Things wooly and Scottish in Upstate New York

robert burns statue washington park

Robert Burns: statue resident of Washington Park, author of New Year's Eve songs no one understands, Scotsman.

By Duncan Crary

You may have noticed there are quite a few Scottish people in the Helderbergs this weekend. They appear to be drinking heavily and throwing telephone poles around.

There's a lot I could say to shed a little light on these odd activities and all things Scottish and local. In fact, I've asked the publishers of this blog to let me do that. So pour yourself a hot toddy (if it's cold) or just a whiskey if it's not, and let's get to it.

1) Those telephone poles are called "cabers."

2) Scotch is a drink, Scots are a people, and Scottish is an adjective.

3) We're not Irish.

Albany is Scotland

Did you know? "Albany" is an English word for "Alba," the Scottish Gaelic word for Scotland. "Scotia" is latin for Scotland. And "Nova Scotia" means "New Scotland," where the annual Capital District Scottish Games are happening at this moment.

Scotch tape

Scotch tape was named so -- pejoratively -- because it is cheap. Scots are said to be "thrifty." Ever wonder why the only duck in Duckburg more tightfisted than Scrooge was his tartan-wrapped, R-rolling nemesis Glomgold? (You haven't truly arrived as an ethnicity in this country until Disney anthropomorphizes your stereotypical behaviors!)

In Troy, where I live, it was Scottish-born entrepreneurs, like Henry Burden and the Rosses, who brought in the big bucks to build all those great old buildings that attract young hipsters today. And I'm sure those old Scots were concerned with the bottom line.

When thistle and shamrock tangle

I admit, we have some things in common. But it gets a little crayyyy when the Irish and Scots clash -- especially here in the Collar City. Ask any of the Lilies I've tangled with and I'm sure they'll ya all about that.

Yeah, the Irish have been in New York since the British arrived. For the most part, the Scots got here a long time before everyone's famished Irish great-great-grandpappys-and-mammys arrived. We Scots weren't so eager to give up our hard-won turf to Celtic cousins from the Emerald Isle. We still aren't.

The "Trial of Bat Shea," which followed the murder of Trojan Scotsman Robert Ross, is one infamous example of the old Thistle 'n Shamrock jig. (That huggy battlefield scene in Braveheart? Never happened.)

A Scottish ghost in the Adirondacks

duncan crary with beard
Duncan Campbell Crary, not Irish.

My name, Duncan Campbell Crary, is as Upstate New York Scots as it gets.

The Crarys are a small Scottish tribe found only in North America. Maybe you've spotted a Craryville or Crary Mills on your Google Maps app. "Crazy" is a common prefix attached to our surname.

"Duncan Campbell" is more significant. The eerie demise of my namesake was the most famous of all New York ghost stories, at one time.

One night in Scotland this unfortunate soldier found himself bound to protect the murderer of his own kinsman. In spite of three visits from the ghost of his murdered cousin, proud Duncan would not go back on his word to avenge the spirit. (Campbells are just like that.)

"We shall meet again at Ticonderoga," said the fading spirit. A strange word indeed.

Soon, Major Duncan Campbell of the Black Watch received orders to fight for empire in the far off forests of Northern New York. His final destination: a peculiarly named fort at the southern end of Lake Champlain. He did not survive the bloody night.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Upstate

Robert Louis Stevenson -- the guy who wrote Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and other prepubescent boyhood wet dreams -- was a famous Scottish author. He heard Duncan's ghost story while in the Adirondacks, taking "the cure" for tuberculosis in Saranac Lake. And he wrote a pretty popular poem based on it.

While he was here, he also snuck some other Albany and Adirondack settings into his greatest novel, The Master of Ballantrae. In a whirlwind of action, the protagonist of that story globe trots from the Scottish Civil War of 1745, to the Caribbean, to Colonial Albany, to Quebec, to India, and finally returns to the snowy New York mountains to meet his fate. Another Scotsman lost to that primeval wilderness.

