Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

November 19, 2003:


A woman in plaid, or was that a man
The land of Scotland near and far

I spent fall break in Scotland, the land of malt whiskey and tartan. In my four years at Princeton, this was my first fall break away from campus, but in some ways I felt I had never left. Like Scotland, Princeton is also a place of malt whiskey and tartan: Many dorm rooms are stocked with the so-called aqua vitae, and the plaid of the Burberry clan is ubiquitous on campus. Such similarities are not surprising, given that Scotland has exerted a sizeable influence on Princeton history.

One of Princeton's most famous Scotsmen is John Witherspoon, who was born in 1723 in Yester, a few miles outside Edinburgh. Before he was immortalized in the form of a giant arch and bronze statue, Witherspoon was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and a leader in the Popular Party in the Church of Scotland. He took office as Princeton's sixth president in 1768. Exactly one century later, another Scotsman, James McCosh, became Princeton's 11th president. McCosh was born in Ayrshire, the home of Robert Burns, and is well known for many things, among them his defense of the theory of evolution and his dealings with another famous Scotsman, Andrew Carnegie. During one of his visits to Princeton, Carnegie told the president that he had always had a warm spot in his heart for the university. Mrs. McCosh is reputed to have replied, "Mr. Carnegie, we have seen no evidence of it as yet."

Carnegie, originally from Dunfermline, had built several lochs in his native country, and agreed to finance one for Princeton after extensive lobbying on the part of Howard Russell Butler and William Allen Butler, members of the Class of 1876. On December 5, 1906, Carnegie and five dozen of his friends took a private train from New York in order to attend the formal presentation of the new lake. At the time, the train station was located at the foot of Blair Arch, and as Carnegie climbed the steps he caught sight of a banner hanging from an undergraduate's room in Blair Tower. The banner read: "Welkum to the Laird of Skeebo," a reference to the name Princeton's man of steel had given his estate in Scotland.

A shared history is not the only similarity between Princeton and Scotland. Edinburgh, the capital city, even looks a little bit like Princeton. Edinburgh is full of old buildings that have been converted into banks and pricey clothing stores. It's what you'd get if you paved Nassau and Witherspoon Streets with cobblestones, razed Firestone Library and installed a castle, and knocked the legal drinking age down a couple of years so the punk high school kids in Palmer Square could drink their beer indoors. Even the sight of kilts wasn't so foreign — I've seen more men in skirts at Terrace's annual Drag Ball.

In other respects, I felt as if Scotland were another planet. For one thing, the language — English, or so it is alleged — ranged from unintelligible to Martian. When I arrived at the airport in Edinburgh, I queried a native as to where I could find the bus that would take me to the center of town.

"Cynnkxxx wa' ir gainccykxx," he replied.

"I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" I asked.

"Cynnkxxx wa'ir GAINCCYKXX," he clarified.

Then there was the matter of regional differences in usage. Lift instead of elevator, chemist instead of pharmacy, tyre-with-a-y-instead-of-an-i, and bloody-this and bloody-that. Not to mention the food — my favorite was the "spotted dick," the British pudding with the saucy name. The etymology of the dessert is uncertain, although the prevailing opinion is that the name comes from the word "pudding," which became "puddink" and then "puddick" over time. At least the "spotted" part makes sense — the dessert is studded with currants or raisins.

I had gone to Edinburgh to visit a friend, and in a pub one evening we resolved to order the dessert. Sarkis argued that I should order because my native language was closest to that spoken by the Scottish waitress; I contended that the point was debatable and that, more important, I wouldn't be able to order with a straight face. I ended up ordering anyway.

"Yes, um, we'd like the, uh, spotted dick," I said.

"D'you say you wont-ted the spotted dick?" the waitress asked. Undoubtedly accustomed to the ensuing guffaw, she took down the order.

Culinary misadventure didn't end with the pudding; there was also a minor incident involving Scotland's most infamous dish. When Sarkis went to Edinburgh last spring to interview for a job, I advised him to order haggis when the interviewers took him out for dinner. Such an appreciation of Scottish cuisine, I felt, would endear him to the interviewers. The problem was that I had never had haggis myself and so was not speaking from any position of authority.

When he returned from Scotland, Sarkis was incensed: "I told them I wanted to try haggis. They said, 'Oh, do you like organ meat?' Kate, you told me it was a vegetable!"


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu