The troubled triangle of Scottish heritage, Southern racial politics, and Stone Mountain

Each year, the Stone Mountain Highland Games occur on the site of what is likely the most egregious corruption of Scottish history and culture ever to occur on this continent.

The troubled triangle of Scottish heritage, Southern racial politics, and Stone Mountain
The bas relief carving of Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain

Photograph by Michael Rabideau / EyeEm / Getty Images

Fall is upon us, and so Georgia is on the cusp of a new season of caber-tossing.

For nearly five decades, usually on the third weekend of the month, October has hosted the Stone Mountain Highland Games. Never mind Covid; this weekend will be no different.

Scores of men whose legs are well past their prime—and not a few women—will don kilts and tipple whisky. After a few tipples too many, they will then swear upon their blessed mothers’ graves that haggis is naught but a superior version of the American meatloaf.

With bagpipes, dance, athletics, and the serious perusal of souvenir stands, all will celebrate what they know of Scottish history and culture. And all will happen on the site of what is likely the most egregious corruption of Scottish history and culture ever to occur on this continent.

Given that the state authority in charge of Stone Mountain has ordered up a retelling of the edifice’s history, the paradox is worth considering.

On November 25, 1915, a flaming cross atop Stone Mountain announced the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan—a celebration of the reign of Jim Crow and a 20th century resurgence of lynching aimed primarily, but not entirely, at the Black sons, daughters, and grandchildren of former slaves in the South. (Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory manager convicted of a murdering a 13-year-old female employee, had been hanged by a white mob in Marietta only two months earlier.)

Neither Scotland nor mother Britain had anything to do with the mountaintop cross-burning. But those with the matches claimed to be emulating an ancient Scottish tradition. In fact, they were also imitating a much newer phenomenon—Hollywood and its silent movie Birth of a Nation.

The D.W. Griffith film, originally titled “The Clansman,” in turn was based on a book by North Carolina pastor Thomas Dixon. The popular 1905 work lionized the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan and its reign of terror immediately following the Civil War. Dixon described a guerilla battle to reassert white supremacy in the South, “led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland.”

But there is more to this tale than a single case of theocratic arson. With its massive bas relief carving of Confederate leaders, completed amid last-ditch fights to preserve segregation in Georgia, Stone Mountain is a monument to the Lost Cause—the myth that the Southern effort to dissolve the Union had many triggers, yet slavery somehow wasn’t one of them.

It is nothing new to say that the South’s highly successful effort to create a fictitious version of itself in a post-Appomattox world was consciously modeled after Scotland’s redefinition of itself after 1746, when its military quest for independence under the leadership of Bonnie Prince Charlie was abjectly crushed.

Our Lost Cause was built upon their Lost Cause. One myth piggy-backed on another.

Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have long noted the relationship between Scotland and the American South when it comes to history and myth. While steadfastly asserting that the vast majority of Southerners who celebrate their Scottish ancestry aren’t motivated by race, these academics cannot and—for the most part—don’t ignore the emphasis that neo-Confederates and other right-wing extremists place on Celtic ancestry.

At the very least, the relationship has provided a cultural escape hatch for many white Southerners.

“[By] claiming Scottish ethnic origins, Southern Scottish Americans . . . assert that their Southern identity derives from more than the Civil War,” wrote Celeste Ray, now a professor at the University of the South in Tennessee, in a study of Highland games and gatherings throughout the South published 20 years ago. “In heritage lore, the Southern experience and identity unfolds in continuous tradition from Scottish culture and history, rather than from a relationship to slavery or Jim Crow.”

Ray’s is one of the gentler assessments.

•  •  •

The carving on Stone Mountain was begun in 1915, the year of the cross-burning that announced the revival of the KKK. Work was finished in 1972, the same year that the annual Highland Games began on the grounds of Stone Mountain.

My attitude toward the Games has shifted over the decades.

My father was never a fan. An economic refugee from a Scottish town whose best boast was that it was the linoleum capital of the world, Dad always said he’d never laid eyes on a kilt until he arrived in the U.S. with his older brothers. This was no doubt true, yet the fact that he hadn’t quite turned five in 1928, when he left Kirkcaldy, probably meant that his social contacts were somewhat limited.

