Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 6:25 PM on Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wearing a kilt revives one's Scottish heritage


Photo by Shelly Fraley

Homer News reporter Michael Armstrong wears his Armstrong tartan kilt and clan crest at the Homer Highland Games.

Ever since I went to Scotland five years ago for my 50th birthday, I've wanted a kilt. On my father's side I'm Scottish-Irish-Canadian-American, with a bit of Sassenach thrown in thanks to my English grandmother. Armstrong is a Scottish name, aye, from the Borders at the southern reaches of the Lowlands.

In my copy of "The Clans and Tartans of Scotland," by Robert Bain — the 1956 edition with a young photo of Queen Elizabeth II — the author describes the Armstrongs as "a numerous and turbulent clan." We have a fancy clan crest ("an arm embowed, proper"), a motto ("Invictus maneo," "I remain unvanquished") and a handsome tartan.

On our Scottish trip, my wife Jenny and I saw our first kilt on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, worn by an actor dressed as William Wallace, as portrayed by Mel Gibson in "Braveheart." We saw a more proper kilt outfit worn by a piper near the train station. Walking through Grayfriar's Churchyard, we came upon a Scottish wedding. The women wore outrageous hats and the men had on handsome kilts complete with sgian dhu knives stuck in their socks.

I was hooked.

My grandfather Roy Armstrong had a kilt. In World War I Grandpa enlisted in the 48th Highlanders, a regiment from Toronto. Not only did the Highlanders wear kilts on parade, they wore them in combat. Grandpa fought in his kilt at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, when the Canadians held the line and pushed back a German advance. Alas, after being captured at that battle Grandpa eventually wore out his kilt during his four years as a POW.

I discovered Scottish men usually wore kilts on two occasions: weddings and football games. At every bed and breakfast we stayed, on the walls would be photos of women in outrageous hats and handsome men in clan kilts. Sometimes we saw Scots wearing team kilts as they went to soccer games. Stewards at museums wore kilts, too.

Once at a grocery store in Brodick, Isle of Aran, two older men wore kilts casually, with sweaters and without all the fuss of coat and tie. I liked that in Scotland you could see men wearing kilts as everyday dress.

Thus, when Robert Archibald, one of the organizers of last weekend's Homer Highland Games, asked me to be a steward — a judge's assistant — I jumped at the chance.

"I guess I'll have to wear a kilt," I said. "If only I could afford one." A proper 8-yard, 16-ounce kilt made by a good Scottish kilt maker costs at least $500, and that's not counting all the accessories, like the sgian dhu, which I already have, a nice souvenir with a red elk antler handle I got in Edinburgh.

Robert told me of an American company, Sportkilts, that makes kilts specifically for highland games. Traditionalists, close your ears, for these kilts cinch tight with velcro. A Sportkilt in my size costs $85, though, easily affordable on a reporter's salary.

So last week for First Friday at the Homer Highland Games barbecue I proudly wore my Armstrong tartan kilt, clan crest pin and sgian dhu. Robert had his kilt and the four Scottish Athletic Association of America visiting judges wore their kilts, and goodness gracious, did we ever look dashing.

Strolling around First Friday, I had a grand old time. A group of women even whistled at me. "Nice legs!" one said. At the barbecue, I discovered a challenge women have faced for years, keeping one's kilt from flapping in the breeze. Robert put some steaks on the grill, and with my sgian dhu I made short work of it. I could feel my Pictish blood surging, and with a stiff breeze wind blowing off Kachemak Bay, I felt properly Scottish.

At the highland games I felt even more Scottish when morning sunshine turned to clouds and then drizzle. A kilt becomes a great ice breaker when meeting new people. "And what tartan is your kilt?" I would ask, and thus a conversation into Scottish history, the Scottish Diaspora, and family legends grew. An 8-yard, 16-ounce wool kilt would have been just the thing on a drizzly summer Alaska day, but my Sportkilt worked just fine. A lot of the athletes wore Sportkilts, too, and looked magnificent as they tossed around big logs. I didn't compete, not being in shape and all that, but there's an event, the kilted mile, that I could see myself doing next year.

Of course, the question no one dares ask, but I know what you all are wondering, is "What do you wear under those kilts?" The traditional answer I cannot repeat because this is a family newspaper, but the real answer — at least for a true highland games athlete — is underwear, preferably something with a little support. SAAA Chief Dave Garman told a story of a novice athlete doing the Clan Donald challenge of throwing a 115-pound rock the farthest. "And he was regimental," Dave said, meaning, uh, commando. No underwear. Naked. Highland games are a family friendly event, and the novice wasn't.

The people organizing the Homer Highland Games have said they want to start a Homer Scottish American Society. Future events might include a Robert Burns Night. Bring it on, I say. I have discovered the joy of wearing kilts, and look forward to next January when I recite poetry, eat haggis and sip fine single malt Scotch.

But I might just wear long johns. An Alaska winter can be mighty cold, even for a Scotsman.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com. For more about the Highland Games, see page 11.