Origin of the Term "Scotch-Irish"

Monday, June 10, 2013 - by Chuck Hamilton

Two of the most famous Irishmen of Scottish descent are former MP (Member of Parliament), former IRA (Irish Republican Army) Volunteer, and Long Kesh prison hunger striker Bobby Sands, and current president of Sinn Fein and SF deputy to the Irish parliament from Co. Louth, former MP, and former OC (Officer Commanding) of the IRA’s Northern Command, as well as my very distant cousin, Gerry Adams.

Not exactly what comes to mind when one hears the term “Scotch-Irish”, or “Scots-Irish” as most latter day proponents of the phrase and the idea now write.  A reason often given for the change is that Scotch comes from a bottle while Scots don’t, but Scots almost always use the word “whisky” (no “e”) when discussing the beverage rather than the other word.

 Bobby was descended from an English family which migrated to the Lowlands of Scotland in the early 1400’s before relocating to the northern Irish province of Ulster in the 1600’s.  Gerry descends from some of the MacAdams of Galloway, a sept of the notorious Clan Gregor, who likewise crossed west over the Irish Sea to Ulster during the Plantations.  According to Gerry’s bio he is related to the political Adams family of the early United States which produced the country’s second and sixth presidents, as are the Adams from whom I am descended that were among the first settlers of the original Warren County in Tennessee.

 Of course, the term “Scots-Irish” refers to those in America while their counterparts in Northern Ireland most often use the term “Ulster Scots” to describe themselves.  The problem in both cases is that those referred to are often more English-Irish, Welsh-Irish, Dutch-Irish, Flemish-Irish, etc., than they are Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots.

 In my grammar school years, I grew up thinking of myself as Scotch-Irish.  This is what I was told when I asked, in spite of the fact that I was also told that the Hicks and the Buchanans were Dutch.  The Hamiltons were said to be English, and we knew from research done by Uncle Dick that the Stewarts are of Scottish origin. 

 Uncle Dick liked to translate the Scottish royal motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit” as “Don’t let the bastards get you”, but the motto literally translates as “No one provokes me with impunity”.  In Latin, Uncle Dick’s English translation would actually be “Non illegitimi ite”.

 Later I learned from cursory research that the Hamiltons are from Scotland; research, by the way, inspired by the miniseries “Roots”.  I found the same origin for the Buchanans, and that the Hicks were originally from England.  Further research after by an admission of my grandfather that my putative Hamilton great-grandfather was actually a step-great-grandfather of sorts led me to the knowledge that my true ancestors (by DNA) were MacConroys from Co. Galway in the western Ireland province of Connacht, nearly all of whom anglicized their name to King even in the old country.

But that realization came more than two decades later, and in the meantime I had thought of myself as Scottish-American.  When I saw the 1995 movie “Braveheart”, I cried when Wallace was hanged, drawn, and quartered, loving the movie so much that I forgave its numerous historical inaccuracies.  I even put “Scottish-American” as my ethnic identity on the long census form in 2000, which caused a major spat with my then girlfriend from Co. Clare.

Speaking of inaccuracies, the actual William Wallace wouldn’t have worn a kilt any more than Abolhassan Banisadr wore women’s clothing while escaping from the Islamic Republic of Iran ahead of the regime’s assassins in 1981, as those in power (including many “reformists”) accused him of doing at the time.  Kilts weren’t even developed until the 1500’s, over two centuries after Wallace’s execution. 

Three decades later, the former president of Iran did don a hijab in support of student activist Majid Tavakoli in December 2009 when the regime tried to shame Majid by parading him before TV cameras dressed in women’s clothing.  It was part of the international “I Am Majid” campaign in which I also took part that later morphed into a “Men In Hijab” campaign in support of equal rights for women in Iran.

Partially inspired by the Braveheart movie, I joined the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in 1997, the year of the 500th anniversary of Wallace’s and Andrew Murray’s victory against the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.  The SNP now forms the government in the devolved Scotland.  I stayed a member until membership was discontinued for all non-UK citizens.  By the time that happened, though, I was a member of the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement (SRSM), which left SNP to join the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) at around the same time.

After a lot of research during the decade and a half following my return from the Philippines in 1992, the realization hit me:  I’m not Scottish-American at all, but Irish-American, no matter how many of the families from which I descend originated in Scotland before migrating to Ireland.  Nearly all my European ancestors came to this hemisphere and to this continent from the Emerald Isle.  Where their ancestors had been before Ireland is irrelevant; here they were considered Irish-American.  They came in two waves, first, in the Great Migrations of the 18th century, and, second, in the migrations of the 1840’s during the Great Irish (Potato) Famine.

Being Irish-American rather than Scottish-American does not mean that I have to give up being proud of the Scottish heritage my ancestors brought with them to Ireland, however.  Nor does it mean I have to give up activity on behalf of Scottish independence.

Until the 1840’s, nearly everyone descended from ancestors from Ireland considered their family Irish, if American.  For example, Doc Holliday (upon whom Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell based Rhett Butler), descended from Irish Presbyterians, considered himself every bit as much Irish as did his cousin and first love, Mary McCarthy, descended from Irish Catholics, who later became Sister Mary Melody (upon whom Mitchell, cousin to both, based Melanie Hamilton).

Irish Protestants formed the backbone of the rebellion in America that ultimately became a revolution to set up a “new order for the ages”.  While referred to on very rare occasions as “Scotch-Irish”, these Patriots most often called “ Irish Protestants” or “Irish Presbyterians” made up anywhere from half to three-quarters of Patriot forces, just as they made up around two-thirds of the immigrants from Ireland in the Great Migrations of the 18th century.

