Here Come the Scots: Burns Clubs, Clan Organizations and St. Andrew Societies in North America

*Note: the following article is an abridgement taken from my MA thesis on Scottish cultural history and heritage in the United States; an oral and public history project undertaken at Emporia State University between 2014-2016.

Flashy tartans, loud bagpipes, and thickly exaggerated brogues are just something to assault the eyes and ears when attending a Scottish event. In North America, hundreds of Highland games, Scottish festivals, and Burns dinners are held to highlight Scottish-American heritage. Scots settled the continent long before the American Revolution and promptly banded together for survival. Modern Caledonian groups, St. Andrew societies, Burns clubs, and clan organizations provide an educational service: public forums on information sharing, membership networking, and educational activities.  These groups are essential in the dissemination of historical and cultural knowledge of the Scots. They are repositories through their members’ contributions, communications, and cultural events. They reflect historical traditions and heritage. Social groups grow through the active participation of members who have become aware of their history and ancestry through self-education. As a result, members contribute to the overall growth of public and historical memory through their association within the Scottish-American community.

The Order of Scottish Clans was a fraternal organization founded in St. Louis in 1878 aimed at providing relief for widows and families. Chapters sprang up across North America, but the group was defunct by 1971 where it was assimilated by the Independent Order of Foresters.

Modern cultural organizations are framed around institutions that were prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early Scottish societies functioned primarily as charitable groups addressing a community’s needs.  What many practiced was maintaining their cultural hegemony in foreign areas.  Building outreach and charitable groups modeled on a shared cultural identity allowed for their community to develop simultaneously.  St. Andrew societies were established for this purpose. St. Andrew societies (named after the patron saint of Scotland) adopted educational goals for their members. Today, St Andrew society activities include assisting in genealogical research, sponsoring cultural events, and educational outreach.  Societies regularly participate in public events and engage with similar groups in practicing cultural and historical preservation. These connections are important in promoting openness and outreach, which foster relationships within the Scottish-American community. 

Cultural groups remain open to dialoguing over different methods of leaning and teaching heritage.  As more people discuss Scottish history and heritage, shared public memory is stimulated, prompting increased individual self-education.  Participation has been integral in historical and cultural preservation.  The key is active public engagement founded on learning and teaching about Scotland.  St. Andrew societies maintain their repertoire of historical information through their own records and the knowledge produced by their memberships. 

Highland games and Scottish festivals typically open with a ceremony entitled ‘Calling of the Clans’ where representatives announce their clan’s presence to the audience.

Modern Scottish clans are centered around a forum for sharing genealogical and historical information encompassing the clan itself and members. The global network that stems from these associations provides people with a common knowledge base and opportunities to cultivate shared heritage practices. This includes learning about the clan’s history within the broader Scottish narrative. By joining clan groups and accessing materials and members, they can augment their research and incorporate additional historical narratives into their genealogies.  Such practices also contribute to the collective sense of joining a cultural community.  Clan organizations regularly conduct social events, participate at Scottish public events, sponsor educational programs and scholarships, and network with international chapters and share information globally.  Throughout these exchange, historical dialogue is exchanged through references to clan heritage, cultural practices, and individual genealogical research.  Drawing connections between the clan historical narrative and the genealogical narrative of the researcher himself constructs an integrated narrative.  This can be instrumental in revealing additional connections between ancestors and investigating the associated history in deeper detail. 

Prominent St. Louis businessman William K. Bixby sponsored the Burns Cottage at the 1904 World’s Fair. Afterwards, he and other Burns enthusiasts founded the Burns Club of St. Louis, which still meets today with a very selective membership.

How do these all contribute to public learning of Scottish history and heritage?  They consolidate and streamline historical, cultural knowledge, and heritage practices into public perspectives building a collective consciousness.  Group meetings, reunions, and more act as forums encouraging an exchange of ideas and knowledge people utilize for their research. Heritage groups are also important in orchestrating cultural networks and outreach. Their visibility and transparency is central to attracting the general public’s attention in garnering interest.  The Burns Club of St. Louis is an example of garnering public interest in sharing Scottish heritage and history.  Founded in 1904 following the World’s Fair, the organization was established for the purpose of discussing literature by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Aside from hosting annual Burns suppers, the club was actively engaged in collecting Burns manuscripts, hosting lectures, and networking with other Scottish organizations. By focusing on a central figure in Scottish history, these club members were accomplishing two goals; they augmented their knowledge of Burns literature and second, they were educating themselves on the accompanying history through heritage practices. Historical memory is influenced by these groups because as they acquire new members and exchange of historical knowledge, public interpretation of that specific cultural group and its associated history can fluctuate dramatically.  Scottish organizations are therefore indispensable in coordinating cultural and historical knowledge for public education.  

The upper room of the St. Louis Burns Club. The original building where the club held meetings was demolished, but the organization still meets (although current sources have been tight-lipped about their status)

One thought on “Here Come the Scots: Burns Clubs, Clan Organizations and St. Andrew Societies in North America

  1. I’ve loved learning more about my scottish ancestry! The Scottish games in St Louis have definitely helped with that. I enjoy going to all the clan tents and learning about their particular history.

    Like

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