Scottish-American Pride: Only Skin Deep?

One of the “celebrities” in the virtual Scottish-American Hall of Fame is Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant who made millions (mostly by exploiting other immigrants). He did establish important philanthropic charities that continue to do good work to this day. Carnegie Mellon University carries his name as well as that of Andrew Mellon, the son of a Scotch-Irish immigrant and another common darling of the Scottish-American crowd.

If Scottish-American heritage and history is to be something other than a tartan charade, it needs to be taken seriously in the halls of academia and be developed formally, and subjected to the same scrutiny as that of other peoples. Look, for example, at the Chair of Lithuanian Studies at the University of Illinois or the Chair in Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University.

One might expect, or at least hope, that a place such as Carnegie Mellon that likes to play up its Scottish roots with the iconography of the thistle and a bagpipe band might recognize the untapped potential of the field of Scottish Studies, or at least be sympathetic to its relevance in looking at North American history. Back in 2004, when I was looking desperately for some kind of academic patronage, I wrote the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and found a strangely negative and dismissive attitude that I have seen repeated in many other places. Here’s the proof, in this letter.


Allow me to rephrase his comments: “Yes, we’re happy to play up the tartanism for fun and team spirit, but we can’t really take this stuff seriously.”

As I’ve said in a large number of articles and books now (such as this one), unless this immigrant legacy can be more fully explored, recovered, examined and celebrated by those equipped to do so seriously, it will only be a tartan charade easily co-opted by right-wing conservatives and faux clan chieftains parading around in silly costumes.

This will mean doing more than leading alumni and assorted students on summer holidays to Scotland, or offering a “Scottish cinema” class in Film Studies. Scottish Studies (or Scottish Gaelic Studies more specifically, in the case of my research) is a multidisciplinary domain that requires more than the narrow focus of specialized silos of modern American academia to investigate and interpret the cultural expressions and productions of the past and present. It is the lack of commitment to this heritage in a serious way that has left the field fallow and Scottish-Americans uninformed about their own ancestral origins. Why can’t Scottish-Americans, who, as a group, do not lack resources or influence, do any better?

Producing meaningful research requires a huge investment in time and training to begin with, and significant on-going time to search through materials and produce analyses that are informed by relevant and rigorous methods. None of this can happen without the backing of a community who wants to see it happen and will support those ongoing efforts. Scottish Studies in North America has been largely left to armchair enthusiasts, which is perhaps one reason why few scholars from other disciplinary perspectives take it seriously.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Micheal McEvoy says:

    I think that the issue is one of the theology of “melting-pot” homogeneity. As Noel Ignatiev pointed out in his book “How the Irish Became White,” the population is pressured to “fit in” with the “proper” form of existence. Shallow, superficial homage to what is classified as heritage in the U.S. is all that is allowed.
    As a person of both Scottish and Irish heritage, I feel that this is shameful. But a close look at all but the most insular ethnic communities exposes the falseness of actual heritage.

  2. John Hamilton says:

    Costume is easy.

    John Hamilton

    On Fri, Jul 24, 2015 at 7:33 AM, The Virtual Gael wrote:

    > Michael Newton posted: “One of the “celebrities” in the virtual > Scottish-American Hall of Fame is Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant who made > millions (mostly by exploiting other immigrants). He > did establish important philanthropic charities that continue to do good > work to this day”

  3. pmhermes says:

    Another example is Macalester College in St. Paul, MN which offers bagpipe lessons but has no class in Scottish History.

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