By Andrew Segedin / Reporter
KEARNY (Nov. 18, 2010) — Over the next six weeks we will travel throughout the area in search of some of the local spots most indicative of our communities’ cultural diversity. On our first stop, we explore the deep-seeded Scottish heritage of Kearny.
Our search begins Saturday morning, Nov. 13 in the back of a darkened banquet hall on the second floor of the Scots-American Athletic Club. Though its beloved Rangers Football Club, playing on a big-screen projector at the center of the hall, is beating fellow Scottish Premiere League team Aberdeen handedly, my first 15 minutes at the club are dead silent apart from a few angry shouts and anxious sighs from the supporters sitting at the tables.
Afterward, many of the supporters reconvene downstairs at the bar to converse, have a few drinks and watch the remainder of the day’s televised soccer slate. Soccer is an enormous part of the club and the Scottish community of Kearny in general explains barkeeper, Ed Duffy.
“Kearny used to be the epicenter of American soccer,” he says, eluding to the town’s former title of “Soccertown, USA.”
His claim has quite a bit of backing. Two former Kearny High School players, John Harkes and Tony Meola, were starters on the U.S. National Teams of the 1990s with other former residents, Tab Ramos and Ted Gillen, also seeing time on the national team. The club, known almost as well for its diehard members as its youth soccer clubs that helped rear talents like Harkes and Meola, is featured prominently during World Cup media coverage — with news outlets such as NBC and the New York Post visiting during the 2010 tournament.
The older members of the club attribute the community’s soccer tradition to the passing of the sport from Kearny’s 19th-century Scottish immigrants to their children. The majority of Kearny’s Scottish ancestry can be traced to Paisley, Scotland.
There, thread company Coats and Clark, tired of the tariffs it was forced to pay to export its product to the United States, chose to move its thread mills to Kearny due to its proximity to ports. In the move, Coats and Clark offered employees the opportunity to stay with the company and come to America — many did and thus sprung Kearny’s Scottish community and, indirectly, a lengthy love-affair with soccer.
“Look at the wall, look at the pictures,” says a club member known as “Billy the Plumber” gesturing toward the framed photographs hanging above the bar. Though the club was officially founded in 1932, team photos of Scots-American F.C., a former Kearny-based soccer club, from as far back as the 1914-15 American Football Conference Championship team, adorn the wall.
Billy, like many of the club’s members, was born in Scotland and the atmosphere of the club offers some familiarity. In talking to members of the club, several relay the story of famous Scotsman, Sean Connery — in New York to film a movie — coming in one Saturday morning to watch his Rangers Football Club in an environment reminiscent of his homeland.
Says John McClean, one of the club’s youngest members and native of Belfast, Northern Ireland: “This is my home away from home.”
Still another piece of home lies just a few blocks away on Kearny Avenue where club member, John Nisbet, co-owns Argyle Restaurant.
“This restaurant is easily the oldest in town,” says Nisbet who took over Argyle 29 years ago. “We don’t even know the whole history — we only know who owned it before us.”
That person was James Atkin who originally hired Nisbet to work a few hours a week at the bag pipe shop on the second floor of the restaurant. Nisbet, a member of World Champion pipe bands, happily obliged and eventually took over the shop. When Atkin died shortly after expanding the restaurant to its current space, Nisbet took over the restaurant as well with then-manager Bob Gordon.
Today, along with the restaurant, Nisbet, a native of Musselburgh, Scotland, runs Pipers Cove with his wife Joan in the form an adjacent gift shop as well as online and mail-order catalogs.
“Online business is getting bigger every day,” says Nisbet. “It isn’t unusual to come in here in the morning and see 10, 15 new orders.”
Piping, and Scottish heritage in general, is prominently displayed throughout the restaurant — with the entire back room lined with pictures of piping championships, depictions of famous events in Scottish history and a portrait of Robert Burns, Scottish poet and Argyle favorite. Each January, Argyle dedicates every night for two weeks to the birth of Burns, who was born Jan. 25.
“We started just doing it one night, but there were too many people,” says Nisbet. “Here, there was always a quiet time between the holidays and Lent — now we have the Robert Burns celebration in between and we have large parties come in every night — people coming in from all over the state. We owe a lot to Robert Burns.”
Those travelers are also looking to taste an authentic cuisine that is hard to find anywhere else.
“You have your meat pies, black pudding and sausages. Obviously, the main thing is the fish and chips,” he says.
Nisbet attributes the business of travelers to the fact that Argyle is one of the few Scottish restaurants left. During the Lyndon Johnson/Harold Wilson administrations, immigration policies between the United Kingdom and United States changed drastically — the fact of the matter is there aren’t many from younger generations to compete with what Nisbet has established at Argyle.
“We’re really the last ones left,” he says. “We’re a dying breed.”
Fortunately, for locals, the last one left is just a short drive away.
Argyle Restaurant and Pipers Cove are located at 212 Kearny Ave. in Kearny. For more information, visit argylerestaurant.com or piperscove.com.
The Scots-American Athletic Club is located at 40 Patterson St. For more information, visit scotsclub.com.