``Walk down Sauchiehall Street in the kilt and they look at you as if you're crazy.'' Or so said Angus MacAlister, fifth Laird of Glenbarr and claimant to chieftainship of his clan.
He was in Glasgow recently, Scotland's ``other city,'' for the main week of the International Gathering of the Scots 1985. He came -- wearing the kilt, of course -- to welcome whatever MacAlisters might turn up here.
The International Gathering happens in Scotland every four years, with further such gatherings overseas betweentimes. (Next year's will be in Austin, Texas.) ``Our main objective,'' James Adam of the Organizing Trust says, ``is the extension and development of international friendship . . . by using the ethnic link. . . .''
He claims that links are indeed being forged worldwide among people sharing the same last names ``in ways that would have been difficult to imagine 10 years ago.''
But the Glasgow week itself was a week of little ironies and paradoxes. For the non-Scot, bemused observation and anomalous conclusions seemed the best to hope for as ceilidhs and receptions, country and Highland dance displays, piping and fiddling performances, followed each other or coincided, and little private clan society get-togethers interspersed themselves with evenings of Gaelic verse and drama and song. Things swung from the lightly Scottish, to the deeply Gaelic, to the apparently English.
Take MacAlister himself: Here he was, proclaiming Scottish roots and Scottish blood (``100 percent, I hope''), manfully withstanding odd looks from Glaswegians more familiar with the peculiar dress of punks or football supporters than with tartans, sporrans, and feather bonnets `a la Walter Scott. He was hoping that overseas MacAlisters might rally some support (financial, that is) for his family seat by turning it into the clan's international center.
Yet, what happens when this undoubted Scot speaks? Out comes English. Perfectly modulated, public-school English. Not a trace of throaty ``ch'' or rollicking ``r.''
And the same turns out to be true at the reception for overseas Scots in the City Chambers at the end of the week. The speeches were multi-accented. Lord Provost Gray sounds like a Scot all right, but Lt. Col. H. Paterson, chairman of the gathering, speaks with the clipped assurance of a particularly English Army officer.
Much more expectedly, and throughout the week, the Glasgow air floated accents Canadian, Mississippian, Texan, Californian, Australian, New Zealand, South African. . . .
South African? Yes. But homecoming Scots from that country were advised to ``keep a low profile'' in Glasgow. The city's socialist council has no time for anyone from the land of apartheid -- not even hereditary Scots, apparently. If South Africans were known to be here, the council had threatened to withdraw its welcome to the entire gathering.
The clans themselves, however, were all peace and goodwill. Nowadays they are reduced to societies that recruit members with more success abroad than at home. All week they chummily manned information booths in the McLennan galleries, temporarily acting as ``Clan Center,'' on Sauchiehall Street. For anyone loving all things Scottish, this center was a paradise.
But the meeting was mostly an elusive affair. It made little visible or audible impact on the daily life of the city. If there were ``thousands'' of overseas Scots present, as some suggested, it was not apparent to this observer. Pipe bands had set it all rolling, but they were small-scale, one was told, compared with the pipe-and-drum marches that regularly occur in the United States and Canada. Scotland just doesn't seem to have gotten the idea.
Perhaps, after all, a week of little events is the best sort of homecoming. What was evident was the difference between the average home-Scot's attitude to Scottishness and that of his 'emigr'e cousins and their descendants. It is clear that the home-Scot feels little need to proclaim his Scottishness. In contrast, there can be no ``international nationality'' (except the Irish?) that celebrates itself with such out-and-out enthusiasm as do the Scots -- outside Scotland. What a romantic picture of their homeland they have! But how do they maintain it when they come to today's Scotland, and see things unromantic and un-Scottish on every side?
One commentator puts it down to a ``tartan mist,'' which hides the reality of Scotland from its overseas relations. But why shouldn't they sing and dream of the road to the isles? More than a few home-Scots still do so, in fact.
And who, on vacation, or tracing his ancestry, wants to worry about housing shortages, ferocious unemployment, and changed industrial roles? In Glasgow such things do tend to intrude: It is a city struggling for renewal and modernization but still -- ironically -- fighting precisely those deprivations that drove so many Scots abroad in the first place.
But Glasgow and Scotland as a whole do need tourists. The market is known to be vast. There are (some reckon) 50 million people of direct Scottish descent outside this little nation, and only 5 million inside. ``We hope,'' joked R. A. B. McLaren, one of the organizers, ``that they don't all come at the same time!''
Well, they didn't. Could it be that there are perhaps more kilt-wearers these days in Austin, Texas, than in bonnie Scotland itself? And because a yearning love of the old country is much easier when you live thousands of miles away than when you walk down Sauchiehall Street in the rain?