The Bobbie Burns statue

One of the favorite gathering places for Albany bohemians to recite their poetry is at the feet of a very good Scottish poet, Robert Burns. You know that song everyone sings at New Year's Eve and no one understands what the hell it means? Bobbie Burns wrote that.

He never visited Albany (I don't think), but his statue in Washington Park was put there in honor of the Scottish stone carvers who adorned our magnificent Capitol. Those impressive red granite pillars in our stately Senate chambers come from their native lands, too.

It's pronounced Oban

Quick lesson for all Capital Region bartenders and servers: That very expensive whisky I order on other people's tabs, and that you never fail to correct ("You mean Oh-BANN?") my pronunciation when I do? It's "OH-ben." It really is.

The right to roam

The law of trespass is a foreign notion in Scotland, imposed by English wankers on their fancy weekend estates. But there is an ancient Right To Roam that all Scots are entitled to exercise in their bonnie homelands. Two rules make the law: shut the gate and leave nothing behind.

I practice that custom anywhere my ancestors spilled their blood -- and they spilled enough in this place. So, to the amicable one who alleges to work for the City of Troy, and who kicked me out of our new Riverfront Park at dawn: The ginger lad will be back. He will always come back.

Heather honey

Lastly, we Scots do tend to practice the Right To Roam in affairs of the heart, as well, and it's certainly gotten me into quite a bit of trouble over the years. But we always shut the gate when we leave. Honoring the second rule... well that's not so easy in love.

It takes courage to play with us. We'll step to any man, woman, or giant. And whether we win or get knocked down, no one ever touches us with impunity. We are a people as colorful and attractive as the flower atop the thistle. But it's our thorns that protect us. Only those with deliberate hands can pluck us from the wild.

Think you want a taste of the heather honey and peat? Then look for us whenever that old drone of the bagpipes takes to the air.

Duncan Crary lives, works and plays in Troy, NY. He is an author, podcast producer and publicist. |


I guess the Altamont Fair Grounds are technically in in Guilderland, not in neighboring New Scotland. But we Scots never let a few facts get in the way of a good story! (And there was talk of moving the games to NS at one point). Thanks for letting me share. Next dram is on me.

Great article Duncan! Very fun and informative...I really dig your writing style! Can't wait to read the next installment...

What craic! Who knew so many things Scottish were present in the CR? (I'm Irish so I tend to be more aware of all things Irish...such as the strangely placed but appreciated nevertheless bust of James Connolly near the bus stop in Troy).

Do people actually think your name sounds Irish?


Brings back memories of Scotland. Fort William, Edinburgh, Paisley, single malt, Urquhart Castle and the Trossachs.

Good to hear from Duncan. He's a unique voice, Scot or otherwise. Keep it coming. Give me a top five single malt list.

I'm not Scottish, but damn Duncan my lad, you always make me feel proud to be from the CD

That's a pretty nice article. Thanks Duncan.

Thank you all for the encouragement. It's been a while since I've written something in my own voice after years of reporting what other people say. It's gonna take me a little while to get back in the groove. But I appreciate the chance to stretch my fingers here.

@ Ann,

This is controversial and I could be persuaded to change my list, but off the top of my head I will throw out the following:

1) Oban
2) The Balvenie
3) Laphroaig
4) Talisker
5) Glenlivet (16 years or older)

(I only get to drink these spirits on other people's dime, or at Christmas when my aunt buys me a bottle.)

Best place to try them all (not in one night)? 9 Maple Ave, Saratoga.

@ colleen,

Craic. Love it! (The Scots and the English spell it "Crack," by the way. ;)

Yes people do often think my name is Irish, although "Duncan Campbell" takes up about 1/3 of any phone book in any Scottish town. "Dude, you're SO Irish!" (Esp. if I'm holding a Guinness...I do like the black suds.)

I've known this fine young writer his entire life, and estimate his stories to be 85% true, unless otherwise noted. This I know for sure: if there's a yarn to be spun, he's the one to spin it.

