The McCabe Clan. What’s Behind the Kilt? And Where’s Clan McCabe?

Yes I know, I know. It is what is BENEATH the kilt you are interested in–not so much what is BEHIND it. But I learned both.

In Nova Scotia, you can enroll in the only college in the world that teaches Gaelic culture– Gaelic College in St. Ann’s. I went looking for the Anderson Clan and the McCabe Clan. Scottish culture is strong in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. An incidentally, at the Gaelic College, you can learn once and for all what a Scotsman wears underneath his kilt.

Gaelic College

The Hall of the Clans, Gaelic College

Even as a tourist, you can do family history research and learn about clans of your ancestors, by visiting The Hall of the Clans. There you can see what is BEHIND the kilt colors that your ancestors wore.

I picked up a booklet about the Anderson Clans. My maternal grandfather was an Anderson, and although they always said they were Scots-Irish, I have been unable to trace them back before my great-great grandfather in Pennsylvania, so I don’t know yet when they came to the United States. I learned that Anderson probably derived from St. Andrews–which would not be immediately obvious.

I also asked about the McCabe clan–my great-grandmother’s family. Isabella McCabe Anderson also came from Pennsylvania, and she married John Anderson and they moved to Ohio around 1840.

You can see more about Isabella in “What Was She Thinking”.  In that story about Isabella, I explain that the McCabes were Scots-Irish, believed to be warriors who left Scotland to fight as mercenaries for an Irish lord. They lived in Ireland for many generations before Isabella’s grandfather, William McCabe,  came to America in 1775.

I made the mistake in that earlier story of calling them “Scotch-Irish” but I have learned better.  Scotch is whiskey. Scots are people.  In English we have mangled the pronunciation and it is a common mistake to say Scotch when you mean Scots.

At the Gaelic College, I met with disappointment.  The extensive file of booklets on clans did not include a McCabe clan, and the woman who had given us our short lesson in Gaelic, said she had never heard of a McCabe clan. I did learn that Mc and Mac do not, as I had always been told, indicate a difference between Irish and Scottish names. In fact, the Gaelic expert told us, they are interchangeable.

But all was not lost.  This has set me a new task–learning more about Scottish clans, and of course ferreting out the real origin of the name McCabe. Furthermore, I learned more about clan plaids and how those Scottish ancestors got dressed in the morning.

Tourists can  get a short taste of the subjects taught at the Gaelic College, and learn more about the culture of their Scottish ancestors. For the admission price, you get to spend half an hour with a Gaelic teacher, another half hour learning about Celtic, or Gaelic [interchangeable terms], music, a half hour learning about weaving, and a half hour learning how the Scotsman got dressed each morning, before he had a tailored kilt.

It starts with a length of fabric that his wife had spent a couple of years weaving in his clan colors. This length of fabric is his most precious possession. He sleeps on it at night, and dresses in it during the day.

  • Laid out flat, the fabric is carefully pleated for about 1/3 of its length.
  • Then the Scotsman lies down on the fabric and wraps it around him, fastening it with a strip of leather or cloth.
  • That leaves a nice swishy, sexy fall of pleats in the back, but it is far too long.
  • Next a broad leather belt goes around the waist, and the material can be tucked up into the belt to make a warm cape.
  • Or for a more formal look, gathered and slung across the shoulder, secured by a sharpened pin of wood.
  • In his finished kilt, with a tam o’shanter and carrying a staff, the kilt indeed makes a man into a man and a half,as our instructors promised.

Doesn’t our class volunteer look like the proper fearsome Scotsman? Except that he cheated an left on his shorts.  We learn that it is true–the rumors about what goes under the kilt.  NOTHING.  Furthermore, when the Scotsman goes to battle, he does not wear his kilt–it is too valuable to risk getting muddy and bloody. So he is either wearing a long shirt or he is naked. No wonder they had a reputation for being ferocious.

