Happy Tartan Day!
I’m going to recount an old tale. One you have heard before.
On April 16 1746, a ragtag band of men hobbled, weak from hunger and bloody with wounds, away from a field called Culloden. The tatters of their kilts caught on the heather. Their legs were scratched by thistle as they made their escape into the hills and glens of their homeland. A home which soon they would not be able to call their own. They carried little besides their pride. And a forlorn hope for the return of their leader, the Bonny prince.
In the years that followed, from 1746 to 1782, the men and women of Scotland hid their pride, along with their traditional dress and armaments. The so called Proscriptions imposed by the English crown and the nominal government in Edinburg sought to make these, as well as the lifestyle they represented, a mere memory. Or worse, an embarrassment a backward way of life no modern enlightened man would admit to loving. But the seeds of the old thistle simply slept tucked away in mattresses. Hidden under the floor. Wrapped in oil cloth in the bottom of a trunk. And also in cryptic songs and poems. Waiting to bloom once more.
And bloom it did. With wild abandon. As soon as the proscriptions were lifted, Scottish Societies sprang up in Edinburgh and London seizing the time to revive old Highland dress, music, customs and culture. The tartan reappeared from under the bed clothes. Clan chiefs and ordinary folk began to wear tartan once more. Pipes once again echoed across the glens and lochs. And the soul of Scotland was heard in the songs of Robert Burns and the tales of Sir Walter Scott.
All this proved the English had been wrong Scotsmen could look both backward and forward.
The revival became a fever. Until one fateful day in 1822 King George the Fourth of England visited Edinburgh. The first visit of a reigning monarch to Scotland since 1650. Pride walked hand in hand with royalty as the English king processed the streets in full tartan regalia, kilt and all, surrounded by clan chiefs and the Royal Company of Archers. Tartan blazed as never before.
Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? But there is much more to our story than old battles and the pageantry of the elite. You might say there is more to tartan... than tartan.
Indeed, by the time of the King’s visit, tartan had been traveling the world for over 80 years. Wrapped in plaids and shawls, hundreds upon hundreds of the children of Scotland had crossed icy waters to new lands.
Many were soldiers, fighting for Britain in North America, India, France, Spain and more. The sons of Scotland tasted blood and inhaled gun smoke in places whose names they had never heard before Assayee, New Orleans, Waterloo, Paoli and Balaclava.
Still thousands more were civilians desperate for a new start. Scotland’s sons wove their own colorful immigrant saga. Crammed below the decks of oak ships by the hundreds, they endured stink, retched food and fetid air for two months or more before greeting the sunlight of the New World.
And as we all know, a great many landed here. They came to work this land. They came to offer their trades and skills in a young city which hungered for them (not like home where many young men were seen as less desirable than English sheep). Their ranks included men of letters such as a former Paisley cleric named John Witherspoon who became president of the College of New Jersey. An Aberdonian named William Small tutored Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary College. And there was William Keith , 15th Deputy Governor of Pennsylvania.
When revolution came, Scotsmen fought and died some for Britain, some for the Colonies. Nineteen of the fiftysix delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence were Scotsmen. As this new and unique nation grew, these sons of Scotland grew with it. Their families put down roots and left their names on the landscape Ardmore and Glenside. Montgomery and Radnor. To name just a few.
Scottish Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War. Among them Ulysses S. Grant, Winfield Scott, and Jeb Stuart. George McClellan and Stonewall Jackson were both Scotch Irish.
Those who made the trek across the sea did not take opportunity for granted, and they seized it. Scottish industry and Scottish intellect have been powering this nation ever since. We drive across steel bridges built by a Scotsman born in Dunfermlin named Andrew Carnegie.
The Scottish born Alexander Winton built one of the first American automobiles in 1896, and broke the world speed record in 1900. David Dunbar Buick, another Scottish immigrant, founded Buick Motors in 1903. And of course, we drive these vehicles on “Macadam”, the road surface invented by John Loudon McAdam of Ayrshire.
Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell was a Scotsman born in Edinburgh? If you have visited a National park, you can thank the great Scottish American conservationist, John Muir. And when you look at the night sky, you can feel proud that the first men on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were both of Scottish descent.
In our schools, the works of Scottish Americans are considered canon Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and William Faulkner. Even America’s beloved national personification, Uncle Sam is based on a Scotsman Samuel Wilson, who provided the army with beef and pork during the War of 1812.
So many household names. And yet, today t he number of Americans of Scottish descent is about 20 to 25 million. Only 8.3% of the total US population. Let that sink in for a moment. It seems to me that our collective contribution to America is greater than our numbers could possibly hint at. So….We know the legends. The themes are familiar. The players are well known to those of us who study history. Is it old hat? Perhaps. Does it bear repeating? Always. What does it all have to do with Tartan Day? Everything.
Despite our talk of clans and families, There is really only one single tartan that is all of Scotland, and America. It’s threads are our people survivors, explorers, warriors, leaders, craftsmen, artists and entrepreneurs. Each man a single thread, each accomplishment a single color. Woven together, they are not only brilliant, they are mighty.
You and I stand upon their shoulders. Future generations will judge us on whether or not we were worthy of the sacrifices and the gifts of our ancestors. What have you and I woven into the national tartan? Dignity? Charity? Wisdom?
I leave you with that question. Answering it for yourself will be the greatest source of Gaelic pride you will ever feel. I invite you to embrace the past. Harness the present. And build the future. It is the Scottish thing to do.