An Overview

An Introduction to Voices Over the Water.

Pride in our ethnic roots is widespread in America. As we show off the badges of our ancestry, immigration policy is changing the ethnic make-up of the United States. Family history, genealogy, and ancestral roots research are more popular than ever, with new tools to help in the search for who we are. Have the terms “cultural identity” and “appropriation” become passé, and who exactly can claim ownership to what may be seen as an evolving identity?


Across the United States, thousands of people celebrate their ancestral heritage. They sing. They dance. Dressed distinctively, they make merry. Many are homesick for a land they never knew.

This program examines Scottish identity in America and asks, who can claim this identity. How Scottish do you have to be to wear the tartan and march in a parade, or dance at a ceilidh?

Some members of cultural organizations seek out the truth about their heritage through journeys to their ancestral lands that bring a sense of home and self-identity. Others discover a history that challenges their long-standing beliefs.

What is the truth behind these cultural celebrations and traditions?  What are the tragedies?  What remains unspoken and misunderstood? How many seek out the history behind the tradition and pageantry. Who can claim this history as their own? And what can we learn about our identity as Americans by looking back into this rich history?

We explore the ways in which they keep their heritage alive–Highland Games, Tartan Day Parades, Ceilidhs, Burns Nights, Clan Societies, Caledonian clubs, etc.

Dressed in colorful tartan- this is the image of the Scotsman that is instantly recognizable and that has often been depicted in films and paintings.

Has the Highland image become the image for the whole of Scotland? And what is the appeal for many Americans, whether of Scottish descent or not?

Uprising and Clearance

We consider the tragedies that led so many Scots to leave their homeland, willingly and unwillingly. We take the viewer through the old clan way of life in the Highlands, the political upheaval of the Jacobite Rebellions to the repression of traditional Gaelic culture and dress.

As the advancing industrial revolution changed the whole of Western Europe, chieftains began to see their role change from that of a leader of their people to that of a landlord extracting rents from tenants. Sheep were brought in and the clan members were moved to less viable land, beginning the events of the Highland Clearances. Many Highlanders moved to North Carolina, New York, Nova Scotia and Australia–some voluntarily, some with assistance to leave. Others arrived completely destitute.

As the Highlands emptied and the world became more industrialized, Sir Walter Scott wrote his Waverly novels which romanticized the Highlands for his extensive readership. Dr. Samuel Johnson famously visited the western Highlands and Islands in search of a disappearing way of life and his companion, James Boswell, published his journal. Once King George IV visited Scotland dressed in a version of Highland dress, while ridiculed at the time, the fashion for tartan was born and has never really gone out of vogue.

Old Times, New Traditions

Today throughout the world there are genuine and heart-felt observances of Scottish and, more specifically, Highland culture.

Then there is something called “tartanry,” which can be seen as the over-emphasis of tartan in Scottish culture. “Highlandism,” too, is the mythologizing of Highland history.

There is a pride in the psyches of many descendants of expatriate Scots. Many participate in what can be described as a new form of clan existence. The rich and evolving traditions are alive and well in the many Caledonian societies throughout the world, and may help to “validate” their bloodlines.

As the Scottish diaspora celebrate their heritage, new traditions are formed, such as Kirkin o’ the Tartan.

These are people who are proud of their country of origin, and who also pride themselves on their American patriotism. With interest growing in roots tourism, family history and genealogy, there is a renewed interest in ethnic heritage for many Americans. But how many seek out the history behind the tradition and pageantry? Who can claim this history as their own? Who can tell these stories? And what can we learn about our identity as Americans by looking back into this rich history?