Love this, but as one of Polish American descent, I'm feeling a bit left out. How about a multi-national cultural Olympics of sorts? The Poles vs. the Scots. Kaber toss ... kielbasa toss! Scotch and Vodka relays. Fashion show competition ... the finest Tartan garb vs. snazzy Polish Folk costumes. Bring on the Burlap Games!

Ahh, calling Guinness "black" just proves that you're not Irish. ;-) It is actually "deep ruby red", but either way when properly pulled it is delicious.

As a former Albanian (and 100% Irish, thank you), I really enjoyed revisiting things and places I remember and learning about some new ones. Keep writing in your own voice. Good job, Duncan.

Lovely article; as an Albany native & lover of all things Scottish, this really hit the spot!

Enjoyed your article! Keep writing in your own style it is fun to read. Grace

I love a little local history lesson, would love more of them - it really does something to my experience living in the area. A lil regional pride, anyone? This is great.

Just listened to some bagpipes outside my building as someone held a reception to their Scottish wedding. After reading this, I realize I belonged more in Albany living off New Scotland Road than I thought :)

Thank you thank you thank you.

@ gregg,

I'm down with Dan Savage's whole "ggg" concept. Ya still gotta be careful where you toss your kielbasa.

@ colleen,

Tell me all about shades of deep red, gingerpop. :)

Heilan Scots and Irish is a bad combination: too frugal ("cheap") to drink.

What? No mention of the connection between Argyle, NY and Argyle county in Scotland? Othwise, superb!

@ James at 45

Well I already dropped a few self-indulgent references to the Campbells (of Argyll), and the AOA editors were very generous in letting me roam longer than the norm. But here's a shout out to the "Scots Wha Hae" of Argyle, NY, for ya! And to the fallen Jacobites of The '45, too (if that's what the number stands for in your handle).


Great piece Duncan - a great read. I look forward to future articles.

This is a nice exposition about a character I never knew I had. I suppose it was always lurking somewhere beneath the surface, but this explains a lot while raising many more questions, which seems only natural.

Well done, my ginger lad!

"Cha togar m' fhearg gun dìoladh" or "Wha daur meddle wi me?" Good hidden pun in the last paragraph.

@John Minehan

Or in Latin: "Nemo me impune lacessit"

And... for those wondering what the heck this is all about, Google: The Thistle of Scotand and click on the Visit Scotland link.

Note: Even the national tourism organisation states:

"Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence for this, but Scots, like other nations, love a good story."

Sorry to be that guy but...

If you were born here in these United States, you're American. You're not Irish. You're not Scottish. You're American.

Head over to either of those countries and tell someone you're one of them and well, good luck. Fun, easy way to alienate yourself and get made fun of.

@ Brendan,

I'm sorry you're having a bad day.

(That's a little thing I learned to say to "that guy" on the Internet.)

I've been to Scotland twice. Lived there on my own for a while as a student and had a wonderful time living and playing among the Scots, whom I still correspond with and who have visited me here.

And they indeed treated me as a "cousin", though they often told me I "wasn't like other Americans." A red-head named Duncan is not exactly "exotic" over there.

Never once got made fun of or was alienated for being a Scots from America. It's pretty common.

Scots is an ethnicity, in addition to a "nationality," which is a term in flex with regard to Scotland right now. I don't use it to refer to my nationality, which is "American" (and I feel I was rather clear about that above).

My ethnicity is Scots, which is pretty hard to deny. In fact I've had to wear it on me wherever I go, whether I want to or not. And took a few hard knocks for it as a little kid, so forgive me if I'm havin' a little fun with it now that all the hard times are gone.

That's enough I think.

Although I am a bit prejudiced here, I must say that I enjoyed reading this little essay because: 1) you are my nephew; 2) I am of Scottish descent and love all things Scottish; and 3) I like sseing your words in print. Hope this starts a new gig for you.

