Clan Currie Hosts a “Magnificent” Tartan Day Celebration
Ellis Island Program Stands Out As “Beacon” for the National Tartan Day Experience
Like many Scots before them, Clan Currie has made its mark on Ellis Island. Marching to the skirl of the bagpipes, a crowd of Scottish dignitaries and proud descendents gathered on April 6, 2002 to kick off the inaugural event of National Tartan Day Weekend celebrations in the New York metropolitan area at the legendary entry point of thousands of U.S. immigrants.
It was a day of celebrations and music as well as honoring the past and those people who arrived in America simply seeking opportunity. The day served as a fitting opening of a new exhibition at the Ellis Island museum, Home and Away: Highland Departures and Returns, commemorating the important role Scottish-Americans have played in the history and development of the United States, North America, and, indeed, the entire world.
Tartan Day is a national American celebration that recognizes the contributions of Scots and Scottish-Americans to the development of the United States. In 1998, the U.S. Senate passed resolution 155 recognizing April 6 as National Tartan Day. For the Ellis Island event, the office of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was instrumental in rushing copies of the resolution for presentation to the Scottish delegation.
Robert Currie, president of the Clan Currie Society and a director of the Save Ellis Island! Foundation, said he was pleased the exhibit opened on Ellis following last year’s success in Washington, D.C. “For 2002, New York is the de-facto capital of Tartan Day,” he said.
Joining Currie in New York was the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, The Rt. Hon. Eric Milligan.
Vintage Hallmark of St. Jame’s, exclusive importers of Ben Nevis Scotch Whisky, partnered with Clan Currie to sponsor National Tartan Day, following their successful partnership the year before in celebrating Tartan Day in Washington, D.C. This year’s Tartan Day continues a strong relationship between Vintage and Hallmark and Clan Currie, partnering on a third large project over the past several years.
“We are thrilled to be working with Vintage Hallmark again after our very successful partnership as sponsors of the 2001 National Tartan Day ceremonies held in Washington,” Currie said. Vintage Hallmark has also been an important sponsor of Clan Currie’s celebrated concert series, the Pipes of Christmas. Additional overseas support has been provided by VisitScotland, Highlands and Island Enterprise, and from the National Museums of Scotland.
Lord David Wilson, recently appointed chairman of the National Museums of Scotland, effused over the opportunity to open Tartan Day in the United States with Home and Away. “I cannot think of a place that is more appropriate for us to have this exhibition,” he said, “for what it means, the simplicity of the lives of those people who came here and started off new lives in the United States and North America in general.”
The Power of Partnerships
One clear message for the present and future was the importance of developing partnerships. The Clan Currie Society worked closely with the National Museums of Scotland to put this exhibition together. Said Currie, “The genesis for this project took place exactly one year ago at a Tartan Day symposium in Washington led by George Dalgleish from the NMS curatorial staff. From that moment on we’d been looking for a way to bring Home and Away to Ellis Island.”
Both the museums and the society loaned items for display. NMS included an emigrant “kist,” a small trunk that carried the few belongings of entire families on their journey. The kist contents included family photographs and mementoes, small tools and implements, and a length of tartan. The exhibit also included informational display panels depicting the comings and goings of Scots around the world.
Clan Currie loaned a number of additional items for the display, including a 19th century miniature hand-colored portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, highland dress accessories, and several Scottish books, including the two-volume set of hand-written, hand-illuminated history of medieval Scotland, The Scotiad, written by bard Andrew Munro. Clan Currie also provided the flags of the United States, Great Britain, and Scotland, along with the society’s tartan flag to decorate the exhibit space.
Lord Michael Watson, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport for the Scottish Parliament, reflected on the items in the exhibition and the simple, yet courageous efforts of those that brought their Scottish heritage to the United States. He said the exhibition expressed, “The spirit, the determination that drove them to leave almost everything they had behind to set sail for an uncertain future and what must have been an uncomfortable journey.”
Diane Dayson, superintendent of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Monument, considered the exhibit unique in focusing on the positive aspects of history as well as the challenges and hardships Scottish immigrants faced in their new home. “It tells both sides of the story,” Dayson said. “We can move forward in a positive direction understanding our past, understanding our present and working toward the goals of our future.”
Despite its relative youth, Tartan Day has already generated large support on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s hard to think (Tartan Day) has only been going for three years,” said Peter Lederer, chairman of Visit Scotland, which runs the AncestralScotland.com Web site. “It’s already establishing itself as the link between the old and the new, the traditional and the contemporary. We hope to build on it and build on these relationships and partnerships.”
