned may still be recognisable in their modern Russian guise but equally, time and circumstances will have changed many more so that their Scottish roots are now unrecognisable. For help, we can turn to Poland and Prussia and look at just some of the names of XVIth and XVIIth Scottish settlers there, who at one time exceeded 30,000 in number. Many of those are thought to have continued their travels on into Russia.

Many Scottish names have been translated phonetically into Russian such as Abercrombie which is Аберкромби and MacGregor (Макгрегор), Cameron (Камерон) but many more may have been russified and altered like Duncan – Dumkov; Forbes – Fromos; Maclean – Maklen but others have changed beyond recognition such as Hamilton which has become Khomutov.

Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov’s descendants decided that that they were going to celebrate their Scottish roots by having their own tartan designed in Scotland and the Lermontov tartan was presented to the family in Moscow in 2007 accompanied by great celebrations.

Much more study of the subject is needed before a list of Russian surnames and their Scottish equivalents can be prepared. Only then will those very many thousands of Russians who have Scottish blood in their veins, be able to claim their tartans and rejoice at being the modern representatives of two great nations.

Mikhail – head of the proud Lermontov family today – christening his new Lermontov kilt at the ‘clan’ gathering in the family dascha near Moscow.

This first known tartan for a Russian family was designed by the writer for the Russian descendants of George Lermont (a ‘Scotch Knight’) of Fife who emigrated to Russia in 1613 to serve as a military instructor to Tsar Mikhail Romanov. The most famous Lermontov was Mikhail (b1814) – a much revered poet and ‘dissident’ who was killed in a duel in 1841. His standing in Russia was almost akin to that of Robert Burns.

This tartan is based upon the MacDuff, the designer drawing upon George Lermont’s home county of Fife and its literary connection in Shakespeare’s MacBeth in which MacDuff was given the fictional title of Thane of Fife. The white lines on blue symbolise St Andrew – patron saint of both Russia and Scotland – and of course the Scottish flag – the saltire and celebrate the Lermontovs’ Scottish ancestry. The remaining colours are from the Lermontov coat of arms registered in Russia in 1798. The three black lines represent the three lozenges in that device.

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