Great piece Duncan, although, I'm not sure what you mean about codified cartoon Scottish stereotypes?


Ha! Great clip. I used to watch the Simpsons with other students at Edinburgh every Sunday. It was always a little awkward in the room when Groundskeeper Willie appeared. (But very hard not to laugh). :)

Timely piece since I returned from Scotland just last night. Great read!

Ach! 'Tis a great read, Jimmy! Brought back memories --

Spent a year in Edinburgh and went roamin' in the gloamin' quite a bit. Culloden Moor is surely the eeriest place on earth. You can feel the slaughter still. The firths are filled with who knows what, but when a sea lion stuck his head up suddenly as I was rowing, I thought it was Nessie.

Gathered some rosebuds, all right, but was stuck by more thistles. Couldn't get near the haggis.

Yes, The Trial of Bat Shea is a revenge saga where the Irish kill a Scotsman and the Scots and Anglicans retaliate. The roots of this story certainly go back to the clans and all their precious resentments nursed along by whiskey and poteen, and it is played out right here in our dear little town with all the flag-waving and allusions to another famous Scot, Betsey Ross, who sewed the flag.

My favorite Scottish story is, of course, MacBeth, and the Weird (Wyrd) sisters and their prophecies are better than any ghost story. Ross is the only heroic thane, by the way.

"Nemo lacessit impune" is emblazoned over the portcullis of the Edinburgh Castle -- no one laughs at me and gets away with it -- and Edgar Allan Poe used it to begin his "Cask of Amontillado" where a resentful fellow immures his nemesis in the catacombs.

Ach, 'Tis a moon-licht nict to-nict, Jimmy!

Duncan, I highly recommend a pilgrimage out to Lockport to catch one of Lake Effect Ice Cream's "Wee Bit of Scotland" sundaes:

Tam's off tae ya, Jack.

See you out there on those Trojan blocks of ours. Keep spinnin' yarn. And yes, I like MacBeth, too, but don't care for what happened to Duncan.

P.S. Years ago, I snuck home a Bobbie Burns cigar tube I'd dipped into the Well of the Dead at Culloden battlefield. My plan was to use that water for Jimsonweed tea, to drink on top of Kaaterskill Falls one summer night during a bad drought.

But I thought twice, and then again, about that. Some stories ... they're best left to the page.

Great article, let's go eat some haggis.

A piece of great writing, Duncan! Very interesting. I enjoyed reading it!

Thank you for the local Scottish history lesson! I had no idea.

Also, you're right, Scottish and Irish are not the same. I married a Scot. I'm sure you can tell by my last name I'm not married to him anymore. I married an Irishman a few years ago and things have never been better. ;)

It never ceases to amaze me how many Americans declare that they're Scottish when they've never even set foot here! It also never ceases to amaze me how many folk,including a lot of the posters here, have extremely strange ideas about Scotland and we Scots! Can I assume that if Scotland and the US ever go to war you'll all be rushing to join the Scots army? Slainte!


I have no idea who your comment is directed to since it's vague. I am the author of this piece, and you know very little of me or where I've stepped.

But I have explained in my comments above that I have certainly set both of my feet in Scotland. In all parts, except Shetland and Orkney.

And I have roamed that place at different times in my life, which is my right.

Now that I'm writing a book about sailors in NYS, I plan to one day make the connections to make it back to Glasgow by ship to say goodbye to an old sailor friend from there.

I don't know what exactly is stuck in your craw, but I'll repeat what I told another poster above: "I'm sorry you're having a bad day."

Your comment about war between the U.S. and Scotland is ... lame. But since you brought it up, the movement for Scottish independence is real and thoroughly underway. And there have already been comprehensive discussions on how the Scottish military would work after separation from the U.K. (I don't expect many wars between the U.S. and Bonnie Scotland. Do you?)

By. The. Way. The leader for Scottish independence???? A Scots...from Canada.

Good night, lad.

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