National Tartan Day in New York

by

06/01/2003

120 west 44th Street 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

In a city with an Irish pub on every corner, where are the other kilt-wearing Celts to be found? Since returning from a trip to the Scottish Highlands, I have noticed a distinct lack of Scottish presence in New York, particularly when compared to the Irish. I searched in vain for the Whisky Mac, a mellow drink of equal parts whiskey and Crabbie’s green ginger wine, found at every pub in Caledonia. The only Scottish restaurant in the city, St. Andrews, on West 44th Street, has a dark green façade, a cozy publike atmosphere, and golf-related photographs on the wall. One evening I walked confidently up to the bar and ordered a Whiskey Mac. “Never heard of it,” the Irish bartender said. He also told me he didn’t relish having to wear a kilt. I wilted with disappointment, though the restaurant does serve the notorious dish immortalized by Scotland’s beloved bard Rabbie Burns in his famous “Address to a Haggis.” Haggis, a rich concoction of ground organs and oatmeal stuffed in a sheep’s stomach lining, is an acquired taste.

April 6, National Tartan Day, recently presented me with an opportunity to find out what it means to be Scottish in New York. A celebration of “the major contribution that Scottish-Americans have played in the founding of this nation,” the holiday was established in 1998 by Resolution 155, sponsored by Senator Trent Lott. My first encounter was at the Union Square subway station, where a man with patchwork pants and hennaed hair, Duncan Robertson, played the bagpipes. In the instrument case next to him were business cards reading “Have pipes will travel,” and a CD of traditional Irish music. When asked if he was Scottish, he said in an unadulterated American accent, “I’m from Dundee, but I’ve been here a long time.”

At Dressed to Kilt, a kickoff reception and fashion show at the wood-paneled Harold Pratt House, alas, there was no sign of the Whiskey Mac. Plenty of people donned kilts, but many of the most elaborately dressed had no Scottish ancestry. Megan Haas, who was wearing a leather version with studs, owns Seattle-based Utilikilts, whose casual kilts sell best in Texas and Kentucky. Their canvas workman’s kilt has expandable cargo pockets, hammer and tape-measure loops, a key ring, and two back pockets.

“The guys in Texas are very comfortable being men. And the kilt is the most primitive garment a man can wear. When you see a man in a kilt, your head goes around on your neck,” she said.

When asked what was underneath his camouflage-patterned kilt, Kirk Alexandria replied, “What God gave me and what I’ve added.” Before I could object, he lifted the kilt to reveal his pierced privates.

Dr. Christopher Pratt, 74th chief of the New York Caledonian Club, wore a red plaid kilt and a black jacket with a white ruffled collar. A dean at Columbia University, he has dark eyes, heavy black eyebrows, a closely cropped silver beard, and is so tall that he droops slightly at the top like a sunflower. “It’s in our blood: the rocks, the ocean, and the sense of never knowing what the weather’s going to do,” said Pratt, who immigrated to the States as a child. “Scots have such a sense of self-reliance. If you get two together, first they’re likely to argue; second they’re likely to get it done.”

Duncan Macaulay, who wore a casual black turtleneck with his kilt, moved here in 1984 to work on Wall Street. “It’s very hard to compete in New York with the Irish if you’re doing the Celtic thing. There’s a huge Irish population here, and they do a great marketing job. What the Scottish people did differently from a lot of other ethnic groups is they just assimilated.”

Andrew Clubb, a youthful househusband and member of a punk band on Shetland Island, said in a heavy brogue, “I really believe most of you folk in America don’t even know where Britain is.”

At the British Consulate, 25-year-old Fulbright scholar named Alan Merson discussed Robert the Bruce’s Declaration of Arbroath of April 6, 1320, which led to a brief period of Scottish independence. After the Scots’ disastrous loss to the Crown at the battle of Culloden, on April 16, 1746, the kilt was banned for thirty-five years, cementing its status as a symbol of cultural pride. But in his account of Scottish history, which inspired guffaws from the modest audience, the ginger-haired Merson noted, “The phrase ‘Tartan Day’ produces cringes of embarrassment back home; it would be the equivalent of the Scottish Parliament designating July Fourth as Cowboy Day in Scotland.”

Red-haired Malcolm Boyd, who has lived in New York for nine years, grew up in Falkirk, not far from the English border. “People do recognize the kilts and bagpipes, but there’s a lot more to Scotland than that. This is an anachronism, and it doesn’t really help the people of Scotland. It’s historical; it’s the Brigadoon movie.” Juggling two pints of Newcastle Brown Ale, he said, “One reason we lack identity is because we don’t have independence, unlike the Irish. When you tell someone you’re Scottish, a lot of people don’t even know where you come from. So are we British, or are we Scottish? We don’t even know; we lack a certain national identity.”

On Saturday the piercing notes of “Amazing Grace” emanated from a plaid sea of 2,000 kilts flowing majestically from 44th Street to Central Park. The pipe bands alternated between just four songs. A rather somber affair for a New York parade, it perhaps exemplified the proud, hardy spirit of the people — a reflection of the adverse climate and bleak, rugged landscape of their homeland. The cold damp day was a fine one according to Dr. Pratt, one of the leaders of the parade: “Scottish sunshine is really a day when you can do things outdoors; it may be a fine, soft rain but you can still do things outside.” At a distance he might easily be mistaken for Sean Connery, who led last year’s parade of 10,000 bagpipers.

I had been told that any Scotsman caught wearing undergarments beneath his kilt would have them confiscated and displayed in public. They say the proof is in the pudding. Sitting on a hillock watching columns of bagpipers march into the park, I saw two young men with Peruvian knit hats and heavy military boots jump over the fence. The green plaid kilt one of them was wearing flew upward, revealing the bare-naked evidence that he was a real Scotsman.

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