Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 15:48 UK

Tartan scribblings from the US

BBC Scotland political correspondent Glenn Campbell is travelling to the US for Scotland Week.

He will be writing a regular diary describing American reaction to the annual celebrations.


I've been eating eggs benedict for breakfast most days. Either that or bagels.

I've walked the sidewalks and taken a few yellow cabs with my luggage in the trunk.

I've started saying things like "yes, ma'am" and "thank you so much".

Next think you know I'll be spelling words like colour without a "u".

What's happening?

I've only been here a few days and I'm shedding what's most noticeably Scottish about me, my voice.

I came to report on a Scottish-American celebration.

I wore a kilt for goodness sake.

And despite that, I seem to be assimilating.

It's not just me.

I heard my producer ask for "the check" in a diner. (Diner? I'm doing it again).

Even the first minister referred to the presidential elections "come the fall" in an interview for Reporting Scotland.

I guess that's what happens in melting pot America.

Multiply the effect by generations and what traditions are passed on develop and distort.

Others are rediscovered and reinvented.

That's what makes Tartan Day in America theirs and not ours.

Scotland the cringe? Nah. I'm over it.


Well I wouldn't have put money on me wearing my kilt this week.

But here I am on New York's sixth avenue in clan Campbell colours.

If I'm honest, it feels good.

Hundreds of others are wearing the same sort of gear (including a pack of Scottish and West Highland terriers).

Thousands more have turned out to watch and there's a lot of goodwill from the crowd.

Glenn Campbell in his kilt
Glenn dressed to kilt on Tartan Day

This is Scotland's big day in the big apple.

Tiny compared to a St Patrick's day parade but growing year on year.

About as truly Scottish as a Royal Mile gift shop but does that make it wrong?

As VisitScotland's chief executive Philip Riddle says: "the past does us no harm, the icons do us no harm".

This is how many Americans of Scottish descent choose to celebrate their heritage.

The US senate has given them a national day to do it.

President Bush and his would-be successors have offered their backing.

If any of that helps Scotland win new trade and tourism from America, what is there to be embarrassed about?

It's the day of the big parade along New York's sixth avenue.

Alex Salmond's told us he'll be wearing a kilt in Robert Burns tartan.

"You've gotta get into the swing of these things" he says.

Apparently the American footballer Lawrence Tynes who's this year's parade grand marshall will be wearing his kilt too.

I guess if a kicker with the New York giants can do it, I can too.

Lawrence Tynes is originally from Scotland. He was born in Greenock.

Although it's 20 years since he moved to the States, he tells me: "I'll never forget where I came from."

Nowadays Lawrence is not only living the American dream, he's wearing it too.

Well kind of. His sporran is made from an American football.

It was said to have been the one he kicked to victory in last year's Superbowl.

Unfortunately, that's not true.

But he has no qualms about wearing the sporran or his Inverclyde tartan kilt.

"I think it's a great image - shows we're not afraid to put on something that looks like a skirt".

Don't know if Barack Obama's got the legs for a kilt but part of his family tree is supposed to be rooted in Scotland.

In fact one genealogist claims both he and his republican rival for the US presidency, John McCain, can trace their ancestors back to king William the Lion.

Together with the third White House hopeful, Hillary Clinton, they've issued statements through the Scottish Government endorsing the tartan day celebration.

Americans of Scottish descent - and there are millions of them - are voters too.

The first minister won't say who he's backing in the race to succeed George W Bush as president.

I don't even know the horse he's tipping in the Grand National.

He won't lose a penny though. Horse daft he maybe but I'm told he didn't manage to place a bet before he flew out to America.


Visited Riker's Island earlier today, where New York City holds 14,000 prisoners on remand or serving sentences of less than one year.

This has nothing to do with Scotland week. We were filming a report for a future edition of the Politics Show.

Anyway, the fun part was getting back to the BBC studio in time to appear on Reporting Scotland.

NYC's deputy commissioner for corrections agreed to give us a lift.

Correction department badge
Glenn took a trip to Riker's island

His car is fantastic. Inside, it has a red flashing light and a siren with at least half a dozen different sounds including wail and yelp.

This, surely, is every boy's dream toy.

I was tempted to ask him to power it up to help get us through the Manhattan traffic.

