The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

A week in tartan

Scotland Flag from PhotoEverywhere.co.uk – CC license

It’s time to celebrate all things Scottish. Dunk Walker’s shortbread in your tea, deep-fry a Mars Bar, eat chicken tikka masala. Read Robert Burns, watch Billy Connolly.  Drop into conversation that your great-great-grandmother came from Dundee (actually, she did). Whatever you do, though, make sure you do it in tartan.

In 1982, New York City Mayor Ed Koch declared July 1 as Tartan Day, a one-off celebration of the 200th anniversary of the repeal of the Act of Proscription — the law forbidding Scots to wear tartan. Following this, Scottish-Americans lobbied the Senate for official recognition of Tartan Day, until eventually, in 2008, President George W. Bush signed a Presidential Proclamation making April 6th a day to

“celebrate the spirit and character of Scottish Americans and recognize their many contributions to our culture and our way of life.”

— which, naturally, entails a long parade through the streets of New York in an attempt to out-do the other Celts’ celebrations on March 17.

Not just New York, either. Tartan festivities are held throughout the rest of the USA, plus Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, although the last two stick to July 1 for their day of plaid fabric observance. Even Scotland joins in the fun.

However, do the U.S celebrations really “celebrate the spirit and character of Scottish Americans” as President Bush said? The key word in that phrase is, perhaps,  “Americans.”

As Scottish expat and travel writer/blogger Aefa Mulholland says in her interview with Scotland’s Daily Record:

“People [in America] have very different views of Scottishness from what most people in Scotland would have today. Scottish-Americans tend to remember and celebrate Scotland the way it was when they left it.”

But that’s simply the way of the expat world: homesick for a place which doesn’t quite exist any more — only in memory.

On another note — it’s strange that a law banning an item of clothing should have such far-reaching celebrations. Certain U.S. towns currently making the wearing of saggy pants a criminal offense should perhaps ponder this point, for the benefit of future generations.

Question: Which style of dress would you like to see commemorated every year?

image: Scotts_flag by www.photoeverywhere.co.uk
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11 responses to “A week in tartan

  1. awindram April 7, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Instead of creating a whole new day to celebrate Scottishness, why didn’t the Americans just make a big deal about an already exisiting day that celebrates Scottishness – Burns Night on the 25 January? Wouldn’t a better way of celebrating your Scottish heritage be to actually celebrate and partake in an actual Scottish tradition instead of making one up?

    • ML Awanohara April 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm

      @awindram: But we’re celebrating the ideal, not the reality! That’s the whole point. We want nothing to do with the real thing…

      In answer to your question, Kate, one style of dress I would NOT like to see commemorated in years to come (I’m thinking of the day, perhaps not so far off, when the sun has set on the American empire) is the all-American “costume” of sweatshirt, tee shirt, baseball cap, baggy pants/trousers and beer belly. Can you imagine the Chinese (by then China is the leading superpower) celebrating “Baseball Cap Day” and having to wear pillows under their tee shirts to simulate beer bellies? It’s all a little too much…

  2. K Allison April 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Crinoline Day. That’s what I want.

  3. awindram April 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    @ML Awanohara I really don’t find it to be a case of Americans conciously rejecting the reality of a country (in this case Scotland) for their romantized ideal, I think a large proportion of people I interact with think the ideal is pretty damn close to the reality.

    • ML Awanohara April 7, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      @awindram Ahhhh… I see what you mean. But doesn’t this tartan obsession fall in the same category of Royal Family worship, which is also rife in the U.S.? People here love the British royals so much, they don’t really care how badly they behave or how much they are costing the British nation. When you’re in love with an ideal, you become very selective about what you see and hear. That way, reality doesn’t impinge too much.

      And who knows, maybe that’s the good thing about displacement. You can enjoy the good things — as Kate says, put on a kilt, listen to the bagpipes, eat some shortbread — while forgetting about the bad stuff (the cold, damp, dark winters; the drunken men in pubs; the isolation).

      • Joanna April 8, 2011 at 7:46 am

        I lived in Brazil for a few years and in many ways founds its cultural background to be rather similar to the USA. Previously a part of the Portuguese Empire it had broken away in the 19th century, it had its own history of slavery and of immigration. There are so many names of Italian, Polish and German origin that I was perpetually in wonder. It was not what I had expected. A blonde haired, blue eyed woman in a mall in Rio would be assumed to come from the German/Polish south and would not stand out as an “estrangeiro” as such. This was not the country I had imagined.

        Americans frequently offer their cultural inheritance on a plate. Someone’s great skin will be explained to be a result of their being Italian (well, their Granny being Italian), or their temper a result of their Irish great grandparents. Not so in Brazil. I cannot think of one instance when a Brazilian offered such explanations for their character, or, indeed offered information about their family’s cultural heritage. When I asked where a new acquaintance was originally from I expected to be told “I am a Polish Brazilian” or an “Italian Brazilian”. Pressing further to clarify my question and imagining the problem was my less than sure grip on the language I found that the question was actually alien to them. “I am Brazilian” they would answer looking at me as if I was one lime short of a caipirinha. There are, it is true, festivals celebrating particular countries, where you can go and admire the odd Bavarian dress and eat a few bratwurst with your beer However, there are no days such as St Patrick’s Day where the whole country gets involved with strange rites never seen in the Emerald Isle such as throwing cabbages or colouring beer green. Why is this? I have no idea. I am guessing perhaps that it is something do do with the difference between English and Portuguese empiring. The English sent families to settle new countries and later governors and other administrators and officers took their families with them.
        For the Portuguese empiring was a venture for single men alone. These men set off to discover new lands and indigenous ladies whom they often married. These relationships, apparently not frowned upon led to a blending of which they are justly proud. Of course, there is racism and those with less European features and colourings continue to face difficulties, but I do think that this blending has led people to look less at differences and to have a very real sense of pride in being Brazilian. A sense of pride which is worn quite lightly as there seems no need to say it, it just is.