Returning to Scotland was an integral element of the exhibition and of Tartan Day. Scotland conjures up thoughts of romance and culture and golf for many, but Lederer said genealogy is an emphasis for many Scottish-Americans. He said 20 percent of users of the AncestralScotland.com research website cite genealogy as a reason for choosing Scotland for vacations, and one out of 10 people Americans considered it the main reason.
Lederer also noted that the Scottish archives and database-driven technology have advanced genealogic research. “We can now pinpoint the town, the street, the very house that their ancestors came from,” he said.
An Audience Perspective
Several Americans enjoyed the opportunity to visit Ellis Island — some for the first time — in a manner of returning to the past. Deanne Dunning brought her nine-year-old granddaughter, Carson Parris, to the exhibit to learn about their shared Scottish heritage. “I didn’t expect the Tartan Day celebration to be what it was at all,” Dunning said. “I wasn’t really expecting the emotion of the program. I thought the music was wonderful. When bagpipes come marching in from anywhere it gives you a clutch.” And listening to the unique tones of the smallpipes, “The sound was absolutely vivid.”
Dunning appreciated the layout of the exhibit as well as the modern touch of the computer access to genealogic information. “I think the exhibit was quite interesting in the context of, when you walk into Ellis Island the first huge display you see is all the trunks. The Tartan Day exhibit had the trunks. It took the initial impression you had and blew it out to a specific group of people.”
For her granddaughter, a Christmas gift of a Madame Alexander doll wearing a tartan kilt had started to excite the girl’s Scottish blood, and history classes became more real by the visit to Ellis Island. “She was interested in what the bagpipers were wearing,” said Dunning. “She was very interested in the steamer trunks and the things that were in them. She’s seen pictures in her schoolbooks of the items in the trunks of immigrants. She didn’t realize those photographs were from what Ellis Island looks like now.”
Arthur Cottrell, a New Jersey resident of Scottish ancestry, enjoyed the variety of items shown in the exhibition as well as the genealogic research abilities. “The displays were excellent,” he said. “They get people to think about what it was like for their families coming to America and encourage people where to go in Scotland.”
Robert Murdoch reflected on his father, who came to America through Ellis Island. “I would think that he and the other countless immigrants would be proud that there was a great celebration for Tartan Day at Ellis Island,” he said.
“As we celebrate Tartan Day I can think of no better venue than Ellis Island,” Murdoch added. “The purpose of Tartan Day is to commemorate the great contributions that Scots and Scottish-Americans have made over the years to every aspect of cultures throughout the world.”
The Clan Currie Society warmly received the thanks and congratulations of the mayoral offices from both sides of the Hudson River. In addition to governors George Pataki (N.Y.-R) and James McGreevey (N.J.-D), New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Jersey City Mayor Glen Cunningham all sent proclamations recognizing Tartan Day on Ellis Island and highlighting the contributions of Scottish-Americans in U.S. history.
The opening day events also included musical performances by Dr.Hugh Cheape from the curatorial staff of NMS on Scottish smallpipes and Paul Jordan of the renowned Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. Cheape proved to be a popular performer for other Tartan Day events throughout the weekend in New York City. Back on New York shores, Cheape and Jordan performed in a chamber concert of traditional Scottish music entitled, Migrating Music – Songs from the Scottish Diaspora, also sponsored by the NMS and Vintage Hallmark.
The following morning, Clan Currie marched up New York’s Fifth Avenue alongside Lord Provost Milligan and the City of Edinburgh delegation in the Tunes of Glory parade, which brought together more than 7,500 pipers and drummers — one of the largest collections of Scottish pipe and drum corps New York City had ever seen. Other events during the weekend included a popular series of cabaret events entitled, “Distilled: Live Scotland in New York”, and a Scottish film festival.
A Magnificent Achievement
Scottish journalist and author Roddy Martine called Tartan Day “a magnificent achievement. “The sight of those pipers on Fifth Avenue will never be forgotten.” Martine added, “Tartan Day/Week in New York, Washington, Chicago and across the U.S.A. affords a great opportunity for those of Scottish origins in the U.S.A. and Canada to celebrate their heritage. With four years of success to build on, I believe that Tartan Day has a great future, and there can be no doubt that we are learning lessons from it on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Perhaps Martine captured the events best when he wrote in his online column in Burke’s Peerage and Gentry, that the exhibition at Ellis Island “stood out as a beacon of what U.S.A. Tartan Day is all about.”