Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Podcast Appalachia: "The Scots-Irish"



Hello, you’re listening to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.

Before we begin today, I have a few items I want to cover. First of all, I have received complaints from listeners about the sound quality on this podcast; the music at the beginning is too loud and then my own voice is too quiet. I have made some efforts to correct this, but since it never did this for me, I’m not sure if I’ve been successful. If you have problems with the sound on this episode, please contact me and I’ll try to figure something else out.

Also, in an effort to increase listenership, I have created two Youtube “commercials” for this podcast using photos I took mostly in the Carolina High Country. If you want to see these photos, go to and scroll down, and you should be able to view them.

This podcast also now has a myspace page. If you are on Myspace, please add it as a friend. The page is at

Having gotten these items out of the way, let’s get down to business.

The Scots-Irish have been crucial to defining Appalachian culture even though they probably did not comprise a majority of settlers in most regions. Many early settlers were not Scots-Irish, but German, English, Welsh, and other ethnicities. However, these settlers were mostly absorbed into Scots-Irish culture, which is, as James Webb points out, a highly assimilative culture. This culture was, and remains, the dominant culture of Appalachia.

The Scots-Irish have also been variously stereotyped, and these stereotypes are nearly identical to Appalachian stereotypes. For example, they are often viewed as strongly independent, religious, and family oriented, as well as violent, poorly educated, belligerent and backwards. Certain writers and Hollywood executives have made a fortune selling such images about Appalachians.

The term Scots-Irish is used to describe the Protestant immigrants to America from the Irish province of Ulster. These Protestants were originally Scottish, but had migrated to Ulster in the 17th Century. They are also sometimes referred to as Ulster Scots or Scotch-Irish, although this term is considered by some to be out of favor. Many modern Scots would respond to such a term by stating that Scotch is a drink. Nevertheless, this term is still widely used and has the exact same meaning.

The term is also used to differentiate these people from the wave of mostly Catholic Irish immigrants who came to American during the 19th century as a result of the potato famine. As this later wave of immigrants faced harsh discrimination, it is easy to see why such a differentiation would have been necessary at the time. However, the Scots-Irish were different from these 19th Century Irish immigrants in that they came earlier, were Protestant, and were more influenced by Scottish culture than Irish culture.

To understand the roots of their culture, we must journey back in time thousands of years and thousands of miles, to the hills and heather of Scotland. Although it’s possible that Scotland was inhabited earlier, the first known settlers in modern day Scotland were hunter-gatherers who arrived by 8500 B.C. However, as these settlers had no written language, no records exist, so we can only speculate about them. At some point, perhaps around 700 B.C., a Celtic presence was established in Scotland. As a result, Celtic language and culture became widespread in the country, and certain aspects of this culture are still present today.

Written Scottish history begins with the Romans. From the very beginning, the inhabitants of Scotland were fiercely independent. They caused much trouble for the Romans, who tried and failed to conquer and assimilate them. The Romans would eventually give up their efforts altogether, and simply build a wall to separate them. Hadrian’s Hall, named for the Roman Emperor Hadrian, was constructed in 122 A.D. along the present day English/Scottish border to prevent the Scots from harassing Roman subjects along the frontier.

Hadrian’s Wall had the effect of separating England and Scotland for centuries, thus allowing two distinct cultures to flourish. As a result of this wall, the Scots would be far less influenced by the Saxons than the English, and were able to keep more aspects of Celtic culture alive, although Anglo-Saxons would eventually expand into Scotland, resulting in the main language of lowland Scotland, which was a variation of English.

The Scottish Reformation was another milestone in Scottish culture. Reformer John Calvin, following the lead of Martin Luther, began preaching a rather pessimistic theology that focused on the depravity of human nature, fierce opposition to bishops and other forms of church hierarchy, and the idea that only a few people had been chosen for salvation by God.

Calvin was very influential on a Scottish minister named John Knox, a fire and brimstone orator who was very strongly opposed to the Catholic Church. Knox’s ideas found a sympathetic audience in Scotland, which would eventually become almost universally accepted by the Scots with the embracement of his Presbyterian Church. Scotland formally broke with Rome in 1560.

In 1607 the Scots-Irish as we now know them began to emerge. King James I of England—also known as James VI, King of Scots—came up with a plan to pacify the troublesome realm of Ireland. He opened up land in the Irish province of Ulster for settlement by Protestants. In doing so, he hoped to overwhelm the native Irish and create a buffer against attacks on the English/Scottish mainland.

Many of his subjects took the King’s offer. Although a few of the settlers came from southeastern England, most came from northwestern England and Lowland Scotland. These settlers were hoping for a better life for themselves and also jumped at the opportunity to possess their own land. Unfortunately, they did not find much peace in Ulster. Instead, the found themselves on a violent frontier and faced numerous attacks from the Gaelic-speaking Catholic natives, who were understandably hostile to their new neighbors.

Life in Ulster proved to be not much better than life in their native lands. Land resources became more scarce as more settlers emigrated or were born. The settlers, who were overwhelmingly Presbyterian, also faced persecution from the Episcopal Church of Ireland, the establishment church.

These factors eventually led many of the settlers to consider moving to America. America was sold to them by various people, like North Carolina governor Arthur Dobbs, who was Ulster-born. He worked tirelessly recruiting immigrants for the New World. Ship captains, looking to make a living transporting cargo, also did much to encourage migration, telling takes of vast, uninhabited lands and wild adventures.

The Ulster Scots began leaving Ireland in large numbers in the early 1700s. Most sailed to Philadelphia, although a few entered through Georgia and the Carolinas. Those who arrived in Philadelphia were not well received. They were viewed as backwards. Additionally, population density and scarcity of land on the East Coast led many Scots-Irish immigrants to settle on the Appalachian frontier.

