As the SNP attempts to make St Andrew's Day a huge public celebration, Martyn McLaughlin asks societies around the world how they mark the saint's day
• Montreal's celebrations include Highland dancing and battle reanactments
IT USED to be a date with scant significance for many ordinary Scots, who could not distinguish it from any other of those dark, dank days in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In recent years, however, St Andrew's Day has once again taken its place on Scotland's cultural calendar, thanks to a drive by successive governments to raise awareness of the nation's patron saint.
Designed to bolster tourism, trade, and the country's standing on the global stage, the process began four years ago when the former Scottish Executive made clear its intention to emulate the success in Ireland of St Patrick's Day.
Upon coming to government, the SNP has amply demonstrated its own commitment to the cause. This year, it will devote up to 434,000 towards St Andrew's Day celebrations, the same as the previous two years, organising events at home and sending promotional material abroad.
Since last week, dozens of events have been taking place across the country, from banquets, festivals, and concerts, through to ceilidhs, walks and re-enactments.
Tomorrow, Scottish ministers will be taking part in a host of special appointments, while Alex Salmond, the First Minister, is to return to his former secondary school, Linlithgow Academy, to take part in a Q&A session with senior pupils.
The government, which regards St Andrew's Day as the first of Scotland's "winter festivals" – the others being Hogmanay and Burns Night – has been accused of hijacking a day of patriotic pride for political purposes, but it points to the public's positive perception of the date. In a survey of nearly 400 people at Edinburgh events last year, 96 per cent agreed it is important for a country to celebrate its national day, with 97 per cent agreeing that St Andrew's Day is a good opportunity to celebrate Scotland's identity.
Yet November 30 is not only for those Scots at home, but the millions of Scots exiles who have long cherished the day. For centuries, St Andrew's societies the world over have devoted themselves to raising money for good causes while spreading awareness of their ancestral homeland and its customs.
On the eve of St Andrew's Day, The Scotsman has gauged the mood of an array of organisations around the globe to get a snapshot of how the day is regarded internationally. From the major cities in the US through to Russia and Brazil, the groups, which have been in existence for as long as 250 years, described with enthusiasm their plans to commemorate the date with hearty dinners, Scottish country dancing, and whisky aplenty.
Yet some spoke with sadness about the "struggle" to keep alive historic traditions and stories in locales far flung from Scotland.
With regards to the drive coming from Edinburgh to increase awareness of St Andrew's Day, several societies welcomed any steps to promote the nation abroad.
Others, however, warned that St Andrew's societies have been celebrating the patron saint for many years, and will continue to do so, regardless of who rules the roost at Holyrood. As far as they're concerned, 30 November is not a day for politics, but a time for celebration among people of all nationalities.BRAZIL
JIMMY Frew, a long-standing member and current president of the St Andrew's Society of Rio de Janeiro, has seen a gradual change in the way St Andrew's Day is celebrated in Brazil.
Founded in 1906 by a group of Scottish businessmen, the society only admitted men until 1960, and for decades marked tomorrow's date with a formal black tie dinner. By the 1980s, however, a more inclusive approach turned the day's main event into a family boat trip.
In the 21st century, Frew says, the society is "alive and well" thanks to the support of several offshore supply firms with Scottish links, but he admits that generally, the day itself "no longer has the same importance in the Rio society calendar as it had in the past".
"We are a small, isolated community who struggle to keep our traditions alive for our children and grandchildren to be aware of their roots," he says. "We see young Scots who pass through Rio, either working offshore or backpacking, who seem to care little for their heritage, let alone St Andrew. On the other hand, when others find out about the society, they come back from leave with their kilts and attend country dancing practices for the Caledonian ball."
Frew would like the Scottish Government to offer "some kind of recognition" for the Rio society's work, which includes supporting a group of young Brazilians trained in piping and Highland dancing.
He makes clear that many societies have been celebrating St Andrew's Day "long before" the SNP came to power, but adds: "The SNP is right for raising the profile of St Andrew's Day in Scotland in line with the Scottish diaspora. When I lived in Scotland, it came and went without notice."
This year, armed with presentation bags sent by the SNP complete with flags, pens, and notebooks, the society will "raise its glasses" to Scotland. However, its annual Caledonian ball - with entertainment provided by the Ian MacPhail Scottish country dance band – is held in October, when, Frew admits, "the temperature is a bit cooler".
PETER McAuslan, the Montreal society's president, said that a week-long series of events had been planned in the city in the run-up to tomorrow. The celebrations culminated on Friday evening, with a ball attended by around 400 guests. Like many societies around the globe, the Montreal faction regards its role as primarily a charitable one, existing to help people of Scottish birth or descent who are in need. The society grants educational aid to qualified students of Scottish ancestry via bursaries and scholarships.
The society has special reason to mark St Andrew's Day this year, given it is the 150th anniversary of its formation. Yet, McAuslan says, the Scottish heritage community in Quebec's largest city – and the second largest city in all of Canada – has always seen fit to mark the occasion.
Speaking about this year's plans, he says: "This is consistent with what we have been doing for many years."
When told about the SNP government's attempts to heighten the profile of St Andrew's Day, McAuslan says he is not aware of any such efforts. In any case, he emphasises, his society would carry on celebrating the special day as normal, regardless of how its perception changes.
"I didn't know the SNP was focusing on this day, and this support would not have been a factor in our celebrations one way or the other," he adds.
"We are just proud of our Scottish heritage and enjoy celebrating together with other Scots and non-Scots alike."
AMID the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, the city's St Andrew's Society has been dedicated to preserving Scottish history and heritage for eight decades.