        I would be interested to know if any expats in Brazil have noticed the same and have any ideas which would help enlighten me further.

        I am English, with an Irish mother, and have lived twice in America as well as in Brazil, Holland, Venezuela, Malaysia. I currently live in Saudi Arabia.

  4. Zara April 18, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    As a British expat living in Brazil, I found your comments really interesting. I think that the Brazilian reaction to foreigners and other cultures depends a lot on where in Brazil you are. The sheer magnitude of the country means that each state has its own culture and belief system.

    From what I understand, you were in Rio which is very advanced whereas I live in Goiânia, a relatively small capital in the middle of the farming state of Goias. When I arrived 10 years ago people literally stopped me in the street to ask me where I was from (when I said England, they thought this was wonderful). They later invited me to have a coffee with their family.

    Like you, I have found the Brazilians to be a patriotic people who are not afraid to talk about colour or race – people proudly talk about their hair that comes from Indian ancestors, their eyes that come from a Portuguese grandfather. Racism does exist but people embrace it as a part of life in their country and are very open about it, unlike in other places.

    Although many Brazilians are proud of their cultural heritage, there is also an overrated view of life abroad. Countless times I have been asked why on earth I would want to move from lovely England to live in a poor country like Brazil. It’s hard to square these sentiments with the green and yellow pride displayed by Brazilians during the World Cup.

    So why do so many Brazilians seem to want to emigrate to Europe or the US? The conclusion I came to that was during the 80’s and 90’s there was a huge wave of Brazilian emigration to the States. People would send money back to their families and return to Brazil with tales of new sights, an organised government, and best of all…dollars!!! From this rose-tinted report of the USA stemmed the idea that the grass is greener… As a result, many Brazilians have tragically lost their lives trying to cross the Mexican border to get into the States illegally.

    As for haggis throwing and Guinness drinking: none of this has made its debut in Goiânia yet. People still laugh at me for drinking tea with milk and no sugar. They consider it ‘very English’…and some people even think that England is part of the United States of America!!!

    Hope this has enlightened you in some way…

    • Joanna Masters-Maggs April 21, 2011 at 2:22 am

      Yes, this is very interesting. You are right, I spent my time in Rio. Even here in Saudi, most of the Brazilians I meet are from the big cities. My husband spent a few years in Amazonas and tells me that the demographic make-up was considerably less diverse, far more indigenous. Brazil has made strides in recent years, but the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest in the world. I think its the poor who want out. I grant that most people I know are financially secure, very. Most of these I have found, like travelling, but have no desire to swap what they have for, say, European life. The ones, who showed an interest in life overseas, were my maid, driver, gardener. I hated to leave Brazil, not least because I had to part with my maid, driver, gardener. But even those people, who I came to be so fond of and on whom I daily inflicted my terrible Portuguese, did not offer up their family roots in the same way I am accustomed to in America. I needed to poke and prod and find out. They really seem define themselves as Brazilian first and foremost, whether they want to stay or go!

      My Brazilian neighbour is quite unsettled by my question because she doesn’t have an explanation. She has told me her family background, but again, it came out of being questioned, not because it was freely offered.

      I am loving mulling this over. It was so thoughtful of you to respond. I am going back to the treadmill to think some more! Goiana looks lovely — many people go to Rio for work, I think. They too are expats, unwilling I suspect!

  5. ML Awanohara April 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I was going to chime in some time ago but then started feeling a little defensive. I seem to be the only American at the table, and everyone keeps talking about how strange Americans are for celebrating the various cultures that make up our so-called melting pot.

    But, okay, here’s a new thought. At least in the case of the Scots, could some of this also be due to their own habit of promoting their culture wherever they go? I mean, it’s not like they leave their kilts and bagpipes behind when they travel. On the contrary, they seem to enjoy celebrating their uniqueness with anyone who will give them an audience.

    I offer as evidence this photo of a young Scot from East Kilbride who is now teaching in a remote part of Japan (he was recently interviewed by Expat Blog).

    • Joanna Masters-Maggs April 21, 2011 at 2:38 am

      Oh ML, I don’t think Americans are strange for this at all. In fact I think it is quite an attractive trait. It is just that I have lived in two countries with similar histories of colonialism and immigration and yet, day to day, the people show a different attitude and I am bursting to understand it. I first met my portuguese teacher 8 years ago, I still don’t know her background and I spent hours a week with her and we now stay in touch on Facebook. In America, everyone I met would tell me about their French granny or whatever. I don’t aim to judge. I’d love to know what the cultural priorities are, for want of a better term, which prompt such divergent responses.

      When I first left England for university in Virginia, my Englishness was my calling card, my persona and I clung to it. Now, I have spates of Englishness when I try to reclaim what I was. Tomorrow, for example, I will spend hours making hot cross buns for Easter. However, most of the time it has gone and has been replaced by the floatiness of belonging nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Even my accent fluctuates depending on who I am with, where I am and how tired I am, but that is fine. I am English, but I’m not really. I’ve been gone 15 years. England has changed and so have I. No amount of flag-waving or scone eating will alter that.

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