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Scotland Featured at Washington DC's Folklife Festival - 2003-07-02

This year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival pays tribute to a culture with special ties to American history. The Scotland program brings to life the many customs and traditions Scottish immigrants have brought to the United States over the years.

Visitors can experience both the exotic and the familiar at the Scotland exhibit. It joins Mali and American Appalachia as the three featured cultures at this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Bagpipes aren't an everyday sound to most American ears, nor is the ice ring game known as curling widely played in the United States. But Scottish plaid, golf, and whiskey are all popular exports to America. The exhibits have special meaning to Americans of Scottish descent like Rabina Holmes. She was visiting Washington, D.C. from Boise, Idaho.

"I've loved it, the handicrafts and to see the way things used to be, the ancestral crafts and the basketry," she said. "I've been to Scotland, and it's nice to see it here and be able to share with the rest of my family who haven't been able to visit there as well."

Some 10 million Americans are of Scottish or Scottish Irish descent, according to the last U.S. Census. Their influence can be felt in many parts of American culture, including music.

Singer Ishbel Macaskill, describes herself as one of some 80,000 people in Scotland who still speak the ancient language of Gaelic. She came to the festival to sing Gaelic songs.

Macaskill: They told the story of life as it was lived in those days, loss and love and joy and war. So it covered all the aspects of their lives.

Beardsley: I wondered if you've had a chance to listen to any of the songs being sung in the Appalachian section of the festival and if you hear a continuity. Do they sound similar to what you've grown up with?

Macaskill: I haven't had the pleasure of listening to it yet, because as you can imagine I've hit the ground running. But I've always had the belief that Gaelic music has influenced the Appalachian music very strongly because so many of the immigrants went there, and I look forward very much to hearing it first hand.

In another tent, Scottish archivists and historians sat ready with books and computers to help visitors trace their Scottish ancestry. I had a Scottish name Beveridge before I was married. It's not a common name in the United States, so I decided to try it out on Martin Tyson, of Scotland's General Register Office.

"That's really interesting," he said. "The town where I live is called Kirkcaldy, and the main public park there is called Beveridge Park. He was one of the mayors of Kirkcaldy. It's quite a well known name in that part of the country. What we'll do is we'll put in Beveridge, and we'll see what it comes up with. And it's come up with just under 3000 Beveridges, through the 17th and 18th and 19th century. And they look fairly well concentrated in Fyfe, and if you look quite a lot of them are from Kirkcaldy."

Beardsley: Are you getting a lot of people wanting to know about their own Scottish heritage?

Tyson: Yes, we haven't had a minute to sit down since the festival opened. I think a lot of people have a little bit of Scottish heritage and want to know more about it.

But you didn't have to have a drop of Scottish blood to appreciate many of the other exhibits.

"This was the first solid ball, invented in 1848," said Barry Kerr.

Barry Kerr demonstrates the solid golf balls that began to replce feather balls in Scotland more than a century ago. He represents Heritage Golf at Saint Andrews, the last company to manufacture traditional clubs and balls. He says Scotland's passion for golf dates back at least to the 15th century, when King James IV tried to have it banned on Sundays. To let American golf lovers experience the game as it's played in Scotland today, the festival provided a sample putting green like those at the Saint Andrews course.

"It's about half scale, but the depth of the traps and the elevations of the greens have been retained as the original just to let people see the slopes on the greens," he said.

Ann Hoffer of the Washington, D.C. area got a chance to try it out.

"It's just amazing," she said. "You see on TV the slope of those greens, and although this is just a model, it's stunning."

But also challenging, said a school-age visitor named Kevin.

"It was great trying out new clubs, but it was much harder, because you had to hit the ball much harder because the greens weren't as smooth as the ones we have really," he said.

Visitors to the William Grant and Sons exhibit didn't get a chance to experience any products first hand. But that didn't stop them from flocking to see the barley seeds, barrels and three meter copper still that helped show how whiskey is made. I asked distillery employee Robbie Gormley what kind of reaction the exhibit was getting.

Grant: Very good actually, yes. They're all looking for samples.

Beardsley : No samples?

Grant: No samples. Nancy. That's the first question asked.

At least one group of exhibitors is presenting a gift to its Smithsonian hosts.

Alwyn Johnston represents Locharron of Scotland, a weaving mill that's making a special tartan in honor of James Smithson. He was an English scientist whose fortune helped establish the Smithsonian Institution.

"You can see lots of greens and blues and blacks in it and the white," said Alwyn Johnston. "These colors represent the Mackay clan, because Smithson was a Mackay. He never knew his father, but his mother married the Duke of Northumberland, and the other colors, red, white and blue, in the tartan are the Duke's colors."

When the tartan is complete, it will be officially registered as the Smithsonian tartan, taking its place among a host of other time-honored Scottish family plaids.