On November 17th 2006, 500 guests gathered for a glittering banquet in a venue on 42nd Street to honour the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Saint Andrew's Society of New York. On a starry winter's night in lower Manhattan in 1756, the society's tiny band of Scots and Scots-American founders could never have imagined the connections between these two nations would grow to be so diverse and dynamic.
Scots and those of Scottish descent were pivotal in the development of modern America. In turn, Americans today are playing a key role in the economic and cultural development of Scotland and those bonds which were made long ago, like those back in 1756, are more relevant now than ever. The American-Scottish Foundation, which also has its home in New York, and encourages social and commercial co-operation between the people of Scotland and the US, is now over 50 years old. It is another milestone in the history of the relationship between two peoples whose destinies have intertwined over the centuries. These special friendships, though strong, are still in progress.
The people of Scotland, businessmen, scientists or travellers, have always had more than a passing interest in the vast country over the Atlantic. These days, passengers at Scottish airports can take direct flights to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta and over 350,000 Scots visit the USA every year. Similarly, Americans harbour an affinity with Scotland, its people and its landscape. More than 400,000 US visitors per annum take vacations in Scotland. There are almost 1000 Scottish Associations and clubs in America and, in the 2000 Census, a staggering 4.9 million Americans claimed Scottish ancestry. The late legendary country musician Johnny Cash was one, tracing his family back to Fife. According to recent reports, Elvis had ancestral ties in Aberdeenshire. David Dunbar Buick, founder of the classic car firm, was born in 1854 in Arbroath, Angus. Campbell's soups, stars of the Andy Warhol artworks, were created by Joseph Campbell, whose ancestry is Scottish. Bertie Cheales Forbes, the founder of American financial journalism, left Scotland for New York City in 1904 and established his eponymous magazine 13 years later.
The links between the two countries go on and on. The reasons for the bonds between the two populations are therefore not difficult to fathom. Scots minds, like millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, played a central role in developing America's fledgling economy but the roots stretch further.
Nine of the thirteen governors of the original states were Scottish and even the printing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th was undertaken by a man whose ancestors hailed from Ayrshire, John Dunlap. Three members of the Saint Andrew's Society of New York signed the historic paper as did John Witherspoon of Paisley, the ancestor of American actress, Reese Witherspoon.
The Scottish influence in the birth of modern America is acknowledged in Senate Resolution 155 which declares April 6th each year to be designated and observed as Tartan Day. The resolution honours the role, 'that Scottish Americans played in the founding of the Nation.' It adds that, 'Scottish Americans helped shape this country in its formative years and guide the Nation through its most troubled times.'
Those seeking further evidence of interconnectedness should note that New York itself is actually named after James II brother of Scottish King Charles II. It was during his successful command of the Royal Navy that the young James, then Duke of York, took New York from the Dutch and its name was changed from New Amsterdam to New York in his honour.
The islands at the mouth of the Hudson River were evolving and Scots were integral in the rise of a place that would later gain the moniker of the City That Never Sleeps. Seen as the 'media capital of the world', some significant Scots helped make it so. James Gordon Bennet from Keith emigrated to the US in 1819 and went from copy boy to publishing the first edition of the Herald. An avid proponent of press freedom, he established the Herald as one of the top two selling papers in the country and was credited with conducting the first ever newspaper interview while covering the controversial case of a murdered prostitute, Helen Jewett. He also dispatched reporter Henry. M. Stanley to Africa to find missing Scottish missionary, Dr David Livingstone in 1871, leading to the famous line, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," when Stanley tracked him down by Lake Tanganyika. Another son of Scottish Americans, Harold Ross, founded the New Yorker magazine.
When the St Andrew's Society was established, the principal aim was to provide help for Scots and their ancestors who had fallen on hard times. Today, the oldest charitable organization in New York has a wider remit. Each year, its scholarship programme allows two Scots to study in America and vice versa. In recent times, the Society has helped fund the expansion of the Museum of Scotland, has upgraded statues of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns along Central Park's Literary Walk and annually helps organise the Tartan Day Parade on 6th Avenue.
While early Scots in America played a formative role, today the connections span all areas of modern life, both cultural and commercial. In 2004-2005, 2,750 US undergraduates were studying in Scotland. America is also Scotland's most significant export market, with 15% of all goods and services heading over the Atlantic in 2008.
In 2004, New York-based think tank, the Intelligent Community Forum, voted Glasgow as the 'world's most intelligent community', celebrating the city's energy in rolling out new broadband networks to connect its businesses and people with the global community.
Culturally, the synergies between the countries are as vibrant as ever. Writer Tom Wolfe said of New York that 'culture just seems to be in the air, like part of the weather.' Americans are also recognising the diversity of the Scottish scene. In 2006, the prestigious magazine placed Glasgow's King Tut's Wah Wah Hut amongst the top 10 places to visit in the world. "Discover the New Franz Ferdinand at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow. The city is ground zero for the post-punk revival," it said.
While New York poet and musician Patti Smith was in Glasgow exhibiting as part of the city's 2006 international contemporary art festival, citing her love of Burns as one of the main reasons for choosing to show in Scotland, Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly continued to sell out halls and theatres throughout the States.
When the guests settle down each year at the Saint Andrew's Society dinner – 'the highlight of the year in Scottish America' – it would be fitting for them to remember how far the two nations have come - and how the close communications and co-operation between our cities either side of the Atlantic will continue long into the future.