Karen F. McCarthy’s The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America is a sweeping social history of the Scots-Irish that focuses on their contributions to American culture.
The story begins in northern Ireland during the Dark Ages when a Gaelic tribe called the Dal Riata crosses the Irish Sea and the begins the conquest of Pictland in Britain which they rename Scotia Minor.
Over the next few centuries, the Dal Riata and the Picts and later the Vikings intermarried to become the Scottish people. The Scots remained a raucous Gaelic tribe until the Reformation when John Knox and the Scottish nobles overthrew Catholicism, introduced Calvinism, and created the Presbyterian Church as the established church of Scotland:
“Knox was misogynistic and contemptuous of the nobility. He tore through Scotland with such a force that even its queen was driven to tears when he condemned her choice of husband. He eradicated traditional forms of entertainment like May Day, carnivals, gambling, and theatrical performances. Except for hymns, there was no dancing or music on the sabbath. The Kirk became the moral censor that meted out punishments to fornicators and drunkards. Within a single generation, Scotland was transformed from a land of heathens to one of puritans.”
Under King James I (1567-1635), the crowns of England and Scotland were united, and the Plantation of Ulster was established in northern Ireland while the colonization of Virginia at “Jamestowne” was begun in the New World:
“England’s refusal to stay out of Ireland was draining the royal exchequer. For all the civilizing influence the Protestant Reformation had on Scotland, it, like everything else, never traversed the Irish Sea. So while the Scots were becoming moral, educated religious zealots, their ancestral Irish cousins remained ungovernable lapsed Catholics, with an avaricious, fornicating clergy. They were still a tribal culture, poor and illiterate, and they hated the English. …
James seized the northern lands of the exiled chieftain and drove his people from their homes. With the land vacated, James needed planters to move in quickly. The English weren’t particularly eager to move to Ireland, besides they never proved to be effective planters. James turned to a hardier stock – he granted Irish lands in the northern province of Ulster to Scottish lords who in term parceled out tracks to Scottish lowlanders. These people had been fighting almost continuously for a thousand years – if anyone could contend with the Irish, it was the Scots. …
A thousand years earlier their Dal Riata ancestors left Ireland as ungovernable, semi-heathen, feisty, fun-loving Gaels, now a new tribe returned seasoned by war, reformed by religion, and economically enterprising. Unfortunately since there was no longer any kinship with the Irish whom they dispossessed, their idyllic Ulster colony inevitably became a nightmare.”
These Scots-Irish Presbyterians, many of whom were transplanted Calvinists from northern England, survived and prospered in Ulster through the roller coaster ride of the seventeenth century: the English Civil War, Cromwell’s reign, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution and the Siege of Derry.
In the early seventeenth century, it was high taxes, famine, and religious persecution (a familiar story to the Irish) that brought them to America:
“The success of the Scots-Irish democratic experiment alarmed the English parliament. The Ulster colony had, after all, been established almost a hundred years earlier to benefit the Crown, not the Scots who were sent there. Now it had gone awry, as English cloth manufacturers were in competition with the woolen industry in the north of Ireland. The Ulstermen were getting rich at the expense of the English.
In a devastating blow to Ulster’s economy, parliament passed a law restricting the sale of wool products to all counties except the British market. The British then resold them in the rest of the empire.
The resilient group refocused their efforts into linen production, but, in the early 1700s, six years of drought ruined crops, including the flax they needed to make linen.
Crop shortages also caused the price of food to soar. With no income, they had to eat the seed they needed for the following year. Things were going from bad to worse.
In 1702, the formidable King William died when he fell of his horse after it tripped over a molehill. His successor believed the interests of the realm were best served by all its people worshipping in the hierarchical Anglican tradition of the monarchy. Bishops were to be appointed not elected. This ran contrary to the fundaments of the Kirk that had existed since the time of John Knox. Those who refused to conform were turned out of the pulpits and forced into exile, leaving Ireland without any religious leadership. If a minister remained, he couldn’t teach the marriages he performed were illegal; the dead couldn’t be buried without a minister of the Anglican Church presiding. To make matters worse, they had to pay a religious tax to the monarch’s church.
Over the next decade, many of the long land leases that had remained stable for generations came up for renewal. Landlords began ratcheting up the rents and auctioning farms off to the highest bidder. Families were forced off the land they had cultivated for decades. With economic, religious, and land restrictions that threatened their livelihood, they had no choice but to emigrate.
The cumulative result of all these setbacks was a mass exodus of Presbyterians beginning in 1717 …”
Around 200,000 Scots-Irish Presbyterians left Ulster from 1717 to the American Revolution. 100,000 immigrated between 1783 and 1812. 500,000 more came between 1815 and 1845. Finally, 900,000 came to America between 1850 and 1900.
