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Billy Connolly’s Great American Trail. Photo/Supplied

Billy Connolly’s Great American Trail

There’s no naked dancing as Billy Connolly follows Scottish connections along the American trail. 

Scotland’s greatest living comedian may have retired from the stage, but it appears he still has a hankering for the gentler delights of television.

In Billy Connolly’s Great American Trail (TVNZ 1, Thursday, 8.45pm), the Big Yin takes a ramble along the path trodden by Scottish settlers before him.

It’s both familiar and unfamiliar territory. Connolly has made shows about his adopted homeland before, Route 66 and Tracks Across America, but those high-energy, dancing-around-naked days are over. At 76, and living with Parkinson’s, he has become a genial presence whose default setting is joy.

The series begins with Connolly and wife Pamela Stephenson leading the annual New York Tartan Day parade. There are about 27 million Americans who claim Scottish ancestry, he says, about 30,000 of them waving Scottish flags at the parade.

Which isn’t to say that the show is pure travelogue. His real journey begins in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the pilgrims landed in 1620 and now the home of the famous Plymouth Rock. While acknowledging the 5000km journey across the Atlantic, he doesn’t think much of the way the settlers behaved after they arrived.

“They were thieves,” he says. “They stole the land off the Indians, they stole stuff from Indian graves. The Indians, who had been good to them, showed them how to exist in the climate. America isn’t very good at apologising.”

Perhaps as a Scot whose native language has been in decline, he visits a preschool in which Native American children are learning Wôpanâak, a language that had not been heard for 150 years.

“Language is so important to you, it’s how your father teaches you and how your mother teaches you how to live. Whether it’s Scots or Gaelic or French or Italian,” says Connolly.

Incredibly, the husband of Wôpanâak teacher Jessie Little Doe Baird has Scottish ancestors. Another Scottish connection in Massachusetts is whale researcher Ian Kerr, who uses drones to collect whale “snot”.

Connolly’s journey takes an interesting turn in Boston, settled by Scots in 1630 and now the home of a “huge and vibrant Scots-Irish community”. However, where drag-queen collective Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence comes in isn’t clear, other than Connolly enjoys meeting fringe-dwellers. “They were not above a dirty joke every two seconds. I was very happy in their company.”

His 5000km journey takes in 10 states and ends in Nashville, where Connolly takes to the stage one more time, to play banjo at the Grand Ole Opry.

This article was first published in the March 28, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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