As soon as Richard Cooper breaks into his Scottish accent, a smile automatically follows.
It happened last week as he recited a work of legendary Scotland poet Robert Burns.
“Everyone has one or more of his poems memorized,” Cooper said of Scots, before rattling off Burns’ “Selkirk Prayer” (or “Selkirk Grace”) in rhythmic Scottish English.
“Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it, but we hae meat and we can eat, and sae the Lord be thankit.”
Sally Wright, a fellow member of the Wabash Valley Scottish Society, smiled as she listened to Cooper speak. “And, he does say that every time we get together,” Wright said.
The local society has been gathering for almost a decade, the first Saturday of every month in the Vigo County Public Library, sharing bits of history and heritage that connects them to that small, pastoral island country in the United Kingdom, bordered by England, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and home to 5.2 million people. Special days lie ahead. On April 6, the society celebrates National Tartan Day, a holiday toasting the contributions of Scots in the United States and a chance to wear kilts and sweaters bearing the plaid Tartan designs of each Scotsman’s clan, a legion of families bonded by a castle, leader or geographic location.
In May, the local group marks its 10th anniversary.
“We’re a fun group. We like to get together and have a good time,” said Ann Harvey, a 62-year-old who was born in tiny Strathmiglo, Scotland in 1951 and came to the United States 11 months later with her American father — a U.S. Navy service man — and Scottish mother.
Preserving the culture and heritage is important to the society, which includes more than 30 members. “It’s just a lot of knowledge about where we came from,” said Harvey, the society’s president.
“We” is a large segment. Nearly 28.9 million Americans claimed Scottish (or Scotch-Irish) ancestry in the 2010 Census.
A far smaller number — a “wee” few, as the Scots might say — have experienced some of the nuances of Scottish tradition. Like eating haggis.
“You either like it, or you don’t,” Cooper said. He says “it’s excellent.” As for Wright, not so much.
The split seems understandable. The dish features the “discarded lungs, hearts and livers” of sheep, minced with suet, oatmeal and seasonings — Scottish recipes online suggest the ingredients include an optional dram of Scotch whisky — and then encased in a sheep’s stomach for three hours of boiling. “The best way to describe it is a meatloaf, but it has a liver taste to it,” Cooper said.
His opinion? “I love it,” he said. “My wife can’t stand it.”
Harvey falls somewhere in the middle on haggis. “Depending on how it’s fixed, it can be good,” she said. “I think condiments help it a lot.”
When made in America, haggis cooks use a meatloaf pan. Intact sheep’s stomachs are hard to come by in the States.
“It’s an acquired taste. No wonder [Scots] drink whisky,” he said, chuckling.
Realities of Scottish lifestyles may not match Americans’ perceptions. “They don’t walk around in kilts,” Cooper said. “That’s for special occasions.” That colorful male attire, originating from blankets (or cloaks) worn in the 16th century, wraps around the waist, gets cinched with a belt, and stretches to the knees. The plaid design, or Tartan, is distinct to a particular clan. Cooper donned his Tartan kilt, representing Clan MacDuff, whose 400 families include the Coopers (his father’s line) and the Chalmers (his mother’s).
“Remember, real men wear kilts,” Cooper said. “We have no qualms about wearing a kilt, because we’re confident in our manhood.” (Women display their Tartans with skirts and sweaters, as well as pins and accessories.)
Cooper made a Scottish pilgrimage for The Gathering 2009, a homecoming of clans and the first of its kind in three centuries, he said.
Among other things, he took in the Highland Games, a Scottish Olympics of sorts, where competitors throw logs (cabers), stones, a ball-and-chain (hammer), and sheafs (straw bales), among other athletic feats. And the men wear kilts.
Everyday life in Scotland isn’t quite so tasking. Cooper — a 69-year-old California native who came to Terre Haute from Washington, D.C., in 1992 for job reasons — exhibit healthy eating habits, national pride and an affinity for walks. Long walks. “They take pride in their country and their countryside,” he said. “It’s clean there, squeaky clean.”
He’s seen it firsthand, while walking. In his visit, Scottish friends told Cooper, “Let’s go for a little walk, Richard,” he recalled, imitating their thick brogue. “We walked around the entire inside of the city, and I was dead.” The next day, they strolled the outside of the city, all of it.
His affinity for the country runs deep. Cooper is also a member of the Scottish National Party, a group seeking independence from the United Kingdom. A nationwide vote on that issue is set for September 2014. His reason: “Pride. Just Scottish Pride.”
Harvey has returned to Strathmiglo twice since coming to Terre Haute, in 1979 with her parents and in 1999 with her mother. “It’s just this quaint little village,” Harvey said. It has 1,000 residents, a cobblestone main street and the same school her mother attended. Many homes still contain laundry pulleys to reel in garments hanging on a clothes line and sink-side clothes wringers. The town has one grocery store, with aisles one person wide. To reach the nearest market, residents must drive to the larger cities of Perth or Cupar. Historic St. Andrews lies 20 miles east.
Harvey still makes shortbread cookies, and Scottish minces (ground beef), tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips or rutabegas) as taught by her late mother. When her mother — a veteran of the British Army during — died, bagpipes were played at the funeral.
The Wabash Valley Scottish Society’s mission includes providing annual scholarships to people trying to master elements of the culture, such as learning to play the bagpipes or highland dancing. Maintaining that heritage is important to Harvey, Cooper, Wright and the other society members. They hope other Wabash Valley residents join in, whether they have Scottish family lineage or not.
“We would just like to see people with Scottish heritage, or people interested in Scottish heritage, help crank this up as an exciting organization,” Cooper said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.
• The Wabash Valley Scottish Society marks its 10th anniversary in May. It aims to preserve and share the culture, history and traditions of Scotland, a small country on the northern British Isles. The society meets on the first Saturday of each month, from 10 a.m. to noon, in the Vigo County Public Library, with a presentation, fellowship and light refreshments. Membership is $20, and Scottish ancestry is not necessary.
• April 6 is National Tartan Day, which honors Scottish heritage in the U.S. Participants wear the plaid color schemes of their family, a Tartan design. The Wabash Valley Scottish Society will mark the event with its monthly meeting at the library, followed by lunch at MCL on East Ohio Boulevard in Terre Haute.
• The Wabash Valley Scottish Society should not be confused with the local Scottish Rite, a masonic organization. Society members point out, though, that their ranks have included some Scottish Rite members in the past.
• To the local Scottish Society or to get additional information, email Richard Cooper, secretary, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to the Wabash Valley Scottish Society, P.O. Box 3576, Terre Haute, IN, 47803. Or go online to wabashvalleyscottishsociety.org.
• Noted Americans of Scottish descent include Thomas Jefferson and 10 other U.S. presidents, Patrick Henry and Andrew Carnegie. Among famous Scots are actor Sean Connery, beloved poet Robert Burns, racer Jackie Stewart, and U.S. Open tennis champ Andy Murray. Scottish inventors created television, penicillin and tidal engine turbines, among other things.
Sources: Wabash Valley Scottish Society, Scotland.org