Independent thought

The indomitable Scottishry.The real possibility of an independent Scotland has been all over the news in Canada because of Canada’s similar (but not really comparable) situation with Quebec. On Facebook I see all sorts of pipers and drummers – Scottish and not – appearing to support the idea of Scotland as a nation.

I was brought up to back the Scottish Nationalist Party. My parents were close friends with James Halliday, leader of the SNP from 1956-’60. From about the age of four on my American dad kitted out me and my brother and sisters with badges, posters, stickers and t-shirts with SNP slogans with the ingenious thistle-ribbon emblem (still one of my favourite logos anywhere).

When I went to the University of Stirling for a year in 1983-’84 there was a club day. My main reason for being in Scotland was of course piping, but I figured I should try to do something else. There was a table for the university’s SNP Club, staffed by fairly radical-looking students. Clackmannanshire is a traditional SNP stronghold, and my mother was born in Tillicoultry, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll join up.

I went to a few meetings that I remember consisted of a lot of callow raving about the English and the “Westminster government.” After a month or two came the club’s election of officers. As with many volunteer groups, lots of people were nominated as president, but no one accepted.

It was then when they tried to convince me – an American – to be the president of the University of Stirling’s Scottish Nationalist Party Club. It was also then that I realized how absurd this was. I wasn’t Scottish. I played the pipes and had a Scottish mother and liked to read Hogg and Burns and Stevenson, but that was as close as I could be. I understood at that moment that I had no business getting involved with serious Scottish politics. It was the last meeting I attended.

We non-Scottish pipers and drummers tend to think we have a right to be Scottish. Because we play the Highland pipes and strap on the kilt most weekends and often visit the country and usually enjoy a dram and a bit of haggis, we make the mistake that we can get involved with Scottish politics, and fancifully support the very serious concept of Scotland as a separate nation.

A great thing about piping and drumming is that these arts are a great equalizer. Lawyers mingle with high school students. A police officer plays next to a dentist. A refuse collector can also be a genius composer. An Obama supporter can serve a member of the Tea Party as a pipe-major – and not even know it. We get along because we’re equalized by a common passion for music.

I like the notion of an independent Scotland, but I also respect the serious implications of such a move. “The indomitable Irishry” was how Yeats described his countrymen, and that has always stuck with me. But just because I play the bagpipes doesn’t entitle me to campaign for the SNP. It’s up to the real Scots to decide for themselves, and everyone else should just stick to the music.

Dead men don’t wear plaid

Land of maits.This is a story about a tartan. Not just any tartan, but the tartan that I have worn the most since 1983 when I happened upon a very fine kilt in Fort William, Scotland, where I spent the night before competing at the Glenfinnan games (got nothing) as a wide-eyed 19-year-old.

While killing time meandering around the town I came across a Highland wear place. It was my intention to get a kilt while I was in Scotland as a third-year student at the University of Stirling studying pipin . . . er . . . I mean, English. I went into this place without meaning to buy anything, but there was a kilt lying there in a tartan that I very much liked. I asked about it, and the manager (who I recall was a bit of a dink, probably beaten down by American tourists like me all day) said that it had been made for a man who quite unfortunately died before he could claim it or, I suppose, be buried in it.

It was a bit ghoulish, but what the hay, I tried it on, and it fit perfectly. So I somehow cashed in enough traveler’s cheques to take it away later that evening. The tartan was Maitland. As far as I could recall, I’d never seen it before, and in the 27 years I’ve worn the kilt I have rarely seen it on others.

That’s because the tartan is exclusive to those with a direct link with the Maitland “clan.” My dad discovered this when he tried to find a tie in the same tartan. One has to prove one’s right to wear the tartan before a mill will weave it, he found out. So, being the historian he was, he researched my Scottish mother’s genealogy and discovered a relative named Maitland.

I’d forgotten all that until I’d decided this summer to replace the now frayed and faded kilt with an exact replica. When the kiltmaker took the order to the mill, they refused to run it for fear of being fined for breaking the rule of the Earl of Lauderdale, the head of Clan Maitland.

So, I have had to go through the process of formally joining the Clan Maitland Society. Its North American branch is headquartered – of course – in Las Vegas. I submitted my case and application, and after a month or so, I received a letter of welcome from Lauderdale himself: “Greetings, Kinsman!”

I like this. Anyone in theory can wear any tartan he or she chooses, and that’s originally what I intended to do, but we Maitlands carefully protect ours. None of this commonplace plaid for us!

I’ve played in at least one band that had a quite extraordinary tartan that became a symbol or brand of the band itself, but gradually other bands started to wear it, so my idea was to have an exclusive tartan custom designed and registered, which is what happened. (I left the band before I ever actually wore it.) Other bands, like FMM and SFU, have followed suit, creating their very own exclusive look.

But I wonder whether any of these bands protect their trademark tartan as steadfastly with weavers as my very own Clan Maitland, with an earl upholding the rite.


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