I resisted. But surely that's how some New York law enforcers get home in time for dinner.

Why else wonders our deputy commissioner are there always more sirens at rush hour?

The senator who put his name to the resolution which founded Tartan Day in America was Trent Lott.

He's a colourful character. A republican from Mississippi who can trace his family history back to a Scottish glen.

Senator Lott has recently quit politics for a lobbying career.

He doesn't particularly want to influence Scottish politics but he does have some interesting thoughts on our constitutional debate.

Should we have a referendum on independence?

"That is the democratic way" he says "let the people decide."

Alex Salmond will love that.

And there's more. Independence "has a degree of attractiveness" to Senator Lott.

But it turns out he's not fully signed up to the SNP's dream.

The Tartan Day founder reckons it should be possible to make Scotland's union with England work better.

Wendy Alexander will prefer that.

Talking of preferences. A reader has e-mailed to suggest a new name for this webpage.

Instead of "Tartan scribblings" he suggests we rebrand it "Tartan scrievings", using the old Scots word for writings.

A nice idea but in light of Thursdays last entry, for the American market maybe it's the word "tartan" that needs replaced.

A wee bit of Plaid patter anyone?

Few do patter better than the New York cabbie.

I was picked up by one today at a Tartan Day concert in the British memorial garden for victims of the twin towers attack.

As we pulled away from the saltires, kilts and the bagpipe rock of MacTalla Mor, the driver asked: "Is this another Saint Paddy's day?".

I explained that it was a Celtic bash of a different kind and asked what he knew of Scotland.

He hit me with a character from the movie Braveheart called "Ben" Wallace who had proved to him that Scots are strong-willed and don't back away from a fight.

The Conservative MP for Lancaster and Wyre, formerly of the Holyrood parliament and the Scots guards, will be pleased.


Evening, New York

Let's clear up some more confusion.

I've been filming with a Mexican-American cameraman called Harry.

At one point, surrounded by people in kilts and trews, he asked me: "what is tartan?"

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland (left) and George MacKenzie, Keeper of the Records and Head of the National Archives of Scotland, view the original Declaration of Arbroath.
First Minister Alex Salmond views the declaration of Arbroath

Gulp. He really didn't know. And he's not alone.

You see, they don't call it tartan in the United States, they call it plaid.

Research into last year's celebrations concluded: "that only people with an interest in, or who had a connection with, Scotland were aware of the links with tartan suggesting that the Tartan Week brand may not be the most effective means of communicating Scotland to an American audience."

Now that doesn't necessarily get me out of wearing my Campbell plaid to the Tartan Day parade in New York on Saturday.

But it does explain why the Scottish Government has rebranded the programme, Scotland Week.

Tartan Day still exists within that because it was created by a resolution of the United States senate in 1998.

It falls on 6 April each year, which is the anniversary of the signing in 1320 of the Declaration of Arbroath - which is said to have inspired America's own declaration of independence.

Another political gaffe and this one's mine. I've got the two houses of the US congress in a fankle.

Nancy Pelosi is of course the speaker of the house of representatives, not as I've been saying speaker of the Senate. But she is an important lady.

Nancy Pelosi would become President if George Bush and Dick Cheney were knocked down by a bus.

Nancy Pelosi - file photo
Nancy Pelosi - not the US Senate speaker

There's a West Wing episode where the speaker does become commander-in-chief but now I'm getting off the point.

Nancy Pelosi made the blog for sharing with us the thoughts of Holyrood's presiding officer on the new SNP government.

According to her, he hailed the "great spirit of enthusiasm and optimism in Scotland" since Alex Salmond's election.

Is it possible he was taken out of context?

Holyrood officials insist that Mr Fergusson did not stray from his neutral role into the political fray.

In a statement, a Scottish Parliament spokesman said: "the presiding officer spoke of the current mood of optimism in Scotland, but made no political link to the government.

"As an ambassador for the country one would expect the Presiding Officer to be positive about Scotland but he was strictly impartial in doing so."



Just back from the 10th anniversary Tartan Day reception on Capitol Hill.

As you might expect, there was no shortage of kilts, trews, bagpipes and bunnets.

But when I saw two blokes wearing matching tartan waistcoats and someone else with a giant sporran made from a furry animal I couldn't quite identify, I was reminded of a meeting earlier today with Tartan Day founder Trent Lott.

