Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Bookshelf: American Scots by Duncan Sim

Last month, I received a very special parcel in the post: a copy of Duncan Sim's new book, American Scots: The Scottish Diaspora and the USA. Sim, a Reader in Sociology at the University of the West of Scotland, interviewed Scots and Americans of Scottish descent in the states of Colorado and New York for this work.

As with all books I plan to read, this one sat on the shelf for a week or so, mocking me, before I picked it it up. Once I did start it, I finished it quickly; it is written in a manner that makes it largely accessible to a non-academic audience. This is the first time in a while that I've read a book so closely related to my own research interests. It was fun to see names of scholars that I know (Newton, Bailyn, Beals, Germana, Hook, and Cowan) in the footnotes, along with those whose work I have read (Devine, Ray, Handlin, Fry, Richards, Gjerde, Gans, Graham, and McCarthy). It was a bit like walking into a pub where you know everyone - very cozy.

In the broadest sense, Sim and I are interested in the same subject: Scots who emigrated to America and the ways these emigrants maintained a sense of Scottish identity in their new homes. We approach the subject through two different disciplines. Simply put, as a sociologist Sim studies the living; and as an historian, I study the dead. Although we both dabble in the other's discipline: Sim includes a brief historic context and I use migration and network theories to better understand the historic diaspora. Consequently, not being a trained sociologist, I can't comment his methodology or conclusions, nor do I think it would be fair to be overly critical of his historic context (actually, it isn't bad, fairly standard and mostly about the Highlands, which to be fair is what's out there).

The thrust of American Scots is an analysis of the Scottish Diaspora in the United States - how do they construct a sense of identity, nationality, and belonging. However, this project is not as straightforward as it might sound as the Scots first reached North America in the 17th century and haven't stopped coming. Therefore, in the United States there is the "ancestral" diaspora, whose most recent connection to Scotland might be an immigrant who arrived in 1750, and the "lived" diaspora, those who were born or grew up in Scotland. [For more on the terms, lived and ancestral, which Sim does not use, read this post.]

The work is divided into nine sections; an introduction plus eight chapters. The introduction includes a useful discussion on the meaning of diaspora and the various categories of migration. This section might be a bit hard-going for those of you not familiar with diaspora or migration studies. My earlier post on Team Scotland, aka the Scottish Government, and their reports on the Diaspora should prove helpful. The first chapter focuses on the use of hyphenated identities in the United States and various stages of assimilation. Essentially, Americans are quite happy being both American and German or Scottish or whatever and the latter does not infringe upon their American-ness.

Chapter Two is the "history" one with background on emigration to America; establishment, decline, and rise of Scottish cultural groups; and a section on family histories. Sim accepts these family histories at face value, which is appropriate for this work. As a historian, I can't help questioning the accounts: two people said their ancestors were forced out after the '45, went to Ulster and eventually came to America. Seriously? Did they really do that (no matter how unlikely it seems to me)? If yes, there's someones dissertation topic sorted. If not, why do these people believe it? The remaining six chapters examine the relationship the diaspora has with modern Scotland, the ways Scotland has learned to cherish its diaspora, Tartan Day, and involvement in Scottish expatriate organizations.

The strength of Sim's work is that he interviews members of both groups and treats both, particularly the ancestral diaspora, with sensitivity. His juxtaposition of both groups, along with the analysis, helps explain why Scots in Scotland often mock Americans who travel to Scotland to seek their roots and why the Scots-born do not generally join Scottish heritage groups in the United States. Essentially, being "Scottish" means something different to both groups and they each seek to maintain their identity in different ways. I found Sim's discussion of this fascinating, as I have my feet in both diaspora camps. The part of me connected to the ancestral diaspora loves tartan, castles, pipes and shortbread tins. The part of me that is the lived diaspora would rather hang out with the New York Tartan Army than attend a Kirkin' o' the Tartan. That's saying alot because I hate football (soccer).

I really enjoyed this book and recommend it. At $54 it's not badly priced for an academic book, though a bit pricey for your average hardbound. If you teach any course that includes the themes of immigration or identity, I think this book would be really useful: it has discussions of diaspora and identity, case studies, footnotes and bibliography, and is a good read. If you are an American of Scottish descent, particularly one involved in heritage or cultural groups, this work will help you understand, well, you. If you live in Scotland and encounter loud, brash Americans, reading American Scots might be a discomforting read.

many thanks to Dunedin Press for the unsolicited review copy!

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