A few Scots-Irish had arrived in the Carolinas or Georgia directly from Ireland. The majority who arrived in Pennsylvania would migrate to the mountainous region in the western portion of the state. From there, they would gradually migrate south, filling the Appalachian Mountains with Scots-Irish settlers.

Some have suggested that the decision to settle in Appalachia was influenced by the fact that the region was similar to their homeland. There might be a little truth in this, but the primarily motivator was the widespread availability of cheap land for farming. To most of the settlers, owning land has always been a major desire.

The Scots-Irish were instrumental in developing the Appalachian backcountry. They also served as a buffer against hostile Native Americans for settlers closer to the coast. Just as they had faced hostile the hostile Irish in Ulster, they settlers now had to fight various skirmishes with the Native Americans. Again, they found themselves being used as a defense for those who despised them.

By the time of the War for Independence, the Scots-Irish were largely isolated in the Appalachian backcountry. However, forces loyal to the British would make a severe tactical error by insulting the mountaineers. Major Patrick Ferguson, himself Scots-Irish, had remained loyal to the British, and used particularly harsh language against his fellow Scots-Irish colonists. He released a prisoner whom he sent across the mountains with a warning to those in Appalachia: if they did not cease all opposition to the British, Ferguson’s army would “march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”

Ferguson’s attitude was not unusual. The British and Tory forces widely viewed these settlers as backwards hillbillies, even referring to them as “mongrels.”

In any event, the Scots-Irish did not take kindly to such attitudes and threats. The Over-Mountain men, as they were called, immediately began gathering their militia troops to meet Ferguson’s challenge. About 1,000 troops marched over the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of Ferguson. On October 7, 1780 they found him on a narrow ridge known as Kings Mountain.

The Battle of Kings Mountain quickly became a route for the patriot mountaineers. In the battle, Ferguson’s army was almost completely annihilated, with about 1,100 of them killed, as opposed to only 28 of the Over-Mountain men killed and 62 wounded. This victory is said to have provided a crucial morale boost for a downtrodden Continental Congress.

After the War for Independence was won, the Scots-Irish mountaineers retained an intense commitment to liberty and a strong disdain for anyone who tried to tell them what to do. Although they were very patriotic, the mountaineers did not hesitate to stand up to their own government when they felt they were being done wrong.

A good example of this is the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1791 the new government was in dire need of revenue to pay off its war debts. The government, at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, passed a tax on distilled spirits. The Scots-Irish had produced forms of what is now called moonshine for generations, dating back to their homeland in Scotland and were disproportionately affected by this law.

Having just fought a war against unjust taxation, many mountaineers were in no mood to oblige their new government. Residents of Appalachian counties from Pennsylvania to Georgia began harassing tax collectors and violent protests were held in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

This unrest continued to escalate to the point of an armed insurrection, which occurred near Pittsburgh in 1794. President George Washington invoked martial law and sent militiamen in to put down the rebellion. The rebellion would then peter out, although opposition to revenuers continues to this day among Appalachian moonshiners.

In the new nation, the Scots-Irish remain strongly independent, and retained their disdain toward elites of any stripe. As a result, they adopted a style of politics known as populism, which loosely means politics centered around the common man, a desire to give “power to the people” and not elites. Just as their ancestors refused to submit to Roman rule two thousand years before, the Scots-Irish refused to submit then—and now.

The most prominent example of Scots-Irish populism comes in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, himself Scots-Irish. In many ways, Jackson was a typical Scots-Irish, if such a thing exists. A rugged individualist with a hot temper, Jackson won the presidency by appealing to common Americans over strong opposition from the wealthy and aristocratic elites of Washington.

From early in their history, religion has played a major role in Scots-Irish culture. Presbyterianism remained a force in the frontiers of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas well into the nineteenth century, although the church’s insistence on seminary-trained clergy would eventually lead to its decline. Although Presbyterianism is no longer the dominant faith of the Scots-Irish, many aspects of its Calvinist roots are present in other churches, such as hostility toward hierarchy, Calvinism, fundamentalist leanings, revivals, and a belief in predestination.

One of the most significant ways the Scots-Irish have contributed to America has been in the military. Fierce warriors, the Scots-Irish have played a crucial role in every American war from the War for Independence to the War on Terror. When asked what race made the best warriors, General Robert E. Lee did not hesitate: “the Scots who came to this country by way of Ireland” was his response. Andrew Jackson, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, U.S. Grant, George Patton, and David Hackworth are but a few examples of great military leaders of Scots-Irish descent.

It’s also interesting to note that at least 13 American presidents have been of Scots-Irish descent, and the number is perhaps as high as 23. Among them are notables such as Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, U.S. Grant, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Barring some dramatic, unforeseen event our next president will be of Scots-Irish descent as well, as John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton can all claim Scots-Irish ancestry.

Although they have not always been recognized, the Scots-Irish have contributed in immeasurable ways to our country. Their culture remains dominant in Appalachia; but all American owe them a debt of gratitude for their continuing efforts in securing liberty for our nation.

The sources for this podcast are the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell; Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, by James Webb; and Two Continents One Culture: The Scotch-Irish in Southern Appalachia, by Stephen Brown, Elizabeth Hirschman, and Pauline MacLaran.

That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. A transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.


Vol Abroad said...

sound was good for me - music and voice levels seemed in balance.

MK Stover said...

I love these posts (I don't listen; I read)! Thank you!

tipper said...

As always loved it! Very interesting. Thanks for making it available to read as well as to listen.

John Norris Brown said...

Thanks everyone! I really appreciate it.