Performing Scottishness in the US: Highland Games, Diaspora, and Nation

Sociologist Alan Bairner argues that “sport and nationalism are arguably two of the most emotive issues in the modern world” and that supporting one’s national team is one primary way to demonstrate one’s national identity. We most recently saw this in the abundance of support given to the US Women’s National Team when they defeated Japan to win the Women’s World Cup over the Fourth of July weekend (this nationalism has a dark side). Historian Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that seeing the nation embodied by eleven athletes on the pitch is a potent way to experience nationalism, but sport can also remind us that national boundaries are often porous or fluid, whether that be through the international labor migration of elite athletes or through players representing nations other than their “home” nations or through representing no nation or representing a nation with contested recognition on the international stage.

This time of year, during Wimbledon, one of the most interesting examples of this is men’s tennis star Andy Murray. In 2011 & 2012 Murray was seen as the only hope for becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Parry in 1936; SW19 was plastered with Union Jacks as he progressed through the tournaments. He felt the pressure, and in 2012, he gave an emotional interview after losing the finals to Roger Federer. One month later he won a gold medal representing Great Britain on that same grass court, and the following year, he broke the 77 year drought (for British men, Virginia Wade’s 1977 victory was mostly ignored by the media) by defeating Novak Djokovic in the 2013 final.

What is often glossed over, especially here in the US, is that Andy Murray is a Scot. So amid the Union Jacks waving on Centre Court, one will spot a few Saltires. What makes the subsuming of Scottishness into Britishness even more interesting — to me at least — is that last September, a referendum was held to vote for Scottish independence. The “No” vote won, but by a smaller margin than predicted, and Scotland stayed in Great Britain. For us here in the US, representations of a Scottishness as separate from Britishness are often limited. We learn about the Scottish Highlands from Hollywood, and learn about Robert Burns from TV‘s most famous (Scotch) whisky drinker Ron Swanson. Scottishness is also fodder for comedy, like Groundskeeper Willie or SNL’s Mike Myers.

Sport is an important aspect of Scottish national identity, but is also a site for performing religious, regional, & class identities (Bairner, 1993; Jarvie & Walker, 1994). Scotland’s St. Andrews Old Course is described as the home of golf (and this year’s Open Championship). Scots are also known for their passion for football — most famously the Old Firm, which is the Glasgow rivalry between Rangers FC and Celtic FC but also for their passion for the men’s national team. While it’s primarily a Lowland sport, Rugby is also a site for performing national identity.

The Highlands of Scotland are home to many regional physical activities; hillwalking, mountain climbing, fishing, and (motor)cycling, but perhaps the two most “regional” are shinty (or “camanchd” in Scottish Gaelic) and the highland games. Shinty is similar to hurling and is best described as a sort of aerial, full-contact, field hockey. It is mostly played in the Highlands, but it is also played in the Lowlands and across the Atlantic in Canada and the US, but not in very high numbers.

Many of us know about the Highland Games, which is an inexact term usually referring to the Heavy Events (throwing the hammer, throwing the stone, putting the shot, weight tossing, and caber tossing), but includes other physical activities such as dancing, running, wrestling, jumping, playing musical instruments, singing, etc.

While these activities are often described as being Scottish — specifically from the Highlands of Scotland — they are practiced all over the world, including the United States. In the remainder of today’s post, I want to use secondary sources about the development of the Highland Games here in the US as a way to begin to think about Sport and Nationalism in a way different from national teams and international competitions.

Ben Carrington (2010) argues that many current notions of nationalism helps to reinscribe the political and social boundaries of the nation-state, and he finds that “diaspora helps to challenge static and at times Eurocentric models of history and place defined through predictable binaries such as inside/outside, internal/external and core/periphery” (p. 52). It is important to note that he is writing about the black diaspora, and sees claiming a diasporic identity as a political act. Many historians discuss the Scottish diaspora and I want to consider what role the Highland Games might play in “re-articulat[ing] wider political struggles in order to re-claim localized and discrepant histories” (Carrington, 2010, p. 51).

To understand meanings of the Highland Games, we need to talk about their history. Grant Jarvie’s Highland Games: The Making of the Myth traces the games back to 11th century “Highland Gatherings” that were an important part of the socio-political practices of the Highland people. Such gatherings were sometimes a call for gathering for war and sometimes they were a harvest celebration, and “many of the sporting traditions and cultural artifacts upon which today’s Highland Gatherings are dependent existed in various antecedent forms” (Jarvie, 1991, p. 41) during this initial phase from eleventh century until 1750s.

Cultural marginalization and emigration drove the development of highland games from 1740s to 1850s. The three factors of this phase were Post-Culloden British state policies, the transportation of Highland traditions and practices by the émigré, and the emergence of formal highland societies (in Scotland and abroad) who sought to actively promote selective aspects of a Highland culture through “actively encourag[ing]” Highland Gatherings (Jarvie, p. 43). The Jacobite’s loss at Culloden resulted in a formal state pursuit of cultural marginalization that targeted a whole way of life; British state policies “further accelerated a process of cultural marginalization and Anglicization” that had been going on in some forms since the eleventh century (p. 43).

