Why do Americans embrace all things Scottish?

Posted on 30th Mar 2017 Categories: News

With less than a fortnight to go until the streets of New York City are awash with tartan (Tartan Day Parade is held on Saturday 8th April) it got me to thinking about the popularity of Scottish dress and traditions across the pond. Why are Americans so keen on kilts, Robert Burns and bagpipes? Curiosity got the better of me so I spoke to Matt Newsome from New House Highland (House of Cheviot’s official US distributor) about his love of all things Scottish.

 Our business in America is growing every year, is kilt wearing rising in popularity?

“Yes, kilt wearing is as popular as ever in the United States. It is claimed that more kilt wearers will be on hand during the New York City Tartan Day Parade than at any event in Scotland. Americans come to kilt wearing for a variety of reasons. For some, the kilt is part of a uniform. Perhaps they are a member of a pipe band or a dancing troupe. Some take to wearing the kilt because they are officers of their clan society and wish to look the part at the Highland Games. Others just like the look of it!

For most kilt wearers in America, though, the kilt is primarily a heritage garment. Whether it is to celebrate their Scottish ancestors or simply their love for Scotland, it is the kilt’s connection to Caledonia that draws so many to it.”

A lot of Americans have close ties to Scotland, do you have Scottish ancestors?

“Most Americans are a mixed bag when it comes to ethnicity. My own rather homogenous heritage is Scottish, English, and Irish. My wife’s family is a bit more diverse, with ancestry from Germany, Ireland, France, and Lebanon by way of South America! Somehow or other our children turned out looking Norwegian. DNA works in mysterious ways!

Yet with all this diversity of blood running through our veins, there is something about Scottish heritage that cries out to be celebrated. The kilt makes it easy. What other country on earth has a national dress that not only hearkens back to the distant past but is still a vibrant modern fashion in its own right? The kilt is adaptable enough that it can be worn casually or formally, with a Glengarry bonnet or a cowboy hat, with a tweed jacket or a tshirt and it remains uniquely and identifiably Scottish.”

You’re known world-wide as a kilt maker but what first inspired you to wear a kilt?

“My own foray into the world of kilts began when I was a teenager and was brought to my first Highland Games with a friend and his family. I was overwhelmed by the colour and pageantry of it all! I was fascinated by the clan tartans, the music and the history. Plus there is something rather appealing to an adolescent boy about getting to wear a knife in your sock.

That began an interest into the history and traditions of Highland Dress that ended up with me working for the Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, NC, for 14 years. During that time I would learn not only about the traditions of kilt wearing but also kilt making. I was taught to make kilts by Bob Martin, perhaps the best kilt maker in America at the time. He was also a kilt historian, having made an extensive study of the development of the kilt and change in style and construction technique over the centuries. He offered to teach me how to make a simple four-yard box pleated kilt as was commonly worn in the Highlands at the beginning of the 19th century.”

Learning to make kilts sounds like a challenge, why were you so keen to learn?

“I wanted to learn for two basic reasons. One was to increase my knowledge of how kilts were made. The other was to be able to make kilts for myself to wear. Working at the Scottish Tartans Museum the kilt was part of my daily wardrobe but the full eight-yard kilt is a bit cumbersome for everyday dress. The traditional style of the four-yard kilt came from a time when kilts were part of the day-to-day dress of the Highland male, before kilts became a more ceremonial garment made from ever-increasing amounts of cloth.

I truly enjoyed making kilts as well as wearing them. There are only so many kilts one can make for one’s self, however, which is why I started to make them for others. Focusing primarily on the older style of four-yard kilts, my initial assumption was that I would get an occasional order from people interested in historical clothing and reenactment. Instead, I found myself receiving several orders per month mostly from people with an interest in wearing the kilt on a semi-regular basis as a part of their normal clothing. That was in 2004. To date, I have made close to 1,000 kilts, the majority of which have been the four-yard box pleated style that Bob Martin first taught me to make. And while this style is not nearly as popular as the full eight-yard kilt that is the standard of modern Highland dress, I note that several other kilt makers in America now offer this style.”

You’re a big fan of our Scottish-made socks; do you use traditional methods and Scottish goods where possible?

“Realising that most of my clients look to their kilt as a mark of their heritage, I have always strived to maintain a high level of authenticity in my work. My kilts are stitched entirely by hand. I favor traditional styles of pleating. And most importantly, all of the tartan cloth that I use comes from mills located in Scotland. This commitment to providing Scottish-made goods extends to other kilt accessories, including the kilt hose I offer. This is why I am so proud to work with House of Cheviot, who provide only the highest quality kilt hose, manufactured in the traditional knitting town of Hawick.

House of Cheviot is the only brand of kilt hose I wear, with the exception of a few pairs that have been hand knitted for me by my lovely wife. (Occasionally people will ask how much she would charge to knit them a pair, to which she replies, “Well, he had to marry me!”).

These days I don’t have as much time to devote to kilt making as other pursuits have taken priority but I still find occasions to wear the kilt from time to time, even if it is just for a walk in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, near my home.”

After chatting to Matt I’ve realised how popular and important Scottish culture is, not just here in bonnie Scotland but in America too. It’s nice to know that other nations appreciate the heritage of our great country and hopefully Scottish traditions continue to grow in popularity for many years to come.