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Bluegrass and Caber Toss: Celebrations of Scottish heritage In America

Two summers ago, on a hot and humid July afternoon, as a young, inexperienced freelancer for my local newspaper, I was assigned to photograph a ‘‘Scottish festival’’ complete with Highland games, taking place nearby. What was notable about this seemingly un-noteworthy assignment was the location. The games were taking place in Lime Rock, Connecticut in the United States, a few minutes from my hometown. The presence of such celebrations of Scottish, or purportedly Scottish, traditions across the Atlantic, though a surprising phenomenon, reveals much about American perceptions of Scotland and what it represents.

The photos I took that day to be published are, alas, lost to posterity. My impressions of the event and the people milling around the fairgrounds that day, however, are not. Garments emblazoned with the blue and white St Andrews cross were commonplace and bagpipe bands featured prominently, though they were punctuated by the occasional Bruce Springsteen or Lee Greenwood song blaring from the fairground loudspeakers. Many musicians and contestants spoke of their Scottish ancestry as a motivation for participating, or of Scottish grandparents or great-grandparents that had urged them to do so. Some were newcomers, others had thrown the hammer or played in bagpipe bands for more than a decade.

The main events consisted of feats of strength like the hammer throw and the caber toss, in which contestants lift and toss a 20-foot log end-over-end, taking centre stage. Beyond these, tartan-clad children raced each other, clans occupied a series of stalls displaying their tartans, and numerous vendors sold Scotch pies and Scotch eggs. A large tent dubbed the ‘‘Scottish Grocery Store’’ sold Irn Bru and canned haggis. A sign at the entrance declared that kids entered free if they were ‘‘wearing a kilt and carrying a toy sword or dressed as Merida from the Disney movie ‘Brave.’’’

Advertising for the festival in the form of bulletins and posters pinned to light towers around the grounds emphasised the event’s longevity. In fact, they would not let you forget it. “THE 3RD OLDEST GAMES OF ITS TYPE” they declared, pointing to the event’s origins in the 1920s. Other advertisements for the games promised a good time for “Scots and Scots-at-heart.” The website for the Round Hill Highland Games, as the event is called, refers to its setting, the Litchfield Hills, as “the Western Highlands of Connecticut.” What the Litchfield Hills possibly could have in common with the Scottish Highlands was, and is, lost on me.

Is this interest in Scotland unique, a consequence of Scotland hitting above its weight as an exporter of culture? After all, Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” is ubiquitous in the English-speaking world at celebrations of the new year.

What’s more, those most puzzled by the American infatuation with all things Scottish seem to be Scots themselves. Writing in The Herald last year, the Scottish novelist Simon Stephenson wondered what it is about his nation that was so attractive to them. Stephenson, who now lives in California, began his investigation by going to a Scottish festival near Los Angeles that sounds remarkably like the one I was sent to cover, except with the addition of a petting zoo and what sounds like an even more copious supply of alcohol. When Stephenson writes that he began to suspect that “our American cousins don’t love Scotland at all, but simply Braveheart and Outlander,” his disappointment is obvious. Still, he ends less sure of this, running through a litany of Scotland’s virtues, questioning whether any of them are the sources of the admiration he observes: “Is it our renowned landscapes, our progressive politics or our mind-blowing litany of world-changing inventions? Is it our whisky, our golf, our Andy Murray? Is it simply our legendary humility?”

Maybe, but the emphasis on traditions and their continuity among the performers and visitors at the festival gave me an inkling that it was something else. For them, Scotland and its traditions represented at the festival were, particularly for the ones with Scottish ancestry, emblematic of an ancient and continuous heritage that their own country, not even two-and-a-half centuries old, lacked. Take, for instance, James Wilson, the lead singer of the American country music band Sons of Bill, who once quipped that “while I’m not a fan of sentimental regionalism as such, Scotland really is just better than other places.”

Of course, the traditions and “heritage” that they consider to be ancient and unchanging are very often creations of the recent past, the residual effects of the 19th century Highlandism that embedded a romantic image of the Scottish Highlands and Scottish regional customs more generally in the minds of English Victorians and associated regional customs with Scotland as a whole.

The writings of Walter Scott contributed to this: it was Scott who organised the 1822 reception of George IV in Edinburgh, which epitomised the contradictions of this romanticised image. The event was full of tartan pageantry and exaggerated Highland regalia, with Scott even choosing the exact patterns of dress down to seemingly minor accessories. At the same time, as the historian Tom Devine points out, the genuine Highlanders were experiencing the breakdown of their society was in the process of rapidly breaking up. In fact, many of the landowners active in the reception in 1822 had participated in the forced clearances of the Highlands in the preceding years in an effort to turn their large estates into assets that would turn a profit.

It was in this period that, in the words of the anthropologist Celeste Ray, “what the Hanoverian government labelled the dress of traitors, and Lowland Scots had previously associated with cattle thieves, became the Scottish national dress. Lowlanders forsook the ancient Highland/Lowland cultural divide to don tartan and an elaborate and accessorized version of the kilt.” The Highlander, long depicted as primitive, was ennobled.

This eschewing of geographic and cultural divides is characteristic of celebrations of Scottish heritage today in the United States, where celebrations of the “auld country” blend traditions in ways that might have been anathema to their ancestors. This extends to other aspects of life as well. In the 1990s, Radford University in the southern US state of Virginia adopted “The Highlander” as its school mascot and announced an “official tartan,” the Macfarlane. It is in the American South that over a third of Scottish cultural celebrations in the US take place. At Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, for instance, tens of thousands of people come each year for what is considered by many to be the largest Scottish games event in the United States.

According to Ray, “first-time visitors to the games locate relevant tents to learn about their “family” history, and clan society members stop by their tents to visit with their “cousins” and chat about genealogy.” These celebrations often combine Highland dress and games, like caber toss, with nostalgic, sanitised images of the antebellum South. As Ray puts it, “Southerners take to the Scottish-heritage movement so well because its present form draws on parallel mythologies, rather than actual cultural continuities, that underlie the construction of both Scottish and southern identities.”

The games taking place that July day in Connecticut, and annually, did not seem to warrant that same kind of analysis. After all, its interest to the casual observer was mainly the novelty of it. But the same desire for those “cultural continuities,” however contrived or elusive, was evident. For them, memories of the distant past might provide a sense of identity and community now.

Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva

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