The chapter is one of the most active on the west coast of the US, and in the past year has organised a host of events, such as Scottish country dancing, whisky tasting, and a Christmas party for children.
John E Lowry, president of the branch, takes a pragmatic view of how his fellow Americans view Tuesday's date. When he joined the society, he admists, he knew "precious little" about St Andrew, and the organisation, he admits, "offered little enlightenment," with its focus seemingly on partying.
Nowadays, he says, the occasion has fallen away in the US consciousness, overshadowed by the likes of Halloween. "Poor St Andrew got squeezed off the calendar page with too much else happening at this time of year," he explained. This year, the society will hold an "intimate gathering" given St Andrew's Day falls on a Tuesday, with plans for a more grandiose gala ball in the near future.
Lowry believes the SNP is trying to harness St Andrew's Day for political motives, something he regards as wrong.
He said: "Their plans for turning it into a full-fledged Scottish holiday, obviously, have not worked. Do we hear much about those efforts or even the lessening of demands for a full-on Scottish holiday? I would say that only those who keep a close watch on UK and Scottish politics by reading The Scotsman and other publications.
"I think it best that the SNP or any other political organisation leave St Andrew out of their agenda aimed at feathering their own nest or of leaving a legacy of enormous fiscal accomplishment. The people will find a way to celebrate if they so choose."
AS PRESIDENT of the society, Ian Macfarlane is never amazed to discover the goodwill towards Scots in both his adopted homeland and elsewhere around the world.
He recently visited his daughter, who was on an exhange programme at a university in upper New York state, only to find himself a source of dinner party conversation. "The family who occasionally helped her had us all for dinner and brought along their friends of Scottish extraction," he recalls. "I was asked so many questions about Scotland, most of which I had never, ever thought about."
Back in the Netherlands – where the St Andrew's Society was founded in 1985 – Macfarlane admits that the membership is not exclusively Scottish, with well-wishers from the likes of England, the US, Germany, and France. "Our Scottish country dance teacher is English," he jokes.
Nonetheless, such a broad church is devoted to their cause of raising funds for charities in Scotland and the Netherlands.
Their St Andrew's charity ball was held on Saturday, and was attended by Scots recently settled in the Netherlands, along with the British ambassador, Paul Arkwright.
Asked whether the SNP has heightened the profile of St Andrew's Day for those abroad, Macfarlane says: "Probably not. Scots abroad already use most opportunities to show their Scottishness."NEW YORK
ONE of the most powerful chapters in the world, the St Andrew's Society of the State of New York was founded 254 years ago, predating the Declaration of Independence by two decades.
In a city of immigrants, members takes great pride in their Scottish ancestry, and for the past quarter of a millenia has acted as a port of call for those Scots who came to the US and were in need of support.
Some of the most famous Scots-Americans in history have addressed the society, including Bobby Thomson, the baseball player who sent the New York Giants to the World Series. Andrew Carnegie was once its president, while previous members include Alexander Graham Bell, John Loudon McAdam, and Washington Irving.
Today, the society counts among its members some of New York's most influential figures, including Wall Street bankers, lawyers, and prominent businessmen. Together, they remain devoted to providing charitable relief and academic sponsorship.
Earlier this month, the society – which has only just decided to admit women members – held its annual banquet in celebration of St Andrew's Day at the Plaza Hotel in New York. With prices of up to $10,000 for a table, those attending the 400-strong gala, such as Jack Irvine, recount a joyous, well-heeled affair. Irvine, the former newspaper executive who is media counsel to the society, says: "It was an incredibly emotional and happy night, and Scotland came out of it very well. The irony is, of course, that the whole event was planned by Americans."
Irvine, executive chairman of Media House International, added that the SNP's ascendance has had little influence on the society: "There has been no change to the celebrations over the past four years. It doesn't matter who is in power in Scotland. In fact, Walkers shortbread, which carries some amazing promotional activities in the US, has had a more profound influence than the Scottish Government."
AS A nation which has an abiding affection for Robert Burns, it is perhaps no surprise to find that Russia is home to several vibrant societies celebrating St Andrew.
The Moscow chapter, in particular, seeks to promote the identity and customs of Scots, while raising funds for charities looking after children and elderly in Russia.
Steph Droop, originally from Edinburgh, is one of the members of the St Andrew Society of Russia, established 17 years ago. She points out that St Andrew is the patron saint not only of Scotland, but also of Russia, and acts as as a "great symbol to bring our two countries together."
At the society's St Andrew's ball, due to take place this Saturday, there will be a four-course dinner and "plenty of whisky".
Entertainment will be provided by a Celtic rock band, a Scottish country dance school from Moscow, and a Burns impersonator. Droop says the SNP's increased focus on St Andrew's Day has not altered the way members of her society view the occasion.
"St Andrew's Day is not a political thing," she says. "I do not think that many of our members and guests of our events have any particular opinions about the SNP. I have no idea what people's political leanings are, if any. We just love and miss Scotland and like having parties and raising money for charity. It is a voluntary organisation running black tie and family events with a Scottish flavour for expats and Russians."
Nonetheless, Droop is supportive of any efforts to improve Scotland's standing on the global stage. She adds: "I don't know what the SNP are doing to raise the profile but Scotland has such a great brand and cultural heritage that it is a good idea to make use of it. Whatever your views on independence, it doesn't stop you celebrating Scottishness. Scotland is a nation whether it is independent or not and so celebrating it is a good excuse for a party.
"If they were going to do more to raise Scotland's profile abroad it should come from developing trade and industry and improving education to make it more international in focus."