If you’ve ever wanted to see Trent Lott in a kilt and, honestly, who among us hasn’t? your big chance may come tomorrow.
At 10:45 a.m. on the west front lower terrace of the U.S. Capitol, the nonprofit American Scottish Foundation will open the District of Columbia’s National Tartan Day celebration by giving its William Wallace Award to the bare-kneed Senate majority leader.
Americans, and particularly Washington, have a history with Scotland. Tartan Day organizers say that Scottish blood coursed through half the signers of the Declaration of Independence, nine of the original 13 Colonies’ governors and 31 U.S. presidents.
Mayor Anthony Williams’ proclamation of Tartan Day mentions not only George Washington’s link to Scotland’s King Malcolm II, but such ancestral points of interest as Scott Circle, Key Bridge, Farragut Square and McPherson Square. Every April for 40 years, the St. Andrew’s Society, a Scottish men’s club, has held its Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan at Washington National Cathedral. The solemn processional blessing with pipe bands, set for April 30, is one of the cathedral’s top three annual events, the others being Christmas and Easter, according to organizer Bart Forbes.
Mr. Lott’s Senate Resolution No. 155 on March 6, 1998, officially made April 6 a national day of recognition for Scottish Americans.
“He’s the reason why there’s a National Tartan Day,” Mr. Forbes says of Mr. Lott.
Yet most of the credit, organizers say, goes to the Southern tenacity of co-chairman JoAnne Phipps, the so-called “Queen of National Tartan Day.”
“My grandmother on my mother’s side always said that everything good about us came from Scotland,” the soft-spoken Mrs. Phipps says.
A career public servant who lives in Alexandria, Va., Mrs. Phipps began the fight for a Scottish recognition day after meeting Neil Fraser of the Clans and Scottish Societies of Canada in 1996. Mr. Fraser was talking then about the success of achieving a Scottish day of recognition in Canada, which also falls on April 6.
“Canada beat us to the punch,” Mr. Forbes says with mock bitterness.
April 6 was chosen to mark the Declaration of Arbroath. Aye, Scottish eyes grow misty, and drams of whisky are raised at the mere mention of that date, when in 1320 Scottish nationals asserted their independence from English tyranny. Their statement, which many Scots (naturally) say greatly influenced the Declaration of Independence, contained these words:
It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.
Mrs. Phipps used all the wiles of her experience as an executive branch administrator (but not on federal time, she adds) to make a Scottish national day possible. She pulled together 15 major Scottish organizations, from the Association of Scottish Games and Festivals to the Highlander magazine, to support the effort.
“I was trying to get all these groups to agree on a date,” she says. “Everyone had some pet date.”
She pauses and adds a pained chuckle. “It takes a while for all the Scottish groups to get along. We’re a little clannish.”
She even turned her Southern political charm on the majority leader when she wrote to him on Nov. 25, 1996. (“I am a Mississippian of Scottish descent … ” she gamely began her letter.)
To bolster her argument, she added a list of prominent Scottish Americans that includes Patrick Henry, John Paul Jones, Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell, “whose birth in 1847 will be observed on the 150th anniversary in 1997,” she wrote with an underscoring flourish.
While the ancestral brogue may not be easily identifiable in Mr. Lott’s Mississippi drawl, Mr. Forbes has heard that the majority leader identifies with Scotland, turning particularly to the Mel Gibson film “Braveheart” for solace in times of political turmoil. (Mr. Lott’s office did not return our phone call regarding this matter.)
Thus, April 6, 1997, was designated Tartan Day by the U.S. Senate. The next March, the Senate unanimously decided to designate every April 6 National Tartan Day.
Actually, this year, National Tartan Day is a misnomer. The celebration will fan out over three days and include a Freedom Plaza festival, a Smithsonian Institution symposium and a genuine ceilidh, which is nothing other than a Scottish hoedown. A business breakfast will take place between Scottish and American industrialists.
“The emphasis will be on Scotland today,” Mr. Forbes says. “Most events tend to look back, with Scottish festivals and men throwing trees around. They latch onto the cultural roots but not Scotland today.
British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer will host a private reception tomorrow for 400-plus of his closest Scottish friends to celebrate the occasion. This despite accusations in the Scottish press on the other side of the Atlantic (unfounded say both the British Embassy and Tartan Day supporters) that Scottish National Party members have been shut out.
The celebration’s backers are betting that National Tartan Day eventually will rival St. Patrick’s Day as a national fun-loving holiday. Yet if one seeks the Scots’ patron saint, wouldn’t St. Andrew’s Day have been the most likely choice?
“The timing is not that great,” Mr. Forbes says, noting that the feast of St. Andrew falls at the end of November, during the cold weather and sandwiched between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. There is talk of a parade next year among some Tartan Day folk. One wonders what color the beer or Scotch would be when everyone pretends to be Scottish for a day.
“We’re such a mongrel nation,” Mr. Forbes says. “Everyone has a little Scotch in them. At least they do when they come to my house.”
National Tartan Day
Hosted by the American Scottish Foundation. Information available on www.accessenter.com/tartanday2000
National Tartan Day Ceremony 10:45 a.m. tomorrow, west front lower terrace, U.S. Capitol.
D. Euan Baird Symposium: The Living Legacy of Scotland 2 to 5 p.m. Friday, Quadrangle Building (underground building next to Smithsonian Castle on Independence Avenue). A nine-member panel examines Scotland’s influence on American society. Free and open to the public, but seating is limited.
National Tartan Day Festival 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Freedom Plaza, 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Dewar’s National Tartan Day Ceilidh 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, JW Marriott Hotel Ballroom, 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $20 in advance, $25 at the door. 888/311-5455