The 1747 Act of Proscription (eventually repealed in 1782) effectively banned Highland dress, the meeting together of Highland people, the playing of bagpipes, and the carrying of arms such as the targe, dirk, claymore, and pistols. Transgressors of the law faced a high price: first offense resulted in six months in prison and a second violation earned a seven-year deportation. The Heritable Jurisdictions Act (also 1746/47) reduced the power of the clan chiefs by making it illegal for chiefs to possess land in the name of the clan, officiate a marriage between clans people, or order folks to take up arms for the clan. It eroded the patriarchal/paternal relationships between chiefs and clans people, reducing the relationship to a solely economic one. It also helped to further integrate the Highland chiefs into/with lowland Scots. These two laws, acting in tandem, decimated the Highlanders’ way of life in Scotland.

The emigration of Highland Scots is also closely associated with the Highland Clearances that began in the early 1700s, and were widely practiced throughout the Highlands from 1780s-1855. These Clearances occurred after the socio-political clan relationships of the Highlands were gutted by the British state policies, and under the guise of economic “redevelopment.” Jarvie defines the clearances narrowly, calling it “the effort of the landlords to redistribute and often reduce tenantry living on their estates [in the Highlands]” (p. 48). Historian James Hunter puts it a little more bluntly, “by [the 19th century], landowners had lost all conviction that there was any future for the people they were removing and they were just shoveling them out [to make room for livestock].” Thousands of people were pushed off of their land, out of their homes, and left with little hope.

Both Jarvie and James Hunter (1995) observe that many of the initial post-Culloden emigrants from the Highlands and to the American colonies were folks squeezed out of the Highlands as a result of the changing economic and social relationships between the chiefs and the clans people. Although Scots began to come over to the colonies as early as 1607, there was a large migration from Scotland to the “New World” beginning in the 18th century. According to Hunter (1995) and Gerald Redmond (1971), the Scots initially settled along the Eastern Coast of North America like many British and other European migrants, but “the most important areas of settlement were the Cape Fear Valley in North Carolina, the Mohawk and Upper Hudson Valleys in New York, and Altamaha Valley in Georgia” (Redmond, p. 34) in what would become the United States. Scots continued to come over to the North America, especially due to important “push” factors like changing political, social, cultural, and economic realities in Scotland – and the Highlands in particular.

High numbers of Highland immigrants led to the emergence of Highland societies in the US. Many were created in North America as economic, social, and cultural groups aimed at helping Scottish émigrés, with the first one developed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1729 (Jarvie, p. 53; Redmond, p. 34) and St. Andrew’s Societies following in Philadelphia (1749), New York (1756), and Savannah (some time after 1750).

Highland Gatherings and Games began to emerge throughout North America in the first few decades of the 19th century, proliferating in the midcentury — the San Francisco Highland Games date back to November 1866. Redmond points to the Boston Caledonian Club’s first games in March of 1859 and “the Highland Society of New York held its ‘first Sportive Meeting’ in 1836” (Redmond, p. 36-37). Regardless of which Highland Games event was first, Jarvie argues that “Scottish Highland Games had been firmly established as forms of sporting practice within North America” by the end of the 19th century and that the Scottish identity was more important to Scots emigrants than their US or Canadian affiliation/identity during this time (Jarvie, 1991, p. 55).

The popularization of the Highland Games in the 1840s-1920s was a result of both improvements in transportation and communication and the Kailyard literary tradition. This literary tradition, described as “bucolic moral tales… [of] harmonious Highland and agrarian lowland villages” (Zumkhawala-Cook, 2005) contributes to romantic nostalgia (scholars cite Walter Scott’s Waverly novels as another example) of Scotland — and the Highlands in particular, while also promoting a harmonious view of class and social relations within Scotland, “it was a romantic nostalgia, divorced from social reality, which helped to contribute to the popularization process of the Highlands and Highland cultural form” (Jarvie 1991, p. 72). Scots living in North America were (are?) key markets for the romantic nostalgia in kailyard literature (Jarvie, 1991; Zumkhalwala-Cook, 2005).

The Balmoralization process created or constructed a harmonious social reality in Scotland as well. This process generally describes Queen Victoria’s patronage of the Braemar Royal Highland Gatherings from the 1840s-1900s. In short, the Balmoralization of the Highland Gatherings and Games helped to both decontextualize and popularize the Braemar Royal Highland Games specifically while also helping to popularize the Highland way of life and the Highlands themselves more generally. They also provide an example of how meanings of cultural practices are never fixed and often shift based on context and power relations. This time period seems to be an important moment where the dominant narrative of a nostalgic remembering of the Highland Way of Life became calcified or cemented through Balmoraliztion and popularization in kailyard literature – specifically for the Scottish Diaspora. Romantic representations of the Highlands and its way of life papered over the very real political, social, and cultural cleavages occurring in and within the Highlands while providing a happy past worth remembering and celebrating; for these Scots in North America, it was a greater place to be from than it was when they left a generation earlier (Jarvie, 1991).

