Tartan societies

Today I attended the Washington DC St Andrews Society’s Kirkin of the Tartans. As the page from the Tartan Museum points out, it’s a very Scottish-American (and 20th century) tradition. I went with my father, who is a member of the DC St Andrew’s Society as well as Clan Scott USA.

I have to admit, as much as I love going out with my family to these events to watch people celebrate their heritage(s), but as a historian of (among other things) Scottish history, it’s a little difficult as well. The notion of “clans” and “tartans” which are discussed and celebrated at these events are generally a-historical. Tartans as we know them today (and as they are actively marketed in every major tourist town in Scotland) as “clan” identifier are an invention of the early 19th century. Plaids and tartans were worn, but not regimented in the way they are now. Every time I go to one of these gatherings, I think of the Sobieski Stuarts,a pair of English men who claimed to be related to Charles Edward Stuart and marketed the “Vestiarium Scoticum” a ‘reproduction’ of an ‘ancient text of clan tartans’ (it was all a con).  Not to mention the fact that half the “clans” are for Lowland and Borders families, whose ancestors would not have worn a kilt or had a clan in the highland sense.

I was sitting today in the gorgeous National Cathedral, thinking about all of this while we waited for the event to begin, and my mind wandered to the recent discussion of fraternaties at Historiann.com. The St Andrews Society of Washington, DC, is a charitable organization open only to men. It began in the 19th century, and incoporates the St Andrews Society of Alexandria, which was founded in the 1790s. I suddenly realized that this isn’t so much about History and Heritage (although the play a role) as much as it is about people’s continual need to make social groups of some kind. The St A’s Soc is a survivor of a sort of group which used to exist much more commonly – the (relatively) exclusive charitable organization. Clan Societies are a way of sharing an interest in Heritage, but perhaps also about constructing family groups in a time when so many genetic families are scattered.

I’m sure I’ve missed some facts or relevant comparisons – social clubs in america are not something I’ve ever conciously studied. On the other hand, with this insight, I’m now ready to face a Highland Games festival with a lighter heart.