Our Scottish Connection: A Short History

In the more than 130 years since its founding, Alma College has stayed true to its roots by keeping its Scottish heritage alive. Resources in the Library Archives tell the story of the college’s history.

How does a small college in Midwest America come to have a Scottish theme?

To answer this question, we need to go back to the founding days of the college. Alma College came into existence in 1886 through the efforts of the Presbyterian Synod of Michigan. Meeting at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, members resolved to establish a church-affiliated college that ultimately gave birth to Alma College.

In those early years of existence, for lack of a better name, Alma was known as the “Fighting Presbyterians” or the “Maroon and Cream.”

The Goodenow siblings, 1956. The Goodenow siblings, 1956.As time went on it was decided that “Go Presbyterians” was not the easiest cheer. In 1931 a challenge was issued to the student body to come up with a new name. Herb Estes ’34 won $5 for coming up with the winning entry, “The Scots.” Because the Presbyterian Church was originally founded in Scotland, the name seemed fitting. Since that time, Alma College has embraced its Scottish traditions.

The Marching Band was originally formed in 1915, but it wasn’t until 1938 when it officially became known as the Kiltie Band and outfitted in Royal MacPherson kilts — the tartan used by the early Presbyterian Church leaders in Scotland. Incorporating “Scotland the Brave” and the sound of bagpipes, band director Sam Jones wrote the Alma College fight song in 1960.

The first student dance group, known as the Kiltie Lassies, formed in 1953. The group made up its own acrobatic routines to perform at halftime with the band, along with the Highland Fling, the only Scottish dance the members knew. The Kiltie Lassies transitioned into performing traditional Scottish dances and wearing uniforms made with the same tartan as the band. By 1981 highland dancing was offered as a class through the theater and dance department, taught by Christine Freestone ’74, a former Kiltie Lassie. Today, the Kiltie Dancers compete and win awards nationally and internationally.

Piper and dancer. Piper and dancer.Bagpipers have led the way for the Kiltie Band and campus events since the late 1930s. Classes have been offered on campus for years, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the Alma College Pipe Band was formed under the leadership of Andrew Duncan. The band quickly made a name for itself, taking home multiple awards, including winning the U.S. Pipe Band Championship four times.

Alma College’s official tartan was adopted in 1996 and registered with the Scottish Tartan Authority. The maroon and teal plaid is reflected in the new uniforms for the Kiltie Band, Kiltie Dancers and Alma Pipers.

The first Highland Festival came to the Alma College campus on May 25, 1968. David MacKenzie ’55, who played the bagpipes as a student, took an interest in the Scottish games. MacKenzie and Guile Graham, Alma’s director of development, presented the idea to the Chamber of Commerce in early 1967. More than 50 years later, the Highland Festival and Games remains a popular event, bringing thousands of participants and spectators to Alma.

— Viki Everhart, Retired Library Collections Specialist
— Information Source: Alma College Library History Archives

Story published on August 14, 2019