A Celebration of Scotland’s Crafts
Tartan Day on Ellis Island 2003
Whether it was the rumble of the ferry’s diesel engines or the skirl of bagpipes welcoming visitors to the second annual National Tartan Day Weekend at Ellis Island, the immigrant experience of what Scots met in the United States and what they left in Scotland came through during the first weekend in April.
Visitors entered the museum to find posters directing them to the Registry Room, where traditional Scottish crafters demonstrated their unique skills and expressed pride in their heritage in the exhibit called “A Celebration of Scotland’s Crafts.” If the nearly 13 thousand visitors to Ellis Island that weekend somehow missed the posters, the entire interpretive staff at Ellis had information on Tartan Day and could advise guests of its significance and the purpose behind the crafters’ exhibits.
The exhibits were placed in the historic Registry Room through which all immigrants passed as part of their processing. “Over a half-million Scots passed through this room as part of their journey to becoming American citizens” said Robert Currie, president of the Clan Currie Society and director of the Save Ellis Island! Foundation. “It is especially fitting that this year’s National Tartan Day event be situated in this space.”
As the weekend progressed, crafters brought together by the National Museums of Scotland and the Clan Currie Society took center stage. Visitors were fascinated by Edinburgh’s Colin Adamson’s violins. Hamish Moore, of Dunkeld, travels the world to find the elements needed for his celebrated hand-crafted bagpipes and other Scottish instruments. Robert McBain, of Aberdeen, can turn 24 feet of fabric into a kilt to last a lifetime. Wilma Couper of the Shetland Working Textiles Museum traveled the farthest to reintroduce Americans to the nuances of fine knitting.
Currie said the interactive aspect of the exhibit, from the touch and feel of the crafters’ work to the aural intricacies of the four different Scottish accents, made the event more than a typical museum experience for guests. “To see school children take hold of and play one of Colin’s fiddles, to hear the students clapping to the music, you can’t get that in an exhibit,” he said. “This is a wonderful example of genuine cultural exchange, up close and personal.”
The Clan Currie Society hosted the weekend celebration in conjunction with the National Park Service, the National Museums of Scotland, VisitScotland, and the Scottish Arts Council. Additional support for the celebratory weekend was also provided by the Grand Summit Hotel of Summit, NJ, which served as host hotel for the four crafters.
Colin McCallum, Director, Marketing and Development at the National Museums of Scotland said, “NMS has been delighted by the public reaction to its various programs in the USA in recent years. It has been a pleasure to work with the National Parks Service, the staff of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and with the Clan Currie Society on two very successful partnerships.”
McCallum continued, “It is an important part of the role of the NMS to reach out to people around the world to celebrate and record the rich and diverse culture and history of Scotland. We believe very much in our role in linking the past to the present and so, when we had an opportunity to team up again with Ellis Island and Clan Currie, as well as our UK-based partners to develop a crafts project we jumped at it.”
Peter Lederer, OBE, Chairman of VisitScotland added “This was a fantastic opportunity for visitors to Ellis Island to discover and experience first hand, some of Scotland’s traditions and crafts and in turn provide an insight into the country’s history and heritage. This year’s programme of activities for Tartan Day was the largest in the history of the event, and the addition of the Ellis Island exhibition was an extremely valuable aspect which I hope goes from strength to strength in years to come.”
April 6 was designated as National Tartan Day in 1998, and Sir Thomas Harris, Her Majesty’s Consul-General in New York and Director-General, British Trade & Investment, has participated in Tartan Day celebrations since 1999. “The program this year is undoubtedly the best ever,” said Sir Thomas, who delivered the keynote address. “The enormous range of cultural, business, promotional events taking place all over New York and elsewhere is a testament to the enduring pride of so many Americans in their Scottish ancestry.”
Eric Milligan, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh (akin to a mayor), gave what is believed to be the first formal address Ellis Island by a person in his position. “This Tartan Day is a tremendous opportunity for the Scots in America to celebrate what is special, what is distinctive, what makes the Scottish contribution so worthwhile to the development of America,” he said.
Milligan, who was wearing the Black Watch tartan, recognizing the military conflicts facing coalition troops from the United States, Scotland and England, added that Tartan Day is about inviting people to reflect on what Scots have given the United States of America. “It has a resonance today,” he said. “It has an importance for tomorrow.”
Also in attendance for the Opening Ceremonies was Susan Stewart, First Secretary, Scottish Affairs from the British Embassy in Washington as well as several representatives from the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
The exhibit was alive with the energy of students visiting Ellis Island for the first time. Marilyn Van den White was there with her students from Lawrenceville High School in Atlanta, GA. She and her class were pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the Tartan Day event. “They’re all string players,” she said. “It’s fun for them to have a chance to try them out.”
Adamson’s table was filled with finished instruments that seemed to call out to visitors to touch their varnished wood and play their strings. The naked pale wood of an unfinished violin caught people’s attention immediately. Ideally, the end result is just as intriguing.
From warming and bending the ribs into shape, to scraping the front and back plates to finishing the fingerboard, and varnishing the instrument to the point where a musician can’t resist it, the creation of a violin or viola takes about six or seven weeks, he said. “There’s not many things made totally by hand these days.”
