History of the Scottish American Society of South Florida [SASSF]
The Scottish American Society of South Florida, Inc. began in 1983 when a group of Scots and Scottish Americans got together to put on a festival in Key Biscayne to introduce South Florida to the rich culture of Scotland. Although there were several local bagpipe bands, Scottish dance groups and social clubs there was no coordinated local celebration of Scottish Heritage. This was surprising given that many founders of the South Florida community were of Scottish ancestry. Familiar names include Charles & Frankee Lewis, early pioneers in the 1790’s; Major William Lauderdale, for whom the city is named; Ivy Stranahan, considered “the Mother of Fort Lauderdale”; the Matheson family, instrumental in the settlement of Key Biscayne; the Ralph Munroe family, helping to establish Coconut Grove; and Guy Metcalf, founding editor of the Tropical Sun, Palm Beach area’s first newspaper.
Founding President Nigel MacDonald and others in the local Scottish community had participated in the Miami International Festival for several years. Having traveled to many games both in and outside Florida they felt that the time was right to put on an event of their own. The timing was perfect. The old zoo in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne was vacant and ideally laid out for the event. With very little experience but a lot of enthusiasm, in 1983 SASSF or the Scottish American Society of South Florida was born with about 15 members. The first SASSF & Festival organizational meeting was held in April 1983, subsequently incorporating on August 2, 1983.
Some of the members brought a family tradition of Scottish Culture, especially the Ritchie and Buchanan families. However, Scottish folk dancing, bagpipes, and marching bands appeal not only to Scots but also to many with no Scottish roots. It brings together people regardless of origin. The apparent small size of the local Scottish community suggested that such an event would not succeed, but this was taken as a challenge. The idea was to add this unique cultural event to the many already in our area.
The first Executive Board was made up as follows: President, Nigel MacDonald; Vice President, Bob Ritchie and Director Ken Hislop were all Scottish. Executive Secretary Gail Shovlin and Treasurer Rich Czerwinski were of Polish descent. Director Beth Murray Cass was of Scottish descent and Richard Hurwitz, the designer of our alligator logo, was of Scottish/German descent.
Few of the founding members had much experience with Highland games, but through their desire to learn new skills and perpetuate the culture the festival and games was put into motion. After a year of raising money to cover the expenses like the park, performers, etc., soliciting advertising for our program inviting vendors, and or course, hours of volunteer work, the first Highland Games and Festival opened in South Florida with our Ceilidh at the Knights Inn on 36th Street on Friday, February 10, 1984 with all local entertainment.
Saturday, February 11th the first games took place. The first Festival was extremely successful, attracting over 4000 attendees. At the end of the day when we had not only enough money to pay our expenses but a little to help us get started on the next games, we finally realized that we had arrived.
At about the same time Joe Robbie Stadium (now Pro Player) was built. They needed non-profit organizations to manage their vendor booths. This was an all-volunteer enterprise with a percentage of sales going to the Society. Over the years, due to the extremely hard work of a few very dedicated people the Society had the additional revenue to invite performers from Scotland and World Championship pipe bands from Scotland and Canada.
After the success of that first Scottish Highland Games and Festival, the group decided to incorporate as a not for profit organization and achieved 501(c)3 status in January, 1985. The Festival & Games became an annual event, growing to a top attendance of over 8000. The SE Florida Scottish Festival & Games are well known around the country for the high quality of its organization and featured entertainment. This has included world champion pipe bands and internationally known Scottish and Scottish-American entertainers, including Alex Beaton, Alasdair Fraser, Maggie Sansone, Charlie Zahm, Ed Miller, Albannach, Seven Nations, Rathkeltair, Glengarry Bhoys, MudMen, and Off-Kilter.
The Festival was held at the Crandon Park Zoo from 1984-1995, however rebuilding efforts due to Hurricane Andrew eventually required a relocation to other venues. There have been a number of venue changes over the years, which we believe has contributed to the overall drop in attendance. The Festival was held in the following locations between 1996-2016: Hialeah Race Track, 1996; Plantation Heritage Park, 1997-2001; C.B. Smith Park, 2002-2004 ; Coral Spring Athletics Sportsplex, 2005 ; Lockhart Stadium, 2006-2011 ; Snyder Park, 2012-2015; finally returning to Plantation Heritage Park in 2016, where the Festival now has its home. Plantation Heritage Park has proven to be an ideal location for the Scottish Festival & Games, with ample & convenient parking for regular and disabled guests, ready access to major transportation networks, and a good mix of open spaces, shady/tree-lined areas, and powered pavilions. We have received numerous comments from our vendors, performers, clan representatives, and festivalgoers that Plantation Heritage Park is a preferred location to which they would definitely want to return. We believe remaining at Plantation Heritage Park, combined with enhanced programming and activities and effective marketing, will enable us to rebuild our attendance numbers to former levels.
As we look back over the past 35 years we have a great sense of pride in what has been accomplished. Many of the people who helped to get the games started are still with us which is a tribute to their endurance. There is also nostalgia for those who are no longer with us. We have made many friends over the years with our entertainers, vendors, visitors, and friends, and last, but never least, the many volunteers who show up on games day to make sure that this will continue to be the unique event that it has always been, and that we will continue to bring "a little bit of Scotland" to our community for many years to come.