By the way, if you are curious about learning Gaelic and Gaelic music, but can’t go all the way to Nova Scotia, the college offers on line courses. But I do hope you will have the opportunity to visit the Gaelic College. We thoroughly enjoyed this unique day of immersion in the Scottish culture.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

I am a grandma and was named for my grandma. I've been an actress, a political strategist and a writer.I grew up in various places, went to high school in Killbuck, Ohio and graduated from Ohio State University. My husband and I moved to Arizona after graduation and have three adult children. I love to travel and read. I ponder family as I cook. Look for my DNA profile on Ancestry.

11 thoughts on “The McCabe Clan. What’s Behind the Kilt? And Where’s Clan McCabe?

  1. Claire Rogers

    There’s one McCabe right under your nose. My maiden name is McCabe. Without any of my material in front of me, all I can tell you is that my great grandfather was Joseph McCabe, I believe from somewhere in Iowa, he met and married my great grandmother in Storm Lake. I will look up what I have when I get home. I don’t know of any connection to Pennsylvania though.

  2. Rob Boudreau

    According to “Clans and Families of Ireland” by John Grenham (project manager with the Irish Genealogical Project) the surname McCabe/MacCabe derives from Gaelic “Mac Cába”, cába being Gaelic for ‘cape’ or ‘cloak’. The family progenitor may have made them, or been nicknamed that for a habit of wearing them. The McCabes are thought to originally been a branch of the MacLeods of Harris in the Hebrides. They came to Ireland in the mid-fourteenth century as ‘gallowglasses’ or mercenaries to the O’Reillys and O’Rourkes, settling in the areas of Counties Longford and Cavan. Within a hundred years they had also spread out into Fermanagh and Monaghan, where they were a constant odds with the Maguires.

    Leod, progenitor of the MacLeods was a son of Olaf the Black, Norse King of the Isles in the early 13th century. As the Norse were known to wear cloaks against the chill of the sea, that may have lead the Irish to call the leader of that band of gallowglasses ‘Cába’, “of the cloak”. That’s speculation on my part, but would fit the known history and pattern of nicknames employed by the Irish at the time. With it being more of a habit back on the Isles, it wouldn’t have been notable, hence there’s no McCabe clan in Scotland.

    1. Vera Marie Badertscher Post author

      Thanks so much for saving me days of searching for the meaning of McCabe. I suspected they picked the name up in Ireland, and had another name in Scotland. This confirms they were originally Scottish, even without a Scottish clan name. And thanks, too, to Gaelic College for making me wonder.

  3. Kerry Dexter

    I am sure you will have a grand time learning more about the clans of Scotland. As you’ve no doubt learned, names are variable and changeable — so you may find other variations of all the names you’re seeking. As well, now you’ve more places to explore in Scotland and Ireland.

    1. Vera Marie Badertscher Post author

      Thanks for that great map, Connie. It surprised me since I have learned that there is no “K” in the Gaelic alphabet. So the name would actually be MacCab, wouldn’t it? Could you please share who constructed this map?
      Are you also a descendant of the McCabes of America? I would love to know more about their history between Scotland and Ireland. Do you have any of that?
      Did you see Rob Boudreau’s comment below yours? I gather you disagree with him, or do those two theories fit together?

  4. Connie Mack

    I don’t know but possibly. The dna for descendants for John Mack of Lyme Connecticut has a connection to the Lennox, which contains clans MacFarlane and others. That is what I was originally researching when I saw the name on the map. The area is very near and perhaps within the Lennox Clan district. it was very large at one time.I found your site while researching that name. What I learned so far is found at and You have an interesting website. Happy Hunting.

    1. Vera Marie Badertscher Post author

      Unfortunately the wikipedia article contradicts the assumption of a MacKab connection, and the second link is unreachable. Perhaps you purchased something from them that gave you access?

      Glad you find Ancestors in Aprons interesting, and best wishes in your quest for family history.


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