Tartan Day: Scots who influenced New York life to be celebrated on Ellis Island

Baseball star Bobby Thomson, pirate William Kidd, dancer Martha Graham and actor Christopher Walken are among Scots descendants to be celebrated for their influence on New York life. PICS Contributed/Creative Commons.
Baseball star Bobby Thomson, pirate William Kidd, dancer Martha Graham and actor Christopher Walken are among Scots descendants to be celebrated for their influence on New York life. PICS Contributed/Creative Commons.
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The Scots emigrants who helped make the city of New York will be celebrated on Ellis Island next month where thousands of the new arrivals set foot on US soil for the first time.

The emigrants and descendants who made their mark on city life in the realms of entertainment, politics, business - and even piracy - will be honoured in a new exhibition at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

The event is being staged as part of the annual Tartan Day celebrations that honour the historic links between Scotland and the United States.

READ MORE: The Scottish disapora : how we spread across the world

This year, Sir Billy Connolly will lead a parade in New York to celebrate that shared heritage on Saturday. April 6.

Meanwhile, on Ellis Island, where millions of new immigrants to the US were processed, more than 50,000 people of Scots descent are due to gather for the exhibition and associated events organised by the Clan Currie Society.

READ MORE: The emigrant islanders who put the Hebrides into Detroit

Robert Currie, chairman of the Clan Currie Society, said: “Scots began emigrating to America in the 17th century and have been influencing life in New York, and further afield, ever since.

“From the White House to countless boardrooms, university lecture halls, hospitals, theatres and business life, Scots have made their mark. Even Uncle Sam, the embodiment of the U.S. Government, was based on an American businessman of Scottish descent.

“In the early years of their arrival in the New World, many Scots were escaping religious and political oppression or seeking a better life.”

By 1790, the U.S. Census showed that Scots made up almost 10 per cent of the population of New York.

Between 1892 and 1954, an estimated half million Scots came through Ellis Island and started to lay down roots stateside.

Many who made the journey to New York Harbour didn’t stray far, making their home in the city, Mr Currie said.

“In doing so, Scots assimilated into local society rather than create their own neighbourhoods or enclaves as other nationalities had done,” Mr Currie added.

The exhibition will look at a wide range of Scots who influenced life in New York, from business magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to actor and club owner Alan Cumming, who was born in Aberfeldy but has long lived in Manhattan.

Others who feature include Christopher Walken, whose mother Rosealie grew up in Easterhouse, Glasgow and left Scotland for New York in the early 1930s.

He described his mother as being “smitten with movies” and who wanted her children to work in show business.

A child actor who appeared in numerous television shows in the US, Walken joined a travelling circus aged 15-years-old. His film credits include Annie Hall, Pulp Fiction and The Deer Hunter.

Actor and comedian Mickey Rooney, born Joe Yule in Brooklyn in 1920, also features in the exhibition. His father, a Glaswegian, took his soon on stage to join his Vaudeville act aged just 17 with Rooney going on to star on the silver screen with the likes of Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn and his friend Judy Garland.

Later in life, Rooney twice visited Glasgow and spoke with pride of his links to the city.

Also in the exhibition is baseball player Bobby Thomson, who was born in Glasgow and left for America to join his cabinet maker father, who had gone ahead to search for a better life for his family.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Thomson joined the New York baseball Giants. Before he had an opportunity to play, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In a long career, “the Staten Island Scot” is best remembered for hitting baseball’s most famous home run - the “shot heard ‘round the world’ - in a 1951 match against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Also featuring in the Ellis Island event is John Vliet Lindsay, a former Mayor of New York, whose Scottish roots ran down through his father’s side.

Born in New York City, Lindsay served in World War II in the U.S. Navy as a gunnery officer and later attended Yale University.

After becoming a lawyer, Lindsay was elected to the House of Representatives in 1959. He was Mayor of New York City from 1965 to 1973, initially as a Republican before becoming a Democrat. During his time in office, New York was dubbed a “city in crisis” given racial and political divisions that marred neighbourhoods.

Lindsay, a tall, debonair figure, was often likened to John F. Kennedy but he suffered poor health and financial trouble in later life, but did not make it to the top job despite his earlier promise and ambition. He died in 2000.

Dancer Martha Graham will also be honoured on Ellis Island. Her father, a psychiatrist from Scotland, settled the family in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania with his daughter becoming pioneer in American modern dance. Her choreography career spanned more than 70 years.

Graham founded a New York dance company in 1926 that still performs her repertoire today with celebrities including Woody Allen to Bette Davis citing her as a major influence on their careers. According to the New York Times, Graham was the “Picasso of Dance…a prime revolutionary in the arts of this century.”

Meanwhile, William Kidd - Scotland’s most famous pirate - will also be marked this Tartan Day on Ellis Island.

Kidd, who was reportedly born in Greenock in 1645, served as a pirate against the French in the West Indies before travelling to New York to suppress the rebellion of Jacob Leisler, a prominent New York merchant who was later executed for treason.

Kidd married and settled in New York, becoming a friend to merchants and politicians. However, growing restless he obtained a commission from a number of powerful London and New York patrons to attack French commercial interests.

When the scheme failed, enraging the East India Company in the process, he was tried for piracy, sentenced to death and hanged at Wapping on the banks of the River Thames.

Neil Gunn has produced the exhibition on behalf of the Clan Currie Society.

Mr Gunn, who is based in the Borders, said: “I was really surprised to learn just how many Scots and their descendants made their mark on New York. We want to help develop a sense of pride that such as small country produced so many interesting people.”