Immigrants from Scotland directly, Scottish-Americans, in particular those Highlanders sentenced to penal “transportation” into indentured servitude in the New World after the Jacobite Risings of the first half of the 18th century (1708, 1715, 1719, 1745), were paradoxically more inclined to be Loyalists during the Revolution.  And this was in spite of overtures by Alexander Hamilton’s circle to Bonnie Prince Charlie and other Jacobites in Europe.

Take John McDonald and Daniel Ross, for example, along with John and Henry Stuart, Alexander Cameron, Alexander Macgillivray, and William Mackintosh, all of whom fought alongside the Cherokee and Creek allied with the British during the war and then the Spanish in the war’s aftermath.

Back in the mother country, by the way, it was Irish Protestants (two Anglicans and nine Presbyterians) who founded the Society of United Irishmen under the mentorship of English-born Thomas Paine, the first organization of the Irish republicanism to which Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams are heirs.

Irish-Americans happily and proudly called themselves Irish within the context of being American (vis-à-vis English-American, German-American, Dutch-American, etc.) regardless of their ethnic origin within the Irish context until the poor, despondent, starving Irish fleeing the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s began flooding into America’s northern ports-of-entry.  Seeking to distance themselves from “these” Irish, the descendants of more temporally distant arrivals began calling themselves “Scotch-Irish”.  But the term stayed in the North until early in the next century.

Meanwhile, the planter aristocracy which dominated the ante-bellum South became mired in the affectation of itself as the nobility in Walter Scott’s various historical romances.  Given this influence, the same aristocracy leaned toward the idea that they were Scottish.  That’s how the largest post-bellum paramilitary group resisting Reconstruction came to be called the Ku Klux KLAN.  Its organization and practice had more to do with secret fraternities, though, than with anything Scottish, the sole connection being the third part of the name.

Only in the early 20th century did people in the South pick up the term Scotch-Irish.  Southern Baptist minister Thomas Dixon’s highly popular Reconstruction trilogy and the plays adapted from its three novels were then sweeping the region, and the country.  To Dixon’s trilogy belong the novels The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902), The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klu Klan (1905), and The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire (1907). 

The trilogy’s central book became a hugely popular play that pioneering film-maker D. W. Griffith turned into the 1915 ground-breaking epic “The Birth of a Nation”.  The film amplified many of the myths originating with the novel, such as cross-burning, the use of white robes, and the idea that the KKK was an altruistic group of latter day “knights” (in the actual organization ordinary members were called “ghouls”) fighting for justice against outside oppressors.  Its protagonists were the Scottish-origin Cameron family of South Carolina.

Released in February that year, the movie helped inspire the organization of the anti-Jewish Knights of Mary Phagan.  Phagan was a thirteen-year old mill worker found strangled and raped in an isolated part of the factory in which she worked in 1913.  A factory superintendent, Leo Frank, a Jewish-American born in Texas whose family had come there from Brooklyn, New York, was accused of the crime.

Aware of the books and plays popularity, Georgia politician and former Representative Thomas Watson, who as a leader of the Populist Party had previously campaigned for cooperation between poor whites and poor blacks against the wealthy elite, began crying for a return of the Ku Klux Klan.  The case and attacks on Frank as a Jew led, in turn, to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai Brith. 

Prominent Chattanooga attorney Lewis Shepherd, who had earlier taken part in the defense of Ed Johnson (lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906), took part in Frank’s legal defense, by the way.  Adolph Ochs, our city’s former resident native who published The Chattanooga Times before moving to New York City to take over The New York Times, became Frank’s staunchest defender in the press.

The Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapped Frank from Milledgeville Prison and took him to Marietta for his lynching 16 August 1915.  Three months later, they met on top of Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta and burned a cross in imitation of Griffith’s film.  On Thanksgiving, they fired up another as they inaugurated the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, with a transplanted Indiana native, William J. Simmons, as their leader.

It was in this time period and with this background that the term “Scotch-Irish” came into widespread use here in the South.  The Knights of the KKK soon spread throughout the South and then the rest of the country, and even across our northern border into Canada with the organization of the Royal Riders of the Red Robe.  “Scotch-Irish” in the South meant white, Protestant, non-Catholic, non-Jewish, native-born, prohibitionist, and Christian Dominionist, the same way the term “Anglo-Saxon” was used in the North at the time.

Dixon, it should be pointed out, was highly offended by the new organization, with its anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic positions and publicly repudiated it.  Griffith, taken aback by what his movie inspired, released the even more elaborate and more expensive four-part “Intolerance” in 1916.  He became one of the four founders of United Artists (along with Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford) in 1919.

The term “Scotch-Irish”, or rather “Scots-Irish”, no longer, or at least only rarely, has such a racist connotation any longer but it is still not very accurate.  For example, David Crockett, the former Tennessee Congressman who died at the Alamo, is often called Scots-Irish but his ancestors before Ireland were actually French Hugenots.  Like my Hicks and Tittle and Case ancestors who came to America from Ulster and are often mistakenly called Scots-Irish but arrived in Ireland directly from northern England.  In any case, the term only has real meaning only in the context of Ireland, where the currently preferred term is “Ulster Scots”, often simply a codeword for Protestant (vis-a-vis Catholic). 

By contrast, descendants of the Irish who flooded into Glasgow during its industrial heyday are, accurately, called Irish-Scots.  Such as the famous ardent Scottish nationalist Sean Connery, for example.  Or the Edinburgh native who became a hero to the working people of Scotland, Ireland, and America and ultimately died for the cause of Irish independence, James Connelly.

The current popular ethnic buzzword (or phrase) carrying the same connotations as the early 20th century use of the term “Scotch-Irish” is “Anglo-Celtic”, a euphemism with even less real concrete meaning than “Scotch-Irish”.

Chuck Hamilton



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