BY TOM LAVIS
The first Scottish tartan kilt was seen in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania in the year 1758, when soldiers of the famous 42nd Highland Regiment (Black Watch) marched westward from Philadelphia to seize control of the fort at the forks of the Ohio from the French.
Under the command of Gen. John Forbes, members of the regiment were sent to construct a wooden fort that would serve as a staging area for the final assault.
Many of the Scottish soldiers who served in the French and Indian War were offered land in the newly won territory instead of being returned to their homeland.
1 in 3 were Scottish
By the time of the Revolutionary War, it is estimated that one in three persons living in western Pennsylvania was of Scottish descent.
Jane Oleksak of Westmont, a member of the defunct Laurel Highlands Scottish Society, who wrote the group’s newsletter, said many people later left Scotland to escape high rents and poverty, to be able to own land and to have better lives for themselves and their families.
“People of Scottish descent, Lowland Scots, began arriving here in the earliest days of our nation’s history,” said Oleksak.
“The largest and longest wave of immigration came from Ulster in Northern Ireland, who were the Ulster Scots or Scotch-Irish as we say in America.”
Many settled in Pa.
To the best of her knowledge, Oleksak said that before the Revolutionary War, an estimated 250,000 Scotch-Irish settlers arrived in the colonies and many settled in Pennsylvania, with thousands more filtering down into the Appalachian regions of Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas.
Her own ancestrial roots can be traced back to the early 1800s, when her great-great-great-grandparents, John and Jane (Knox) Strachan, came from the Aberdeen area with three children born in Scotland and settled in Kingston, Ontario.
“It was his son, John Strachan, and his Ulster-born wife, Maria Jane Graham, who left Canada and immigrated to Butler County, Pa., in 1871,” Oleksak said.
The immigrants were farmers and farm laborers as well as craftsmen of various kinds.
“I doubt if many returned to their homeland because they knew it was a life that would have included famine, excessive or extortionate rents with no chance to own land,” Oleksak said.
Wayne MacEwan of Johnstown, past president of the Laurel Highlands Scottish Society, said that Cambria County provided the Scots an opportunity for work in coal mines and steel mills.
MacEwan’s great-grandfather came from Scotland in the late 1870s, and went to work in the mines when he was 9 years old.
“Except for church, the Scots didn’t band together in social clubs as much as other nationalities,” MacEwan said.
Expressions of unity
What is true, however, is that Scottish descendants have embraced the thistle, bagpipes, kilts and tartans as a way to express unity.
Bagpipes have become a universal symbol of brotherhood, camaraderie, kinship and goodwill.
“You don’t have to be Scottish to appreciate it,” Oleksak said.
MacEwan said bagpipes were traditionally a military instrument meant to inspire the Scottish soldiers in battle. So naturally when soldiers were killed in battle they would be piped out of this life.
“It eventually came to be used at funerals of all kinds, especially police and firemen, and then into civilian funerals, Scottish and others,” said MacEwan.
“There seems to be a special and solemn touch when ‘Amazing Grace’ is played on the bagpipes.”
There is no evidence that ancient Scots wore family-name tartans.
It was not until the mid-19th century that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or families, or simply institutions connected in some way with Scottish heritage.
According to Oleksak, the kilt-wearing Highlanders were not Scotch-Irish.
“The Lowland Scots were closer to English than the Highlanders, although everybody fought the English at some point,” she said.
Scots and Scotch-Irish came here to become Americans.
“Whatever their traditions, beliefs, prejudices or religion, it became part of the American fabric, and soon they were so assimilated that they lost a sense of their own national identity,” Oleksak said.
That was one of the main reasons the Laurel Highlands Scottish Society was formed during the time the National FolkFest came to Johnstown.
For years, the Scottish Society held annual Burns’ Suppers to celebrate the birthday of poet laureate Robert Burns, complete with haggis, bagpipes and recitations.
Oleksak said it would be difficult to re-establish the society’s traditions “after it has faded into the mist like Brigadoon.”
“But you can be sure that those who know they are Scottish still get misty-eyed by the sound of the pipes, the site of the Saltire (St. Andrews Cross, the flag of Scotland), a field of purple thistles (the emblem of Scotland), the flash of tartans during the Ligonier Highland Games or when a room full of Presbyterians listen to ‘Amazing Grace’ on bagpipes.”
When it comes to food, there are a few dishes that are associated with Scottish tradition.
“I think people have started traditions that did not exist in their families because they were too busy working the land, making a living,” Oleksak said.
“Nowadays, people like to make shortbread or other desserts and sip a bit of good single-malt.”
The only thing a Scotsman may enjoy more than a round of golf would be meal of haggis.
Traditional Scottish dish
Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish made of various parts of the sheep, barley and spices – baked in a sheep’s stomach.
“Today, it is a staple served at Burns’ Night Suppers, celebrating the late, great poet Laureate of Scotland Robert Burns’ birthday,” MacEwan said.
However, the only traditional food served in the Strachan household was the steamed Christmas pudding with hard sauce, Oleksak said.
“It was my Pennsylvania Dutch mother’s gift to my dad every holiday because the recipe came from his beloved grandmother,” she said.
Oleksak said the Scotch-Irish were Protestant and primarily Presbyterian.
By 1856, there were already three Presbyterian theological seminaries, while the Roman Catholics did not have one until 1870.
Though Presbyterians dominate local Scotch-Irish history, there were also Scotch-Irish Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians and others.
In Johnstown, the Second Presbyterian Church in Moxham was the cornerstone of religion for the Scottish community.
Organized in 1897
The church was organized in 1897 by families from Moxham who belonged to First Presbyterian Church of Johnstown.
“The families found it difficult to get home from church, have lunch and return to town in time for the Sunday afternoon services,” said the Rev. Donna Heff, pastor.
The Presbyterians organized Sunday school class in Moxham five years earlier and erected a wooden-framed building at Park Avenue and Village Street.
Sunday school was organized as the Second Presbyterian Church.
In 1913, the brick church that is in use today was built. Andrew Carnegie donated the pipe organ.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the congregation thrived along with the city. The men’s Bible class boasted more than 100 attendees each week.
“We are a small church now with about 80 members,” said Neff, who also pastors Westmont Presbyterian Church.
The Scotch-Irish element in western Pennsylvania permeates the area’s social and institutional fabric.
“The University of Pittsburgh, Washington & Jefferson College, Allegheny College in Meadville, Westminster College, Grove City College and Geneva College were all founded by Scotch-Irish,” Oleksak said.