MCLETTER FROM AMERICA
The Scottish diaspora explained from the top down
When it comes to understanding how the Scottish diaspora in the USA is organised, our friends in Scotland tend to roll their eyes and say it’s all hopelessly chaotic. In fact, when viewed from the top down, it is all fairly logical.
In Democracy in America, published in 1835, the French writer and traveller Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of his travels in the country at a time when westward expansion and Jacksonian democracy were transforming the young United States. In the process, De Tocqueville identified one of the unique aspects of American society, the role played by voluntary private associations in social, political and economic affairs. De Tocqueville thought that through the coming together of people for a mutual purpose, Americans were able to overcome selfish desires, thus making for an active and vibrant civil society.
De Tocqueville’s observations remain as true today as they were two centuries ago. And this is certainly the case with regard to the organisation of the Scottish diaspora in America.
At the national level, dating back to the mid-1970s, there is The Scottish Coalition, USA, which is a loose consortium of seven heritage-oriented national organisations, each a not-for-profit charitable organisation. These include the American-Scottish Foundation (ASF), the Caledonian Foundation, Scottish Heritage USA (SHUSA), the Living Legacy of Scotland, the Scottish-American Military Society (SAMS), the Association of Scottish Games & Festivals (ASGF) and the Council of Scottish Clans & Associations (COSCA).
The ASF is the oldest, founded in 1956 by Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton and his American wife, as a bridge between the peoples of Scotland and America. The New York City-based ASF puts on cultural programmes, as well as coordinating the Annual Tartan Day Parade.
Most of the other six Coalition member organisations were founded in the 1970s. The Caledonian Foundation specialises in supporting the performing arts in Scotland, such as Scottish Opera and the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, and special projects such as the restoration of Abbotsford. SHUSA works in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland and heritage organisations.
The Living Legacy of Scotland, based in Washington, DC, has an educational mission to promote a better understanding of the contributions made by Scots and Scottish-Americans. Membership in SAMS is for Americans who serve or have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The ASGF represents the Highland games organisations scattered across the country, of which there are over 75. COSCA is the national professional association for the clan societies in America.
At the local level across America, there are close to a hundred St. Andrew’s societies. All are independent of each other, but share a common mission.
Side by side with the St. Andrew’s societies in cities and towns across the country are a plethora of Caledonian clubs and Robert Burns societies. Some of these clubs date back to the mid-19th century.
With the advent of the internet and social media, it is easy to identify and contact any of these organisations from overseas, as well as from anywhere in the States. All but the smallest have websites, many have a Facebook page and can be followed on Twitter. Most are staffed by volunteers who serve out of that same sense of social commitment identified almost two hundred years ago by the visiting De Tocqueville.
No discussion of the organisation of the Scottish Diaspora in America would be complete without mentioning the Friends of Scotland Caucuses in the U.S. Congress – one in the Senate, the other in the House of Representatives. Founded in 2004, the House Caucus is by far the more active, with over 50 members of Congress from both parties signed up. It hosts visits from delegations of MPs and MSPs, and on occasion sends delegations of its own members to Scotland. In April each year, the House Caucus sponsors an annual Tartan Day reception, open to the public, to celebrate the national Tartan Day holiday, which is embodied in standing congressional resolutions.
John King Bellassai is president of the Council of Scottish Clans & Associations (COSCA).