90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station

Reporter's Notebook

As a young boy, I dreamed of America. One of my earliest memories is of watching a Texan wearing a Stetson hat trying to navigate his massive Cadillac down the narrow streets of my home town, Aberdeen in Scotland.

He hadn't come alone. In the early 1970s oil was discovered in the North Sea and Aberdeen in the chilly northeast of Scotland became an outpost of the United States on Scottish soil.

An influx of Americans arrived to get the black gold out from under the seabed. They changed the place utterly. Overnight Aberdeen sprouted steak restaurants, burger bars, and soda fountains. An American food store opened in town, selling Gatorade and Hershey's Bars to Americans with withdrawal symptoms. At night I would sit transfixed on the sofa watching John Wayne movies on the television. In the harbor, oil rigs were slowly being assembled before being towed out to sea. Red Adair flew into town to quell a pesky gusher. For years I thought "Dallas" was filmed in Scotland.

When I visited the United States for the first time in 1979, whilst my athletic American cousins shot hoops outside in the Californian sun, I sat in the dark and watched the television. And there, for the first time, I saw an American film about Scotland. It was called "Brigadoon."

In it, two American men visit the Highlands of Scotland, get lost, and stumble on a mysterious village which isn't on the map. They soon discover it's not even on the calendar. Brigadoon disappeared into the Scottish mists in the 18th century and only rematerializes once every 100 years. The inhabitants spend most of their time singing and dancing.

Even as a young boy I knew that the songs were daft, and the men in the Technicolor kilts had silly accents. But for the first time I realized that all the time I had been dreaming of America, there were people in America who dreamed of Scotland. Today more Americans dream of Scotland than ever before. From the South to the Northeast, Highland Games attract unprecedented numbers. Tartan Day, the annual celebration of Scottish identity doesn't rival Saint Patrick's Day yet, but in New York and Chicago thousands march behind pipe bands, wear tartan, and commemorate the millions of Scots who emigrated to North America in search of opportunities which Scotland could not offer them.

Making this program has taken me on a path many Scots have followed, from my home in the Old Country to the land of opportunity. In Chicago I took part in the annual Saint Andrew's Night dinner, ate American Haggis (made without the lung tissue) and watched amazed as the "Haggis Child," a beaming four-year-old girl, burst out from under a tartan tea cozy. I spoke to Elizabeth Ross, a 104-year-old resident of the Scottish Home, an old folk's home devoted to caring for Scots. In New York I went to see Vartan Gregorian the Iranian born director of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the charitable foundation created by the Scottish born Andrew Carnegie that dispenses millions of dollars annually to good causes. And I spoke to some of the many modern Scots who have made their home here in America and look back to their homeland with nostalgia and in some cases, regret.

For many years the Scots were thought of as invisible emigrants to America. Unlike the proud Italians or Irish, who retained their national cultures, they tended to become simply Americans, assimilated into a culture which was peculiarly receptive to their talents. But in recent years Scottish Americans have been coming out of the shadows.

In the mid 1990s a Tennessean named Randall Wallace wrote "Braveheart," a film about the life and death of the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. The film turned thousands of Scottish emigrants onto the drama of Scottish history. About the same time Duncan A. Bruce published his book "The Mark of the Scots" which for the first time commemorated the contribution of Scots to American public life.

William Wallace and Robert the Bruce had stood together against the English in the 14th century. Now their two descendents were doing their bit for Scottish identity in the United States.

Where Wallace and Bruce led, Austin Powers followed. Mike Myers, the Canadian son of Scottish emigrants has populated his fictional world with Scots from the bloated Fat Bastard to the mad dad in "So, I married an Axe Murderer" with his battle cry of "If it's no Scottish it's Crap!"

The dancing kilties in Brigadoon and the overexcitable Scottie in "Star Trek" begat endless heirs, from the Scottish psychotherapist Phil McCracken in "Saturday Night Live" to Groundsman Willie in "The Simpsons," and on a similar subject, as one of Samantha's more unlikely conquests in "Sex in the City."

No wonder that as Mary Waters, a sociologist at Harvard University, tells me, over the last 20 years it's more popular to be a Scottish American than ever before. The American salad bowl now has a bright plaid leaf on top.

I understand now, in Texas, small children dream of living in Aberdeen.

I hope you enjoy the show.

-- David Stenhouse

Home | About | Contact | Order | Awards | Stations | Press