Analysis: For all its couthy tropes, Tartan Day is a welcome celebration

UK and Scottish Government ministers to take part

It won’t be on the telly, and few folk in Scotland will witness the proceedings save for the occasional snippet of footage on the news or social media, but make no mistake, for tens of thousands of people, Tartan Day is a big deal.

This evening, vast crowds will gather in the heart of New York for the showpiece parade of a week-long series of events celebrating Scottish culture, and acknowledging the role played by Scottish immigrants and the diaspora. The actor, Dougray Scott, will lead a band of bagpipers, dancers, and clan members up Sixth Avenue, a role previously held by the likes of Sir Billy Connolly and the late Sir Sean Connery.

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Last year, around 50,000 spectators took in the event, and the latest iteration promises to be just as popular. Well, in the US, at least. Here, the event has long been perceived with a degree of suspicion and derision. That was not helped by the tenuous history underpinning its genesis, which drew an uneasy link between the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence.

But so too, the visual manifestation of all things Scottish has been, for many, a sight for sore eyes. In truth, it can be difficult not to find sympathy with those who regard the affair as an unwelcome continuation of that infamous national ailment known as the Caledonian Cringe. This year’s event is no exception, given it includes a replica of the Empire State Building made out of Walker’s shortbread. It may not plumb the depths of the pin-striped kilt and Jacobite shirt sported by the Jack McConnell, but such exhbits reinforce the idea of a festival of couthy tropes.

Some critics are opposed to the event on the basis that it represents a frivolous use of public money. But is that the case? At last year’s event, the total cost for the Scottish Government delegation, led by Angus Robertson, the cabinet secretary for external affairs and culture, clocked in at £17,877. That is not an insignificant sum, but in the grand scheme of the government’s near £60 billion budget, it is a modest outlay, especially when you consider that Scotland sends more than £5.1bn of goods and services to the US, by far the nation’s largest export destination.

If the parade can help stir the heartstrings and open the wallets and purses of that nation’s extensive and well-established Scottish diaspora, surely it’s worth it? In any case, it seems naive to perceive Tartan Day through the prism of the parade alone. The reality is that much of the value is derived from the gladhanding and meetings that take place with US businesses at roundtable events and seminars.

Traditionally, the event has proved to be a catalyst which amplified the unease between the UK and Scottish governments around the latter’s foreign engagement work. But there are signs tensions are easing. Last year, John Lamont, the Scotland Office minister, took part in several events. It was, I am told, a cordial affair, and Mr Lamont will be returning to New York this weekend. This alone is a reason to welcome Tartan Day - two administrations, ordinarily at loggerheads, working together for the betterment of Scotland. It surely won’t catch on, will it?



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