Gather, all ye Scots, Tartan Day is upon us

Asians waved American flags, and an Indian wore a purple turban and stars-and-stripes tie. Crowds gathered at the voter-registration and passport tables. We were new Americans, sworn in moments ago, this past January. I was no longer a subject of the British crown. I was a citizen of the American republic.

I grew up in Glasgow, and it always appalled me that I was expected to embrace a song - "God Save the Queen" - penned by the perpetrators of my country's defeat in the 18th century. Once, a ticket-office salesman in London told me in a mangled cockney accent: "Go back to Scotland. We don't want you down here." He then burst out laughing and used his finger in an insulting manner.

All that abuse was now over for me. There would be no more inferiority complexes. No more queen. No more miserable weather or English antagonists in London ticket offices. I was free. I was born again as a citizen - a Californian.

Outside the court I took my first breaths of air into my new American lungs. The sky was blue; it complemented the sartorial reds that seemed to be everywhere. Most of the new citizens were of color or Latino. I was probably the only Scotsman in a crowd of 1,100. Now I was Scottish-American. What did that mean?

Once my car broke down on a shabby night in San Francisco. A tow truck arrived to save me. The driver was an American proud of his Scottish heritage. He had seen "Braveheart" five times, the blockbuster movie about the Scottish hero William Wallace. "I know Braveheart's speeches by heart," he said. I believed him when he told me his name was Robert Bruce, the name of Scotland's most famous king. He showed me his license to prove it. He was indeed Robert Bruce - though this was the first African-American King of Scotland I had ever met. He was proud that his slave ancestors had assumed their Scottish slave-owner's name. "I'm Scottish bro!" he said, giving me high-fives.

Racism was not the heritage link I was hoping for. But I had not failed to notice in America that the Confederate flag looked suspiciously like St. Andrew's Cross, the Scottish flag. A coincidence, I assumed. Another sure coincidence was the corrupted use of the Scottish word "clan" by those who spelled it "klan." There couldn't be a Scottish connection, could there?

I was wrong on both counts. The Ku Klux Klan's rise revolved around defeated Scottish Confederate officers in the South. The Order of the Horse oath ceremony recited by Klan members was straight from Scottish custom. Did my bro Robert Bruce know that the burning cross was an ancient Scottish symbol?

It was obviously better to see the celluloid version of old Scotland: the just battles, the fake blood, the unreality of it. It was miles away from the savage scent of lynching.

My own American history portrayed a welcome mat at the doors of employment and popularity. Many people told me they loved my accent. The numbers on this score improved dramatically after release of "Braveheart," and whenever Sean Connery was in a new movie. Everyone loves the Scottish, charming in their kilts, loud with their bagpipes. It is a ticket to ride, so it is inevitable that American politicians would use it for votes. As Woodrow Wilson said: "Every line of strength in American history is a line colored with Scottish blood."

Some of the current Washington elected sink into their Scottish ancestry, claiming that the ancient Scottish independence struggle is the intellectual foundation of the American Republic. The US Senate in 1998 went so far as to anoint April 6 as National Tartan Day, an annual celebration of the Scottish-American contribution to the nation. Trent Lott, the Republican leader of the Senate, once ventured to claim the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath, signed on April 6, 1320, was the "model" for the American Declaration of Independence.

I discovered Newt Gingrich's real name was Newt McPherson and that he once had fantasies about being Robert Bruce - the king, not the tow-truck driver. That explains the plaid ties. Mr. Gingrich was not alone on his Scottish perch among the Republican right. Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan also paraded their Scottish colors for conservative votes in the heartland.

By contrast, the Scotland I grew up in had embraced democratic socialism. There were few Conservatives. And when I came to America, I decided just to be American, plain and simple.

Alan Black is a promoter of Scottish culture and arts in California. Tomorrow is National Tartan Day in America.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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