Frontlines

Highland fling on new sod

Stephen Kimber August 20 1979
Frontlines

Highland fling on new sod

Stephen Kimber August 20 1979

Highland fling on new sod

Frontlines

Stephen Kimber

Bonnie Prince Charlie would have been proud. More than 200 years after they were beaten by the English on the battlefield at Culloden, the Scots finally got their revenge. This summer they captured and held New Scotland—if not by force, then at least by ceilidh, a Gaelic word that translates roughly as “partying.”

During the past six weeks 35,000 Scots, former Scots and would-be Scots poured into Nova Scotia to eat, drink, sing, dance and revel in their common ancestry. They tossed cabers in Cape Breton, munched haggis in Halifax, and heard the skirl of bagpipes in Baddeck. Eighteen thousand strong, they j ammed into the tiny village of Glendale, Cape Breton (normal population—less than 1,000), for a three-day festival of Scottish fiddling. Five hundred Frasers squeezed into the West Pictou highschool auditorium to have dinner together because . . . well, because they were all Frasers. Sixty miles farther east along the Northumberland Strait in Pugwash, home of Cyrus Eaton’s famous thinkers’ conferences, more than 40 scholars, politicians and artists were sitting down in another high-school gymnasium to ponder “the role of the Scot in the development of the Canadian nation.”

The cause of all this ethnic excitement was the second International Gathering of the Clans—a celebration of all things Scottish—being held two years after the first gathering was hosted by Edinburgh. For many North American Scots, who hadn’t previously taken the time to consider their own heritage, it was a chance, as Harry Fraser of Seattle, Washington, put it, “to find out why the hair on the back of my head stands up when the bagpipes are played.”

The survival of the traditional Scottish clan system (from the Gaelic damn, meaning children) is an intriguing cultural phenomenon. Originally established as a mutual support system in which a powerful chief would provide

protection for his kin and tenants in exchange for their loyalty in battle, the clans were almost wiped out after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite uprising of 1745. To discourage further revolt, the English outlawed everything the clans held dear, from the playing of the bagpipes to the wearing of the tartans and, after stripping the chiefs of their traditional authority, drove many of the Highlanders from their land. Somehow, through it all, the clans survived as a sentimental kind of extended family and today—thanks in part to North America’s newfound fascination with “roots”—clan organizations are flourishing as never before.

During this summer’s gathering, in fact, 29 different clans have held their own well-attended “family” reunions in Nova Scotia. Though the emphasis clearly was on partying and sightseeing, more than a few Robertsons and Frasers and Munros slipped away from the clan round of clambakes and ceilidhs to spend a few hours quietly tracking down long-lost cousins at Nova Scotia’s public archives.

“There hasn’t been a Munro in my

family for three generations,” allowed Louise Crossgrove, a 32-year-old public health nurse from Victoria, B.C., who was attending her first Munro clan meeting ever. “But I’ve always known I was a Munro. Now, for the first time, I feel like there is something out there that is me and that I can grab hold of. There really is a Munro clan and I’m proud of it.”

Exultant organizers can still hardly believe the success of the gathering. From the kick-off Nova Scotia tattoo, an evening of pageantry and music put on for the Queen Mother in Halifax’s new Metro Centre on June 28, to the final hymnal, the ecumenical church service in Pictou that brought the curtain down on the gathering Aug. 12, virtually every event—there were more than 125 different ones scattered over 25 different communities—was crammed with celebrating Scots. Such traditional Scottish festivals as Antigonish’s Highland Games, which has been going on for 118 years, reported dramatic increases in attendance this

year. “And all the reports we’ve been getting back from the various clan gatherings indicate that, in almost every case, they’ve been getting three times as many people as they’d originally estimated,” boasted a relieved Ray Pierce, the executive director of the gathering organization.

Although the number of U.S. tourists to Nova Scotia was down this summer, those losses were more than offset by visitors from other Canadian provinces, the Scots being Canada’s third largest ethnic group. That, coupled with an influx of airborne Scots from Scotland, Australia and New Zealand, enabled the province to increase its number of June tourists by five per cent, the best gain for any Canadian province.

Though the first gathering, in Scotland in 1977, was a modest, two-week affair centred on Edinburgh, the Nova Scotia organizers wanted something bolder for themselves—a Scottish Expo and Olympic Games all rolled into one. And, after cajoling the provincial and federal governments into coughing up their share of the gathering’s $1.2-million budget, and getting corporate friends to provide the rest, gathering Chairman Gordon Archibald, 67, says he “couldn’t be more pleased at the way things have turned out. It’s a great time to be a Scot in Nova Scotia.”

The success of this year’s gathering, however, may spark unwanted competition for the right to hold the next one outside Scotland, in 1983. (A 1981 gathering is already planned for the homeland.) “During our gathering I overheard some Texans saying what a great idea this was and that maybe they should have the next one in Texas,” worried George Robertson, the organizer of clan Donnachaidh’s week-long reunion in Halifax. “After this gathering, it would be folly for Nova Scotia not to try again.”

Organizers will meet soon to decide how best to apply for the 1983 festivities, and a Nova Scotia bid would get support from James Adam, the man in charge of Scotland’s 1981 gathering. For Adam, it isn’t simply the province’s name or the fact that more Gaelic is probably spoken in Nova Scotia these days than in Scotland. For Adam, it is simply that Nova Scotia feels more like home than any place outside Scotland. “I can close my eyes in any community in Cape Breton,” Adam said at the end of a three-week tour of the province, “and hear people talking the way they do in parts of the Highlands.”

Bonnie Prince Charlie would have felt right at home.