A sporran
The US love affair with tartan can be prone to exaggeration

"We tend to exaggerate everything," he said, when I asked the former senate majority leader about the Scots-American love affair with tartanry.

Maybe this exaggeration thing is catching.

How else will Holyrood's presiding officer explain the praise he apparently heaped on Alex Salmond in private talks with US Senate speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Speaker Pelosi, star guest at the reception, revealed that her Scottish Parliament counterpart told her - get this - that "there's a great spirit of enthusiasm and optimism in Scotland" since Mr Salmond and his SNP government was elected.

That from an MSP who was elected a Conservative and who, as Holyrood speaker, is supposed to be politically neutral.


Alex Salmond's just bet 10m on Scotland ruling the waves in future.

Eh? No, I don't mean he's placed a wager with a Washington bookie.

The first minister's announced a $20m dollar prize for whoever in the world can come to Scotland and show us how to turn wave and tidal power into clean, green energy.

The Saltire prize is designed to inspire scientists to develop commercial technology to exploit marine renewables.

The Liberal Democrats say his announcement's recycled.

True, it was in the SNP's manifesto (yes, unlike some promises this one's for keeps).

True, they doubled to 10m the prize fund in the budget.

But today their Scottish prize went global when National Geographic agreed to judge it and promote worldwide to its audience and readership of 400,000,000 people.

That's a big deal. Especially if it works.

Talking of Lord Robertson and the global village. Guess who was sitting next to the former Labour defence secretary on the plane to America earlier this week?

His old sparring partner from the days before devolution - one Alex Salmond.

That's the same Alex Salmond who described the Kosovo war, which brought George Robertson to global attention, as an "unpardonable folly".

That's the same George Robertson who once predicted devolution would kill "stone dead" the SNP's quest for independence.

Plenty to talk about then on a seven hour trans-Atlantic flight. The perfect chance to cross-check facts for their political memoirs.


Evening, arrival in Washington.

The kilt and I have made it. Only one of three bags my producer and I handed over in Edinburgh is catching a later flight!

I've already been to the US State department to meet acting Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Volker.

He speaks affectionately about Scotland and tries to avoid getting drawn into the debate on independence and the review of Holyrood's powers.

It turns out Mr Volker was sent to Lockerbie in 1988 to help with the identification of US victims of the Pan AM bombing.

He also used to work as Lord Robertson's private secretary when he was NATO secretary general and was holidaying in North Berwick when he was invited for the job interview. Small world.

Tuesday. Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, on flight to Washington.

My kilt is packed (and with luck my luggage has made the transfer from the Edinburgh flight).

Kilts on sale in the Royal Mile
Many people are uneasy about Tartan kitsch at Scotland Week

Not that I'm promising to wear it, but when taking off to Tartan Day, I guess it's best to be prepared.

I'm not normally shy about putting on our national dress. I wouldn't think of wearing anything else to a Scottish wedding.

But a plaid parade? That's different.

We don't really do that sort of thing at home. Yes, there are rugby internationals and the Edinburgh Tattoo - but we don't make a habit of marching the streets in kilts to celebrate being Scottish.

That's not part of our culture. It's an American invention. Not that I'm complaining, they're entitled to celebrate links with the old country any way they like.

I'm just not sure how comfortable I feel about joining in. Nobody's going to make me. If I turn up on this page clad in tartan, it will be my choice.

But this wee dilemma seems to sum up Scotland's relationship with Tartan Day in the US and the week of events that have sprung up around it.

The questions are: what image of Scotland do we want to project to the world and how should we cope with the way others see us?

In the main, we like that it exists. We like that Americans have pride in their Scottish heritage. We like the business opportunities it generates.

We just feel a bit uneasy about the Caledonian kitsch that comes with it.

Former First Minister Jack McConnell tried to overcome this by wearing a modern tartan-free kilt a few years ago.

He was pilloried for looking like a bloke in a blouse and skirt.

Appearances do matter. The questions are: what image of Scotland do we want to project to the world and how should we cope with the way others see us?

As I follow events in Washington and New York this week, there may be more time to reflect on this theme.

I'll be scribbling here when I can, as well as reporting for BBC Scotland's radio and TV news programmes.

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