From the delicious pizzas brought over by the Italians to the teahouses introduced by the Welsh, it goes without saying that Argentina has an eclectic mix of cultural heritage. This never ceases to surprise me, especially as I arrive at the docks of Puerto Madero to a collage of kilts and the sound of bagpipes piercing the air. It is a surreal experience; what are the Scots doing here?
In an answer to my question, I come to discover a unique community of proud Scottish descendents and fans of the culture that are working to revive their inherited traditions and make themselves heard.
The first group of Scottish settlers arrived in Argentina in early in the 19th century. The traditions they brought with them slowly began to die out over time due to the small size of the community and lack of youths interested in passing them on. Scotland in Argentina (SIA) is working to foster these traditions and adapt them to modern times while still preserving the Scottish identity. The organisation opens a door into the little-known community of Scots in the country.
After travelling to Scotland and falling in love with the culture, Argentine Monica Loreto and her friend, Kevin Ham, took on the project of creating a bilingual website about Scottish culture and the life of Scots in Argentina. The website was launched in 2003, and quickly grew into a society as people took interest. “The idea was simply to create a page about Scottish life in Argentina,” said Kevin.
Several different activities evolved from the website. Initially, the organisation began by setting up stands with information about Scotland and the culture. As the group grew, they became a source for information on genealogy as well as Scottish history and culture. They are now very involved in promoting tourism and distribute Spanish-language information about travel in Scotland. Furthermore, they hold dance classes and exhibitions to pass on the traditions of the Scottish country and Highland dances. The have also created English conversation classes, and they hope to set up Gaelic language groups in the future.
The organisation welcomes everyone and aims at bringing together both those with Scottish heritage and fans of the culture who have no Scottish ancestry at all. “We are working to generate the interest of many people; the principle objective of SIA is to promote Scottish culture through different activities such as dance, music, games and language,” said Kevin. He explained how they are hoping to attract more youths to keep the traditions going. As a result, they try to make their activities appeal to both young and old people.
The recently established Buenos Aires Tartan Army is one of the society’s creations aimed at youths. Kevin described it as “the soul of SIA”. The Tartan Army is the name given to followers of Scotland’s national football team and these groups of fans exist all over the world. Kevin explained how creating this activity in BA is “the best way to get new people and especially youths”.
Scottish descendent Edward MacRae said: “The Tartan Army is now the biggest public exhibition of the Scots; we are not an organisation, but a disorganisation.”
After participating in the Burn’s Night celebrations in January, SIA’s most recent appearance was at the fourth annual Tartan Day Parade held in Puerto Madero on Sunday 29th March.
The heat of the day did not stop hundreds of people from marching the 16 blocks (the stamina of the pipers who played throughout the parade should be admired). Representing the many Scottish societies in Argentina, the unusual group of pipers, dancers, historical actors and tartan-clad fans created quite a sight.
Edward was the creator and organiser of BA’s Tartan Day Parade, and he explained the history behind the march to me. The celebration of Tartan Day first began in Canada and the tradition extended to other communities of Scottish descendents all over the world. He explained how the event was initially unique to Scottish settlers abroad and has only just begun to be celebrated in Scotland. The principle objective is allowing descendants to enjoy their cultural heritage. “Parading is a tradition and we are just following our inherited traditions,” added Edward.
The parade commemorates the signing of the declaration of Scottish independence by King Robert the Bruce on 6th April 1320. It is always scheduled as close to this date as possible. The event also celebrates the arrival of the first group of Scottish immigrants to Argentina in 1825. “We chose Puerto Madero as the location because this is where the settlers first arrived,” said Edward.
He continued to explain that it is very important to them to follow parading traditions. The grand marshal led this year’s parade, proudly flaunting Argentina’s own tartan. He was followed by standard bearers along with the parade’s queen. And let’s not forget the most important element of the procession: Scotland’s national drink. “Whiskey is like water to the Scots,” said Edward as he described the privileged role of the whiskey bearer.
If the procession of bagpipers, Scottish flags and kilts weren’t bizarre enough, the medieval re-enactments added to the scene. Dressed in chain mail and wielding axes, one group re-enacted the crowning of Robert the Bruce. On top of that, the costumes worn by those representing the Tudor court of Mary the Stewart brought to mind memories of Renaissance fairs.
Perhaps one of the most impressive groups within the procession was the Buenos Aires Scottish Guard. This is a ceremonial body that recreates an early 20th century Scottish regiment. With authentically designed uniforms and bayonets, the group performs historical re-enactments at various events, including the Queen’s birthday at the British Embassy. A member of the guard, Fernando Solari, described how the principle of the society is “to foster Scottish tradition and culture and to make links with other societies”.
Member of the BA Tartan Army, 21-year-old Alejandro Matheson, enthusiastically carried the group’s flag as he led them through the procession. “When you are a descendent and you want to make a community, it is hard if there are so few of us,” he said when asked about his participation in SIA and the Tartan Army. He went on to proudly explain that he was wearing his family’s tartan; his kilt had been brought over from Scotland by his grandfather. “Most of the kids here have kilts made in Argentina, so this one is special,” he said.
The pride and enthusiasm of the people involved in this event only hinted at their determination to keep Scottish traditions alive in Argentina. However, it still maintains a sense of fun and openness that encourages the involvement of everyone. As Edward explained: “The purpose of these events is not only to enjoy ourselves but to also teach people about the culture.”
For more information, visit www.scotlandinargentina.com