It was 35 years ago that Nova Scotia resident Jean Watson first conceived of Tartan Day, but the memory remains as fresh and indelible as the day on which she first proposed it, not the least because of its initial comic result.
“We were at a meeting of the Federation of Scottish Clans here in Nova Scotia, talking about how young people were not as interested in their Scottish heritage as they should be,” recalls Watson from her home near Halifax. “And we thought if there was a Scots day in Canada, it just might attract their attention.”
In March of 1986, the pair proposed to their Federation peers that they establish Tartan Day. Watson envisioned it as day to promote Scottish heritage by visible means. This meant wearing the kilt, especially where it wasn’t normally worn in places like the office and in restaurants.
After the motion passed, the Federation called for volunteers to form a committee.
“Nobody put their hand up but me,” laughs Watson. “I was the committee for 10 years to promote Tartan Day in Canada.”
In many ways, Watson was the perfect person for the job. Born in Pictou, NS, she grew up surrounded by her Scottish roots; her ancestors, hailing from Glen Lyon, had settled in the province in 1833. At the age of 14, after being diagnosed with cancer, her interest in that heritage took hold. “I read encyclopedias on Scotland to take my mind off my troubles,” she remembers.
That passion turned to action, and over the years she helped found the Pipes and Drums of Clan Farquharson, the Clan Lamont Society, the Clan Watson Society of Canada and the Stewart-Stuart Association of Nova Scotia, serving as president of each. She has also been president of the Federation of Scottish Clans twice.
Watson’s efforts to establish Tartan Day began with lobbying members of her home province’s Legislative Assembly, and Nova Scotia proclaimed its first Tartan Day on April 6, 1987, coinciding with the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.
Watson then pushed to have Tartan Day observed in every province, urging several regional and national Scottish associations to do the same. “I must say that my husband Andrew helped an awful lot,” she smiles. “We had to lick a lot of letters!”
By the early 1990s, every province in Canada recognized Tartan Day, with the U.S. following in 1997. In 2004, Scotland’s Angus Council spearheaded the annual event, and today Tartan Day is celebrated all over the world.
“Give her credit,” says Troy MacCulloch, past-president of the Federation for Scottish Culture of Nova Scotia. “Jean stuck with it and saw it through at every level.”
MacCulloch knows a thing or two about Tartan Day himself, having been involved with organizing Tartan Day festivities in Pictou County for a decade, and helping coordinate the annual Tartan Day event at Government House in Halifax. “My favourite part is seeing the young dancers, pipers or drummers or young speakers of the Gàidhlig,” he muses. “It’s great to witness the next generation taking an interest in preserving and promoting our past.”
Today, Watson is busier than ever, and is hoping to visit Scotland again.
“I find it very hard to believe how Tartan Day has spread worldwide,” she says, reflecting on the last three+ decades. “It’s just wonderful that so many people are enjoying it and having a good time!”