Stories of Homecoming - We're on the march with Argentina's Scots

ON SUNDAY 6 April this year, as New York was going into paroxysms of fevered tartanalia, a procession of kilted, banner-bearing folk could be seen marching round the Piraino waterfront area of Buenos Aires.

They were the "Scottish porteos" – natives of the Argentine capital call themselves porteos or "people of the port" – and, alongside the city's colours, a kilted figure carried a cushion on which rested a symbolic key, representing that of Arbroath Abbey, reflecting Tartan Day's commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath on that date in 1320. Marching alongside the key-bearer to the strains of a pipe band, clad in "Argentina District Tartan" which he designed, was Eduardo Macrae, who initiated the Buenos Aires Tartan Day parade two years ago.

If the concept of kilts and bagpipes in a Latin-American country seems a bizarre one, Mr Macrae, a 63-year-old tour guide who says he can trace his ancestry back to a MacRae clansman who fought at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, points out that, with an estimated 100,000 people claiming Scottish ancestry, Argentina can boast the largest Scottish community outside the English-speaking world.

At next year's Gathering 2009, Mr Macrae will be among more than 80 fellow clansmen and women, largely from North America, who will march along Edinburgh's Royal Mile as well as embarking on a two-week Highland tour, in the process holding their own gathering at Eilean Donan castle, which apart from being arguably the most-photographed castle in Scotland, is associated with the clan.

On a previous visit to Eilean Donan, he says, a guide there told him his grandfather was a farmer in Patagonia, an example of a long-standing link between Argentina and Scotland. During the 19th centurey and well into the 20th, shepherds, farm managers and other workers from the Hebrides and elsewhere in Scotland were recruited for the sprawling estancias of the pampas.

"This is the country outside the English-speaking world that had received most Scottish immigrants," says Mr Macrae, "Going back to the beginning of the 19th century, Scots came here for the same reason they went to other places; they were looking for good farm land, and Argentina had the Pampas. After some years, many Scottish farmers became prominent members of their communities here."

Ask Mr Macrae, whose wife, Iris, is Glasgow-born but moved to Argentina when she was three, when and why he first became so interested in Scotland and things tartan, he responds: "History is one of my hobbies and I've always felt that the descendents of Scottish people in Argentina should know more about their roots. After two or three generations, people start forgetting about their culture. We have the descendents of about 40 different nationalities here. We all feel Argentine, but all these different communities like to remember their cultural heritage.

"There are things of the Scottish Diaspora that are not celebrated in Scotland." He describes being moved to establish Tartan Day in the city by the Rio de la Plata after reading about New York's tartan jamboree, saying: "Three years ago I said, 'Let's have our own parade in Buenos Aires.'

These things are usually started by a few enthusiasts. You push the rest of the people and they follow: this year we had 500 people and it is growing."

Among the 13-million-strong population of Buenos Aires, there is no shortage, it seems, of sympathetic neighbouring ethnic groups willing to stand in as ersatz Celts. "For example, we had a group of friends from the local Scandinavian community who re-enact old Viking traditions, and we asked them, 'Would you be able to re-enact the Declaration of Arbroath and come dressed as Scots?' 'Oh yes,'" Mr Macrae laughs.

Also over the past 15 years, he adds, in Buenos Aires as elsewhere, Celtic music, as it has become known, has become very popular. He says: "We share things with other communities of Celtic origin. In Argentina here there are many people from Galicia in north-west Spain, so we share our interest with them and with other Celtic people like the Irish and the Bretons."

Mr Macrae says he is a descendant, through his Scottish great-grandfather, of one of the 11 children of the Rev James Macrae of Sauchieburn, in the parish of Fettercairn in the Mearns country, who in turn was a descendant of a Macrae clansman who fought and narrowly escaped death on the Jacobite side at the battle of Sheriffmuir, the key engagement of the short-lived 1715 Rebellion.

During his visit to the Gathering next year, he and his fellow latter-day clansmen will visit the battle site, near Dunblane.

They will also climb Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, where, in 1778, the newly formed regiment that would become the Seaforth Highlanders, composed predominantly of Macraes, camped during their famous mutiny against being posted to India after being assured they would not see duty outside Britain. The episode is still known by some as "the affair of the wild Macraes".

But in the 21st century, can such would-be clansmen stand accused of over-romanticising Scotland and its history? "Some people do have a tendency, instead of reading what Scotland is really like now," Mr Macrae replies, adding, however, that, in Argentina at least, the Scottish Diaspora is in favour of home rule. "We would love to have the Scottish parliament issuing a second Declaration of Arbroath. That's majority of opinion here.

"You have to remember that we are descendents of Scots but we are not Scots. That's the difference. We were brought up in another society, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy our heritage."

&#149 Almost 5,000 Gathering "passports" (all-inclusive tickets) have been sold, with 38 per cent going to the US, 25 per cent in the UK, 13 per cent in Canada, 12 per cent in Australia, 2 per cent to New Zealand and 10 per cent elsewhere. For more information, visit www.thegathering2009.com