But when my parents abandoned Atlanta for Florida and retirement, my wife and I inherited Alice, an elderly cousin in Buckhead who was also from the Old Country. Alice adored the pomp and costumery of the Highland Games—and was also the keeper of the family’s secret shortbread recipe. And so we took her to Stone Mountain each October.

It was on one of these weekends that I first saw the Games as something other than an opportunity to sample very tasty—and extremely unhealthy—Scottish cuisine. While I leaned on a fence, watching border collies work a herd of sheep, a somewhat familiar figure brushed past me, proudly sweating through a woolen kit that would have made any Edinburgh kiltmaker weep in financial ecstasy.

A short-waisted dress jacket hung over the pleated kilt. An expensive sporran, a leather purse, slapped at his waist. His sgian dubh, a small knife, was tucked into a knee-high sock, just as fashion required. And under the Glengarry-style cap, with its black ribbon hanging off the back, was the head of U.S. Representative Larry McDonald, my congressman.

Before there was Donald Trump, there was Larry McDonald of Marietta, a urologist by trade and a Democrat with few equals in Congress when it came to rabid conservatism. McDonald hid his racial animus under the anti-Communist cloaking of the John Birch Society, which he would briefly lead as national chairman. But this was the South, and we all knew the code words. They haven’t changed much since then.

It was the kilted McDonald who first pointed me to the troubled triangle of Scottish heritage, Southern racial politics, and Stone Mountain.

A second inkling arrived several years later. Larry McDonald was long dead, one of 269 passengers killed in 1983 when their South Korean jetliner was shot down by Soviet fighters after wandering into Soviet airspace.

I was running the Atlanta Journal-Constitution city desk on a football Saturday in October. The next day’s newspaper was already almost fully booked, and the place was quiet. But I was obliged to keep a skeleton staff busy, and the Highland Games were back in town.

One of my charges was a somewhat sheltered, recent graduate of Spelman College. Blockhead that I was, I tossed her what I considered the softball assignment of the day: “Why don’t you go to Stone Mountain and cover the clans?”

The color quickly drained from her face. “No, no,” I said, realizing my mistake. “That’s clan with a ‘C,’ not Klan with a ‘K.’” But it was too late. She couldn’t hear the difference, and the idea was tainted beyond redemption. I do not remember, but I’d like to think I found her a nice, uncomplicated murder to work instead.

•  •  •

If there is a single individual standing at the intersection of Scottish and Southern mythology, it is Sir Walter Scott. He invented the historical novel. Every bodice-ripper on your mother’s nightstand can trace its lineage to Scott’s internationally popular tales of knightly chivalry, damsels in distress, and most especially, his Highland heroes.

Scott was born in 1771, nearly 25 years to the day after the Battle of Culloden. The Scottish defeat eliminated the last Catholic/Stuart threat to the Protestant/Hanoverian grip on the British throne. The victors were brutal. Not just physically, but culturally.

Kilts, tartans, and bagpipes were banned, a prohibition that lasted until 1782—largely lifted out of a British army need for Scottish recruits to fuel its empire machine. Even so, a future loomed in which Scotland might be absorbed as a colorless, culture-scoured bit of northern Britain.

Then came Walter Scott with a series of novels in the early 1800s that turned treasonous Jacobite insurgents into noble, Highland aristocrats. Scott made it cool to be Scottish once more—but within a British framework.

“It was not surprising that people thought that Scotland, because of this new fusion of identity with Britishness, might disappear, might vanish,” said Sir Thomas Devine, Scotland’s preeminent historian, at a recent Edinburgh dinner marking Scott’s 250th birthday. “The Scots obtained their awareness of Scotland’s past from the pen of Sir Walter Scott. He gave the Highlands in particular a new, magical appeal as the Scottish past living into the Scottish present.”

That “magical appeal” was good for Scotland and its tourism industry. But it had vast, dark implications for the American South, where Scott’s books were more than good reads. They were absorbed as a cultural blueprint for the region, before and after the Civil War. A slave society was transformed into a courtly, feudal paradise peopled with hoop-skirted damsels and the Aryan gallants who protected them.

Ivanho was more than a chivalric tale that appealed to duel-happy, white Southern aristocrats. In the background of the novel’s 12th century setting, noble and brave Saxons still struggled against the damned Yankees—er, Normans—who had conquered them in 1066.

