Atlanta Scot

AM GtD photoThere’s nothing better than a good-natured Scotsman, and Georgia’s Alan B. Mackie might be one of the nicest you will ever meet. Recently we spoke with the Atlanta native about his roots and Scottish culture today.

What is your own heritage/ethnicity?
I was born and raised in Edinburgh. After graduating from Dundee and Edinburgh universities, I moved to London in the 1990s and arrived in Atlanta last year.  I tell people that I am a permanent resident in the US, a British citizen, but Scottish by the grace of God!

When and why did you first become interested in Scottish culture?
In growing up in Scotland in the 1970s and ‘80s, I don’t think my interests would have been so different from a boy growing up in London, Boston, Vancouver, Adelaide or Christchurch.  That said, I did learn the bagpipes (and played for the Queen) and was taught Scottish airs in singing classes at school (I still “Ye Banks &Braes” in shower!).  I wear would wear my kilt every Sunday when I went to church with the family, and like most teenage boys of my generation, I was taught Scottish country dancing by the girls at our school dances.  I would go to the “Schoolboys’ Enclosure” at the Murrayfield rugby stadium and support Scotland at rugby internationals, except for the year Australia was touring and our teacher, from Adelaide, made us support the Wallabies!  Above all, we were taught Scottish history and I loved it all, everything from Robert the Bruce to the Scottish Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.  When I was 10, I recall our teacher telling us that as Scots we would be welcomed wherever we travelled – but warned us that we had a good reputation to maintain.  Little did I think that one day I would be living abroad, but I have found that I have been warmly welcomed as a Scot, whether in London or Atlanta.  I hope I have kept up our good reputation.

Are they the same reasons you remain interested today?
I no longer play the bagpipes, but I occasionally pick up my chanter to practise and my last visit to a rugby international was to see the Scottish XV demolished by the ‘Auld Enemy’ at Twickenham.  However, I still enjoy Scottish history and travelling in Scotland.  Happily, my American wife, Melanie, is even more passionate than I am about history and we enjoy touring Scotland and visiting historic sites.  My wife has also introduced me to Scottish folk music and we are fans of singers such as Alex Beaton, Ed Miller and Jim Malcolm.  I met Melanie at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and I was flattered and bemused to see so many Americans participating in Scottish culture.  That got me thinking as to why Scottish highland games are so popular over here and I am currently researching the reasons for this with a generous grant from the University of Edinburgh’s Kerr Fry Bequest.  It has been lots of fun travelling round the USA, attending games and interviewing folk as to why and how they celebrate their Scottish culture.

What is the Scottish community like in your part of the world?
When I moved to Atlanta, I was surprised at how international the city is and have met other Brits who are living and working here.  The Scottish community is very much part of that scene and is in good heart.  I am a member of an active University of Edinburgh Alumni group here and I was intrigued to learn that the Burns Club of Atlanta meets in a replica of the Burns Cottage in Ayrshire. Melanie and I are in the process of joining the St Andrew’s Society of Atlanta, which is a lively group of ex-pats and Americans of Scottish heritage.  We had a great St Andrew’s night last month.  Of all the highland games I have visited as part of my research, I think the Stone Mountain Games, just outside Atlanta, are my favourite.  They are superbly organised, well attended and have the justified reputation of being known as the friendly games. 

How are you currently involved with that community?
When I moved to Atlanta, I was fortunate that I had a ready-made circle of friends as my wife was born and raised here. However, she was keen that we get involved in the Scottish and wider British community and that made sense to me.  When I moved from Edinburgh to London, I became involved in the Church of Scotland there, became a trustee of a charity for Scots in London and joined the Caledonian Society. Rather than being exclusive activities, they helped me to settle in a new city and make friends with Scots and other from around the world.  Similarly, here in Atlanta the Edinburgh University alumni group, the St Andrew’s Society and the British American Business Group are great ways of meeting new friends and building up my own social and business network.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Scottish-American community today?
This is a question that my research has been addressing.  Before answering it, I think I should say that none of the folk I interviewed considered themselves to be ‘Scottish-American’. Rather, they emphatically considered themselves to be Americans, who are as proud of their American heritage as they are of their Scottish heritage.  That said, I think the biggest challenge to the community is remaining relevant and attractive to new members, whether they are ex-pats who have moved from Scotland or Americans who are exploring their Scottish heritage.  Sometimes, I feel that Scottish culture on this side of the Atlantic can get stuck in what was described to me in one interview as a ‘breeks, bunnets, and Brigadoon’ mentality.  I think that representation can be embarrassing and off-putting to ex-pats and gives Americans a rather clichéd view of Scotland’s history and contemporary society.

What are the solutions to those issues?
Get curious and move beyond the clichés!  Of course the games must have the highland athletics, dancing and piping competitions – and so very often those activities provide a real connection to Scotland with individuals crossing the Atlantic in both directions to compete in events.  However, when touring around the highland games, I have been delighted to see some new and innovative representations of the Scottish culture: whisky tastings that have educated the palate rather than enforcing stereotypes of heavy drinking; new and exciting interpretations of traditional Scottish music, including Celtic rock; watching contemporary Scottish fashion hit the catwalk with panache at the “From Scotland With Love’ fashion show in New York; food vendors who can deliver fresh game and sea food direct from Scotland, confounding the view that the Scottish diet is poor quality.  And of course I would also encourage people to get interested in Scottish history and learn about the events that shaped an innovative and creative people.   Above all, I would encourage people to visit Scotland to see its beauty, its historic sites and meet the people. Without exception, all Americans I’ve who’ve made the trip over had enjoyed the experience immensely.

Is enough being done, generally, to preserve and promote Celtic culture?
I think Scottish culture is relatively easy to promote as the tartan and the music are very visual and audible.  Indeed, they are in some ways part of the brand and recognised the world over.  However, I am always wary about preserving a culture, as culture should be living and vibrant and attempts to preserve it can often make it moribund or irrelevant.  I have been fascinated to see how Scottish culture is represented here in the USA.  At its best it has what I call a ‘line of descent’ back to Scotland, but often has a North American twist. For example, the music scene at the games covers a multitude of genres, from the traditional folk singers such as Ed Millar and Jim Malcolm, but also ‘Celtic tribal music’ and Celtic fusion music  (for example the Celtic harp and Andean pan-pipes).  And who would have thought of Appalachian punk?  All of these genres claim to have connection to the traditional music of the British Isles, but reinterpret that for today’s audience.  Of course, we should also honour the traditional events, but even the piping competitions and highland dancing are open to interpretation and the conventions and rules have changed over time.  And whilst the athletics may claim to be rooted back to the days of Malcolm Canmore, they often attract competitors with no connection to Scotland but are simply attracted to the competition and the camaraderie of the events.

What can we be doing better?
We should always honour the past and tradition, but not be bound by it.  Highland games, piping, dancing and tartan are the brand images of Scotland and its culture, but they should not be regarded as definitive.  I would encourage people to see what is going on in Scotland – Edinburgh hosts the largest international arts festival in the world – but also to encourage local talent in America to explore and experiment with the traditional music and design and contribute something fresh and appealing to a new generation. 

What’s next on your agenda?
The Kerr Fry bequest has funded me to conduct a survey of St Andrew’s and Calenonian societies in the USA and understand how they fulfil their cultural, educational and benevolent objectives in the 21st century. In particular, the research will seek to understand more fully the societies’ relevance to social and business lives of contemporary Americans and Scots living in the USA.  I look forward to telling you more about that on another occasion.