In her wonderful ethnography Reimagining Culture: Histories, Identities and the Gaelic Renaissance (1988), Sharon Macdonald points to this era as a Romantic period of Gaelic Renaissance where many nations were “inventing traditions.” In short, it seems that the “traditional” Highland way of life was being romanticized on both sides of the Atlantic, with emigrants in America trying to maintain some elements of the life they were forced to live. The cultural marginalization and destruction that occurred directly after Culloden created a space for cultural transformation wherein Lowland Scots and Highland landlords (former clan chiefs who were becoming more integrated with Lowland ‘society’) romanticized Highland cultural practices in popular literature, but also through formation of Highland Societies and Gatherings. These romantic notions of the Highlanders decontextualized the Highland way of life from the very real economic, cultural, and social events that helped to “push” Highlanders out of the Highlands and toward North America. We must remember that it wasn’t until the Highland resistance or “threat” was defeated (both on the battlefield and legislatively) that it could become romanticized (Macdonald, 1988; Jarvie, 1991). (Similar to romanticized notions of Native Americans after the “taming” of the West, no?)

Scottish Highlands Games have taken place in the United States since the 19th century, and gained renewed interest and vigor in the middle 20th century. Anthropologist Celeste Ray argues that “regional and ethnic distinctions reemerged” in post-WW2 US, in response to immigration, war, and economic problems — and this may account for the mid-20th century increase in interest of Highland Games. These performances are an important aspect of a Scottish Diaspora. In fact, a Highlands games is happening next weekend, right up the highway from me in Iowa. If this event is similar to the ones in years past, there will be Heavy Events and dancing, but also opportunities for purchasing markers of “Scottishness” like tartans and toy Claymores. Imported Scottish consumables like haggis, short cakes, and Irn-bru (“made from girders!”) might be available too. There might be a few folks teaching highland dances, there will be a pipe band, and there may even be Gaelic speakers reciting the poetry of Burns or Sorley MacLean.

While I enjoy going to the events, I am often confounded when attending Highland Games and Gatherings here in the US. I walk around, feeling a bit disconnected. Part of this is probably due to some of my scholarly training and my interest in “trying to figure this out.”

Part of it — I’m sure — is out of some weird notion of privileging my (brief) experiences in Scotland and over-privileging my “authentic” knowledge of what it’s “really” like over there. Watching folks connecting to their homeland (real or adopted — and who I am to say which is which) through physical acts like wearing a kilt, throwing a stone, or sheaf-tossing is fascinating.

And then, when I consider how this history of the events is told and retold — the fact that these acts are imagined as connecting one back all the way to the 11th century — I can definitely see the appeal it holds for some folks. Who wouldn’t want to feel “connected” to that distant romanticized past?

But, thinking diasporically requires us to think about the broader social and political processes surrounding these cultural national identities. Ray is a useful source to revisit here. She focuses her work on the South, two of the best attended Highland Games festivals take place in the South, North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Georgia’s Stone Mountain Highland Games (Stone Mountain is a monument to the Confederacy, where CSA soldiers are carved into the side of the mountain). Ray finds that the “dramatic surge of interest in…cultural and ancestral ties to Scotland…[was/is] especially true in the South” (p. 8-9). In essence, this could be seen as an example of constructing and performing a white ethnic identity to take part in identity politics. Ironically, it seems that performing Scottishness might have helped distinguish oneself from newer/more recent immigrants, which actually served to reinforce one’s American-ness. This performance will also serve to coalesce a meaning of Whiteness that excludes Eastern European, Asian, and Latino/a immigrants.

Is it too much to say that performing Scottishness is part of a global construction Whiteness? Do the similarities between the Scottish Saltire and the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia indicate any relationship between performing Scottishness in the US and the logics of white supremacy? What — if anything — are we to make of early constructions of Scottish identity in the South and its influence on leaders of a Neo-Confederacy?

I don’t know. And I fear that my speculations are oversimplifying these complex cultural practices.

For me, the best way to get to this answer would be through some actual ethnographic work to understand how people are understanding meanings of the Highland games and their own performances of them. Why have these games resonated with so many people for so long? What does this hyper- (and temporary) performance of Scottishness mean for our understandings of nation, diaspora, and sport? And, how does “knowing” the histories of the practices inform our analysis and their performance?

Matt first went to Scotland in 2011 as a part of a group of scholars who taught Highland children American sports, and then went again the following summer to work on his first dissertation idea, which was an analysis of the Cultural Olympiad’s Forest Pitch. One day, he hopes to undertake the ethnographic approach sketched above — but he needs to keep working out in order to get strong enough to try the heavy events! 

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