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Scottish Ancestry Most Popular White Ethnic Identity 2005-03-23

Posted by clype in Intolerance, Scotland, Statistics.

‘Plaid It Again, Uncle Sam’ — an article by Radio Broadcaster, Mr.David Stenhouse: Dunvegan Castle is the ancestral homeland of the Clan Macleod, an impregnable fortress which has withstood attack, siege and 800 years of Scottish weather.

Normally it sits where it always has, on the Isle of Skye, West of Portree. But at the end of last year 2004, I had an unexpected encounter with Dunvegan Castle in a field in New Hampshire — USA!

To be fair, this wasn’t the Dunvegan, just a Dunvegan.

It was about 5 metres long and was sitting on the back of a trailer surrounded by artificial green grass. Its ramparts looked in need of a lick of paint, and its plywood drawbridge was up, but it certainly seemed capable of intimidating enemies. And besides, if anyone attacked this Scottish Castle, it could just drive away. This portable Dunvegan had been built by Mr.Dick Mcleod, an ‘American Scot’ who had celebrated his retirement by taking his wife to Skye to tread the heather which his ancestors had left behind almost two hundred years before. He was so impressed by his ancestral stronghold that when he got back to the USA, he locked himself in his garage and devoted all his free time to making a replica. Now it serves as a rallying point for his clan wherever there is a Highland games.

‘I’ve towed it all the way up to Canada and down as far as the Carolinas’, Mr.Mcleod told me.

‘Once it blew off on an interstate and hit a motorcycle cop, but, luckily, his parents were from Glasgow, so he saw the funny side.’

Mr.Mcleod’s castle is in hot demand; ‘Highland Games’ in America are going through ‘boom times’. During the summer it’s hard to find a weekend in the USA without a gathering of ‘The Clans’ from the southernmost states to the border with Canada. Even in states such as Hawaii or Alaska, which were never touched by Scottish immigration, there is no more popular weekend activity than slinging on the plaid, marching behind a pipe band and chewing the fat with other members of the clan.

They may have a million different ideas about Scotland, but every US American I spoke to was convinced that their Scottish traditions were authentic — but most native Scots would find what goes on there almost as incongruous as the castle on wheels. Big US American SUVs nuzzle next to each other in the car-park like Highland cows as their owners stride around dressed as mediaeval Scotsmen.

Stalls sell Scottish pipe-band music alongside camouflaged utili-kilts ‘for the man who’s tired of stuffing himself into pants every morning’. Food stalls serve up an endless supply of authentic Scottish food such as Haggis made from buffalo stomachs, and prime-rib stovies.

  • But then if there’s one thing that North America does best, it is inventing ‘authentic’ traditions from scratch.

From the 25 mm-thick slabs of street pizza — which make visitors from Italy blanch — to the ‘Mexican’ food which is put into the powerful American blender and emerges in USA-style easy-eat XXL portions. No wonder that Scottish historians find a lot of it hard to swallow. Professor Mr.Tom Devine of ‘The University of Aberdeen’ has laid into ‘The Kirking of the Tartan’ — the blessing of a bolt of plaid cloth which serves as the solemn centrepiece of many ‘Highland Games’ in the USA, claiming that it is utterly inauthentic. He’s right, but only partly. It’s true that ‘The Kirking of the Tartan’ does not date back to the aftermath of ‘The Jacobite Uprising of 1745’ as its defenders proclaim. It was invented in 1941 by Mr.Peter Marshall, who would go on to serve as Chaplain to the US Senate between 1947 and 1949.

But, though it’s a tradition as old as last week, ‘The Kirking of the Tartan’, in common with most invented American traditions, has only one aim: to venerate a cultural tradition which generates enthusiastic support from sea to shining sea. Before home-based Scots leap in to tick off over-zealous US American Scots, we need to ask ourselves whether we could actually learn something from their transparent devotion to all things Scottish. It was a question I asked myself at the end of 2004-11 when I was invited to speak at a ‘St.Andrew’s Night Dinner’ in Chicago which had been organised by the Illinois ‘St.Andrew’s Society’.

Every man there was dressed in a kilt, itself not without risk in The Windy City, and we all enjoyed a traditional Scottish meal followed by speeches. Then, without warning, two pipers appeared and led in a tea trolley, pushed by four burly men. On the back of the tea-trolley was a large tartan teacosy.

When the trolley appeared at the front of the stage, the teacosy stirred and a tiny girl emerged. She was wearing a tartan pinafore, had plaid ribbons in her hair and waved at the applauding crowd with the aplomb of a movie star.

‘She’s this year’s Haggis Lassie’, one of the ladies at my table explained. ‘It’s traditional.’

‘The Haggis Lassie’ and the mobile Scottish castle are just two of the ways in which North Americans are joyfully recreating Scottish traditions. But if the ways in which ‘American Scots’ celebrate Scotland can seem a little unusual to Scottish eyes, the sincerity with which they do it isn’t in doubt.

‘I’ve seen hardened Vietnam [war] veterans cry when they receive their clan tartan for the first time’, says social anthropologist Ms.Celeste Ray who has studied ‘American-Scottish’ culture.

And at Harvard University, sociologist Ms.Mary Waters has accumulated evidence which proves how popular Scottish identity has become in the USA.

Since the publication of Mr.Alex Hailey’s ‘Roots’ in 1976, the hunger which Americans feel to find out about their backgrounds has grown and grown. At the end of the 1980s, a question was added to the American census which for the first time sought information about ethnic background. When she first conducted her research 20 years ago, Ms.Waters found that Scottish identity was the least popular white ethnic identity in America.

‘Scots were thought to be mean, bad tempered and unfriendly’, she says.

‘Now Scots are the most popular white ethnic identity of all.’

If one man is responsible for this turn-around in Scottish popularity, it is Mr.Randall Wallace, creator of ‘Braveheart’, the man who was announced this year as ‘Grand Marshall’ of ‘The Tartan Day’ parade in New York, USA. In the world of the ‘American-Scots’, Mr.Randall Wallace is a demi-god and William Wallace a full-blown deity. Mr.Wallace recounts how everywhere he goes he is told how the film has boosted membership of ‘Scottish-American’ societies ten-fold.

To Mr.Randall Wallace, his illustrious ancestor is a fully fledged Scottish hero and, thanks to Mr.Wallace’s film, the blue-and-white-painted freedom fighter has become a hero to Tamil Nationalists and oppressed Peruvian peasants. When I watched Mr.Wallace speak at a dinner for ‘American-Scots’, it became all too clear how much ‘Braveheart’s’ story meant to him.

He told a story about taking his father to Stirling and listening to a piper play the bagpipes from the ramparts of Stirling Castle. In the middle of the story, Mr.Wallace began to cry. For a full two minutes, he struggled to regain his composure, as the ‘American-Scots’ sat on the edge of their seats. At my table a native-born Scot who had recently relocated to Chicago rolled his eyes:

‘You wouldn’t get away with this in Glasgow.’

He was absolutely right. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between the colourful, innocent patriotism of ‘Scottish-Americans’ and the glum attitudes of modern, civic, devolutionary Scotland. But, as ‘Tartan Day’ rolls around again, and we all take a grim pleasure in sending up the attitudes of our North American cousins, its time to ask whether we could all be a bit more relaxed about our cultural traditions, and whether we should all put in a little homework in our garages. After all, there are plenty of castles out there crying out to be taken on the road.

The first part of David Stenhouse’s series, ‘Scots in America’, will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on 2005-03-28, Mo, at 11:30.



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