And never mind Liam Neeson’s movie version of Rob Roy. In the book, Roy is a shadowy, near-anonymous figure who leads his clan in a deadly nighttime raid to right the wrongs done to defeated but still worthy rebels.

Some imprints of Scotland and Scott on the South are easy to spot. The most obvious is the Confederate battle flag, a multi-colored version of St. Andrew’s Cross. Others are a little more speculative. There is some evidence, Scottish scholars say, that the first iteration of the KKK, formed to thwart former slaves armed with a new right to vote, was inspired by the secretive Society of the Horseman’s Word, which was active in northeast Scotland during the same period.

In 1869, recently released from his prison cell, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who rides forever on horseback on the side of Stone Mountain, made the first of two trips to Scotland. His last stop was the battlefield of Culloden, where the leader of one Lost Cause paid homage to another.

Not long afterward, Mark Twain dedicated a chapter of Life on the Mississippi to the damage done by the South’s obsession with Scott, who died in 1832.

“It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations,” Twain wrote. “For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.”

Well into the 20th century, academics were writing of the South as “Sir Walter Scottland.”

•  •  •

Certainly, one nation has no control over the appropriation and misuse of its culture by another—although a bit of Facebook etiquette might be applied. In other words, there’s an obligation to let your friends know when your history has been hacked.

Then there is the fact that mythologized history can be so pervasive that it becomes invisible to the beholder—as water might be to a fish.

In 2009, The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, was published posthumously. The book explores the major role that myth rather than fact has played in Scottish history over span of 400 years.

The kilt, for instance, was an 18th century invention by Englishmen interested in getting more work out of their Scottish employees. Clan-specific tartans were the work of textile manufacturers in the same approximate era, the historian documented.

But as a whole, Trevor-Roper let Scotland off rather easy. “He shows how the ritualization and domestication of Scotland’s myths as local color diverted the Scottish intelligentsia from the path that led German intellectuals to a dangerous myth of racial supremacy,” reads the blurb by Yale University Press.

There is a tremendous blind spot within that statement. The “local color” of Scotland had metastasized into something virulent long before World War II.

Trevor-Roper’s tome was based largely on a series of lectures he delivered at Emory University in March 1980 as a guest scholar. The campus is located only a dozen miles from Stone Mountain, where Scottish myth and history were invoked and a cross had been burned 65 years earlier—precisely to further the Lost Cause of white racial supremacy in the American South.

Even with all his training and experience, Trevor-Roper didn’t—or couldn’t—see it.

So, will you run into me at the Highland Games this weekend? Probably not. My wife and I are still a bit Covid-shy when it comes to large crowds, even outdoors. Maybe next year.

But if you decide to go, I have three pieces of advice:

First, try the meat pies.

Second, bagpipes sound best at a distance. A great distance.

Third, keep in mind that while history can provide an anchor to one’s soul, myths can become a kind of prison. History adapts to the time and the teller. Myths are inflexible. They have no need to bend to new facts. Only when people stop believing do they shatter.

This is the dilemma that Stone Mountain poses. In 1958, as it bucked a national push toward integration, the state Legislature declared the property to be a sacred, yet corpse-less, cemetery for the Confederate cause.

But the Georgia of 1958 isn’t the Georgia of 2021. The Confederacy and its dream of white supremacy is no longer commercially viable. Its moral champions— such as they were—have mostly gone to ground. That’s why the park’s private management company is calling it quits, as is the hotel and conference center operator.

Sir Walter Scott’s hold on the American South has long expired. But as you visit the Highland Games this weekend, consider that his grip on Scotland has become dated as well. Sir Walter is no longer the one who defines the Celtic heritage you claim.

Once you’ve returned home, having satiated yourself with bridies and bagpipes, fire up the YouTube machine and search for “Bruce Fummey.” The comedian may be the most prolific generator of Scottish history clips on the site—and he’ll put the wind up your kilt. His mother is a native of Scotland. His father was born in Africa.

Come to think of it, I might ring him up and ask him to come to the Stone Mountain Highland Games with me next year.

Jim Galloway is a former political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He retired in January after 41 years with the newspaper.