Scots abroad

As I drove through Missoula, Montana, a sign on the street corner caught my eye – Celtic Games. I pulled over to check the details, realised the games were on that day and the next, and only 30 miles south in Hamilton.  So a U-turn to experience American Highland games. It was an experience. 

Road sign in Missoula MT

I got there as the games were closing for the first day, but a ceilidh was on that evening. I found a motel, got a snack and headed to the ceilidh. When I arrived, dancing was in full flow to the sound of recorded music, as the caller walked folk through the moves. It was pretty much beginner level, but everyone engaged the dances with gusto.  

Looks like someone might have found the beer the night before

I went off in search of a beer, only to find that the ceilidh was dry. That was a first. So I ended up chatting with the couple who had sent me off on the fruitless search for a beer – both locals, dressed in their kilts of choice, either family clan or because the colour worked. I got a feel for the gathering and retired to look forward to the following day.

Games programme

The Bitterroot Celtic Games & Gathering was a family affair. The car park was stowed out, with many hundreds attending, much more than you usually see for Highland games in Scotland. This was clearly a gathering of those passionate about all things Scottish. There were clan stalls, games, accessories, dancing, piping, singing, food, and places for folk to sit, mingle and talk about their clan, Scotland, and ‘home’. I missed the heavies, but the kids games – including tossing the skillet – were entertaining

Tossing the skillet

I wandered along the clan stalls and found that the MacDonalds were talking to the Campbells. I didn’t pick up that they knew the history. Clan members were enthusiastic about their heritage and, finding out that I was from Scotland, were keen to share their stories and ask questions. If they’d been to Scotland, it was certainly to Edinburgh and to the region of their clan. Most had not yet made the trip but were keen to go at some point. I did emphasise that the best thing to come out of Edinburgh is the road to Glasgow. 

When they visit, they’ll be in for a culture shock if they manage to get below the surface and find out about the real Scotland, rather than the romanticised one that they embody through their dress and see in films.

Kilted patriarch

Those attending were largely from Montana, northern Idaho and western Washington. In my conversations, they characterised themselves as conservative, in favour of small government and minimal regulation, pro-life, gun owners, capitalist, favouring rugged individualism instead of dependency on the state.

Observing the bale toss

They didn’t know much about the current culture of Scotland – there was familiarity with the tourist sites and their own clan history but, judging by the questions I got, not much insight to contemporary issues and politics. When I characterised Scotland today as significantly socialist with nationalised health services, a liberal approach to social issues, pro-choice, anti-gun, more comfortable with regulation and an interventionist role for government, and a developed sense of community, I left it to their own understanding to make sense of the contrast.

I didn’t get any disagreement. In any case, their own culture is probably nearer that of Scotland 50 years ago, or even more recently in some areas.

It was good to see the display of Scottishness in America. When our family moved back to the States from Scotland, my mother observed that Scots abroad are more Scottish than at home. This was certainly the case in terms of dress and display, though what was missing was the cultural understanding about Scotland today. I suspect that when they go back ‘home’ as tourists, they’ll experience ‘canned’ Scotland, so will not get their cultural paradigm challenged. That might be the best outcome. 

Row of clan stalls
Games accessories for sale
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4 Responses

  1. I recall going to a similar Scottish Highland Games in Maryland during a 6 month journey around the USA in 1978 John. At that that time there were still a fair number of first and second generation Scottish immigrants and the Games finished with a mass procession of competing Pipe Bands. The East Coast from Maryland to Virginia and the Carolina’s had a lot of Scottish settlers and traditions were no doubt maintained in purer form. I guess the looser the cultural connection, in both time and distance, the more likely it is that the rituals will continue with a diminished understanding of their origin and context.
    That said, it is probably true that a majority of urban Scots have never experienced a Highland Games.

    1. Thanks Dave, and I’ll be interested to see what I find as I travel other parts of the US. There is certainly an impact of Scots in areas like Pittsburg, where Andrew Carnegie has left his philanthropic imprint on the city.

  2. Hi John

    Terrific to read your posts on LinkedIn and apologies only recently pick up this site.

    What an amazing journey and life enhancing trip through such fascinating people.

    I trust a book is in the making
    ..would love to illustrate part of your journey. As your writing is very inspiring.

    Check out pip Webb on FB Instagram and we are linked in.

    1. Thanks Philip, a book is planned, and that will be the next challenge! Appreciate the offer of illustration, and you do some impressive work. Let’s keep in touch on it.

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