Adamson, a member of the British Violin Making Association and founding member of the Contemporary Violin Makers of Scotland, trained at the Newark School of Violin Making in London, England. He showed visitors how he smoothes the seasoned maple or spruce plates and shapes the wood with toy-sized planes and scrapers. Its ribs bent into shape on one wooden slab, a violin in process awaited the front and back plates that Adamson worked on in demonstration.
Adamson said that in the 10 years he’s been making instruments, he’s never made two that were exactly the same. “I’ve never had two violins that sounded exactly the same,” he said. “Even from the same tree, they’re still different.”
Though he was discussing the wood that becomes one of the instruments he makes, Adamson could almost have been talking about Scottish culture. “It’s got to breathe,” he said. “If it’s too rigid it won’t sound.”
New York-based fiddler Lisa Gutkin observed, “It’s really amazing how different the quality of each instrument is,” she said. “The quality of one is dark but has a crispness. Another has a certain brightness.”
Gutkin said artists get to visit cultures on a different level than most people and she appreciated that the Clan Currie brought them together to share experiences with others. “Something like Tartan Day is going to lure kids who know nothing about tartans, nothing about anything Scottish, except for “Braveheart,” she said. “It introduces them to something they’d never have access to otherwise.”
Gutkin and Hamish Moore played Scottish themes on the fiddle and smallpipes in Registry Hall, where literally millions of immigrants passed as they entered the nation. “It’s an interesting cultural exchange to see Tartan Day developing,” Moore said.
The celebrated Scottish instrument maker’s family name conveys the exacting effort that goes into every element of his instruments, no matter how exotic it seems. Moore shaves the reeds himself from the cane he purchases in San Tropez, France. He travels to Tanzania for African black wood, full of gums and resins that repel water.
Moore is a font of information of Scottish musical and cultural traditions and history. He spoke of Alex Currie, the last player in Cape Breton of the true Scottish highland pipe music, learning to play without the influence of the militaristic tunes common today. “I think it’s just part of the clan’s heritage that’s been passed along,” he said of Alex Currie and the Currie’s place as the bards of Scotland. “That very high cultural awareness that exists in certain families.”
Master kilt maker, Robert McBain, learned his craft while serving in the army. He recognized that there weren’t enough trained kilt makers to satisfy the growing demand for the unique Scottish garment that is weaved into the country’s culture. McBain opened the Keith Kilt School in 1994, and it is now recognized as a center of kilt making excellence.
McBain carries himself with a regimented demeanor, wasting little time. The Mackenzie kilt in progress that completely covered his table was neat, smooth and orderly, even as he snipped away excess fabric and fashioned sharp-edged pleats for the kilt’s eventual backside. Though he could create a kilt in a day, on average it takes two and a half days to complete one from the 24 feet of fabric.
In between visitors, McBain threaded his needle through the kilt in the making. Striking white striping in a kilt denotes a military design. Creating the 25 to 36 pleats per kilt can be a tedious process, he said, but they are crucial to the final product. “It’s like a puzzle,” he said of finding the positioning of pleats in a kilt. “The answer is always there, you just have to look for it.”
Wilma Couper, a knitter from the village of Voe on the northern Shetland Islands, learned how to knit from her “aunties, granny and mum” as a young girl. Her accent seems more Norwegian than Scottish, a vestige of the strong Viking history of the islands. In addition to many examples of her handiwork, Couper taped a map of the Shetlands up near her exhibit to give visitors a better understanding of where she lived. She also showed albums of photos from the windswept, hilly land – not far from the Arctic Circle – where she lives. “There’s no trees, hardly,” she said.
Couper was making her first visit to the United States and enjoyed meeting the visitors and introducing them to the centuries-old Fair Isle patterns, most of which have no names but were merely passed down through the generations and through the family wardrobe. “There’s a lot of fun going on here,” Couper said of the event.
Women from the Shetlands knitted at any free moment, Couper explained, as sale of their wares helped the family income. “I’ve just knitted all my life,” she said. “You don’t realize it’s a craft. All the Shetland ladies knit. It’s just what they did.”
Though it may have seemed the most common of the four crafters exhibiting at the Tartan Weekend celebrations, Couper’s knitting may actually be the most endangered as better paying opportunities now attract younger Shetland women. She said many of the visitors were interested in her craft, telling her about their grandmother’s knitting. “I think that’s why there’s so much interest in it. There’s not that many ladies that do it now in Scotland,” she said. “They used to have to do it.”
Though the Scottish crafters at the second annual Tartan Day Weekend on Ellis Island celebrations were clearly a major portion of the festivities, they weren’t the only highlight.
To mark Tartan Day Weekend, Clan Currie also enlisted a corps of Scottish performers. Visitors enjoyed the highland dancing of the Highland Lassies, Olivia and Kathryn Chrysostom, pipe selections from the Jersey Shore Celtic Pipe Band, solo piping from Jock Nisbet of The Piper’s Cove and Tom Barr, and musical selections from Scots balladeer Andy Emerson.
Across the Hudson, Clan Currie also joined forces with the Proprietary House Association to host a Tartan Day flag raising and Scots history lecture at the country’s only surviving Colonial Governor’s Mansion in Perth Amboy, N.J.
Though the Tartan Day festivities came to a close after the long weekend, the Clan Currie Society was pleased to learn that Ellis Island invited them back again for what will be the third annual National Tartan Day there in 2004. The news harkened back to what Frank Mills, Assistant Superintendent for the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island National Monument had said in his welcome address during the Opening Ceremonies, calling the 2003 event the ”˜second of many.’