It may be the fact that its so close to Thanksgiving which accounts for it not quite making it onto the national radar, but the last day of November is St. Andrew’s Day, the national day of Scotland when Americans of Scottish ancestry traditionally gather in celebration of their ancestral culture.
Most often marked by a formal dinner, where male guests appear in kilts and women in shawls of the tartan plaids indicating their original clans.
There is often a tasting of the finest Scottish whiskeys and blends, raffles with trips to Scotland, traditional Scottish sword dancing as well as formation dancing.
The meal itself is usually composed of traditional Scottish foods with entrees like Scotch lamb, salmon, or venison, a variety of root vegetables and desserts using oat flour.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in native dishes, Glasgow now boasting a number of hip restaurants using the delicious traditional staples re-interpreted by master chefs with lighter sauces and new flavorings. While that has yet to transfer in a large way in the U.S., one tradition still holds on both sides of the Atlantic – the ceremonial presentation of the hagas,
There’s an estimated 50 million native Scots now living in other parts of the world, but the U.S. absorbed the heaviest number of immigrants from Scotland, including a huge proportion of those who first settled in the Ulster province of northern Ireland for several generations, retaining their culture there, and became known as the Scots-Irish or the Ulster-Irish.
It was the Scots and the Scots-Irish who predominantly populated North and South Carolina and then moved west, settling Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas. Scotch immigrants are even credited with introducing fried chicken.
By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, more than 50,000 Scottish people had settled in the American colonies, many forging their own new communities where a distinct Scots culture took hold, in contrast to the dominant English culture.
In fact, Scottish culture played a crucial role in the war for independence, the philosophy of equality emerging in its Enlightenment having been drawn from its own struggle with England’s tyranny over Scotland.
It is no coincidence that among the fifty-six delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence, nineteen of them were either Scots or Scots-Irish.
As has been true with practically every immigrant group in the U.S., a large proportion of those first coming were barely able to make ends meet and to this end, a strong network of charitable organizations were created by those Scots who found success early on, to help support their native countrymen in need in the new land.
Not only has the organization continued, but it set a pattern for other cities to create their own St. Andrew Society. In 1749, a Philadelphia branch was started by two Scotsmen, James Wilson and John Witherspoon, who would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Today, there are St. Andrew Societies all throughout the country, with especially active and prominent ones in New York, Florida, Missouri, Colorado, Maryland and California, as well as the original one in Charleston, South Carolina.
All of them continue to raise funds for civic purposes, like caring for the elderly or providing college scholarships.
Since Scots immigration occurred early in the development of the U.S., their eventual intermarriage among those of different ancestries has left relatively few Americans who can claim they only have multi-generational Scots ancestry, but whatever other backgrounds may be in their mix, it has remained a strong ethnic identity.
Today, nearly 30 million Americans self-identify as having some Scots background.
Today’s every St. Andrew’s Society in the U.S. invites not only those with Scots background but all Americans interested in Scots culture to join their membership. While it is mostly members who faithfully attend the St. Andrew’s Day dinners on or near November 30, the societies also sponsor other events which draw wide and diverse crowds.
Some cities have a Tartan Day, in which Scots-Americans don their ancestral plaids.
Many have an annual Robert Burns Dinner, to celebrate and recite the poignant poetry of Scotland’s own, but it is the Highland Games held in warm weather around the country which prove the most popular and colorful.
Here one will usually find the rope-pulling contests between clans in different tartan plaids, the throwing of heavy weights and even long wood poles, more dancing and lively native music.
Whatever event any St. Andrew’s Society may he hosting, the ubiquitous symbol of a light blue x-cross against a field of white will be seen, be it on napkins, banners or painted on faces. I’s called the “saltire,” and has a long history related to the real Saint Andrew, one of the original Apostles, who preached the breadth of the Old World, from Russia to Greece.
The x-shaped cross signifies his wish that, when about to be crucified, he requested the configuration, believing the vertical cross must be reserved as the symbol of Christ alone.
Regulus, a monk, claiming an angel told him to carry the bones of Andrew to the far west, was shipwrecked with the relics in eastern Scotland and there founded the town of St. Andrews.
His legend became integral to the developing identity of the Scots and the symbol was integrated into the official flag of Scotland, although the Christian culture of many other nations also claim him as their patron.
However more interactive and raucous Highland Games may be, it is a guarantee that at the table of a St. Andrew’s Day Dinner one will find that peculiarly unique national dish of Scotland known as the Haggis, with its traditional side dishes of “Neeps” and “Tatties” (turnips and potatoes).
So much a part of the Scots identity is the round-shaped meat that in 1787 Robert Burns wrote a poem to honor it, “Ode to a Haggis.”
A dramatic reading of the poem is almost always a part of a St. Andrew’s Day dinner as well. It may be more appealing than the part when guests are given some to eat.
Haggis is a pudding made of a sheep’s lungs, liver and heart, mixed with spices and onions and good Scottish oatmeal – and then wrapped inside of the sheep’s stomach.
Optimists claim it actually is appealing due to its “nutty texture and delicious savory flavor.”
Perhaps however, it is no coincidence that immediately after eating haggis it is a standard tradition to down a dram of whiskey.
Scotch whiskey, of course.
- Myths or not, there is a powerful national identity (thetimes.co.uk)
- Salmond and Cameron deliver St Andrew’s Day messages (scotsman.com)
- Scottish attractions offer St Andrew’s Day deals (scotsman.com)