Known simply as “Irish” in America until the 1830s, the overwhelming majority of the Scots-Irish founding settlers moved to the frontier in Pennsylvania backcountry (Colin Woodward, American Nations, pp.105-106):
“From their initial stronghold in south central Pennsylvania, the Borderlanders spread south down the mountains on an ancient 800-mile-long Indian trail that came to be known as the Great Wagon Road. This passage led out of Lancaster and York, through Hagerstown (in what is now the western panhandle of Maryland), down the length of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and through the highlands of North Carolina to terminate in what is now Augusta, Georgia. Tens of thousands of Borderlanders and their herds migrated along this trail to new land in the rugged, barely explored Southern upcountry. As Ulster and the Scottish Marches emptied between 1730 and 1750, the population of North Carolina doubled, and then doubled again by 1750. Southwestern Virginia was growing at 9 percent a year, and in the South Carolina backcountry in the 1760s, almost the entire population had come from Pennsylvania or interior Virginia. The Borderlanders may have technically moved into colonies controlled by Tidewater gentry and the great planters of the Deep South, but in cultural terms their Appalachian nation effectively cut Tidewater off from the interior, blocking the West Indian slaveocracy from advancing into the southern uplands. Not until after the revolution would they control any formal governments; places called Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia did not yet exist.”
From Pennsylvania, the Scots-Irish moved south into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley before fanning out down the Appalachians into western Virginia, western North Carolina, upcountry South Carolina, and north Georgia.
They poured out of the Appalachians and rafted down the Ohio River and the Mississippi where Scots-Irish settlers became the dominant ethnic group in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In the Lower Midwest, they colonized southern Ohio, southern Indiana, and southern Illinois.
The Scots-Irish came down the Natchez Trace from Nashville and the Mississippi River from Kentucky from where they settled north Alabama, north Mississippi, northwest Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma. They also moved into Mexico where they fought and won the Texas Revolution.
The map of “Greater Appalachia” above from Colin Woodard’s American Nations underestimates the true extent of the Scots-Irish diaspora in Dixie.
The Scots-Irish clearly made it to the hill country, swamps, and piney woods of south Georgia, south Alabama, south Mississippi, and north Florida. They don’t call the Florida Panhandle the “Redneck Rivieria” for nothing.
It is difficult to exaggerate the Scots-Irish influence in Southern culture, especially in Texas and the Upper South, and their wider impact on America. I haven’t seen any firm numbers given the confusion of the Scots-Irish about their ethnic origins (they identify as “American” on the Census) but it is probable that over half of White Southerners are Scots-Irish in ancestry and most of the rest are from southern and western England and have thoroughly intermarried with them.
McCarthy’s The Other Irish focuses on the Scots-Irish contributions to American culture with separate chapters about origins, guns, religion, patriotism and military service, politics, slavery, music, stock car racing, literature, and NASA:
“Three Frontiersmen and Their Guns” tells the story of the Scots-Irish attachment to their guns through the lives of Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett. The highlights include the Scots-Irish victory at Kings Mountain in the American Revolution, the Creek War in Alabama, Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans, and the Alamo and the Texas Revolution.
“Them That Believe” focuses on how the Scots-Irish frontier experience led to the repudiation of Calvinism, the decline of the Presbyterian Church, and the rise of the Baptists and the Methodists in the South after the Great Awakening. There is also a section on William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Monkey Trial.
“American Solider” discusses the Scots-Irish love of war and their fervent patriotism. The Scots-Irish military honor roll includes Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, U.S. Grant, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Sen. James Webb.
“Government Of, By, and For The Little Guy” focuses on the 14 Scots-Irish presidents that include Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, U.S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman. McCarthy also discusses the arc of the Dixiecrat Rebellion, the demise of the Solid South, and the rise of the Republican Party as a response to the Great Society and the Civil Rights Movement.
“The Abolitionist and the Aristocrat” explains how the Scots-Irish were divided over slavery and secession through the lives of John C. Calhoun and the fiery Scots-Irish abolitionist John Rankin.
“Maybelle and the Mountain” is an excellent chapter about the rise of Nashville and the Scots-Irish folk music which became known as “hillbilly music” in the 1920s and later as “country music.” This is told through the lives of the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Stanley Boys, Hank Williams, Sr., Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton.
I thought the best chapter in the book was “Racing Moonshine” about the origins of NASCAR in the Scots-Irish backwoodsmen who made moonshine in mountains during Prohibition and the Depression and who raced law enforcement officers into cities like Atlanta. See the song “Copperhead Road.”
“American Fairytale” explores the Scots-Irish contribution to American literature from Edgar Allen Poe to Mark Twain to L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz to William Faulkner and Steven King. The Scots-Irish also settled parts of rural New York and New England.
The “New Frontier” focuses on the life of James E. Webb, the administrator who led NASA to victory in the Space Race in the 1960s, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon, who was also of Scots-Irish ancestry.
I found The Other Irish to be an excellent, breezy introduction to a subject of huge importance to understanding Southern culture. It should only take you but a few days to finish this book. I’m looking forward to digesting and reviewing some weightier material on the Scots-Irish in 2013.
Note: I was surprised to learn the origins of the “Man of Constant Sorrow” song from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I will save that though for those who want to read the book.