Ulster Scots

Ulster Scots

I was recently reading Charles Frazier´s novel “Cold Mountain”, a fine piece of writing that has become a classic of modern American literature since it was published in 1997.

It is about a wounded Southern soldier during the Civil War – or War of the States if you prefer* – who turns his back on the battlefield and heads back across the Blue Ridge Mountains to find a woman he met four years earlier.

The hero is the strong silent type and book reflects the sentimental feelings Americans have their national character and nostalgia for their history.

One of the recurring themes of the book is the key role played by fiddle music brought to that part of America by settlers from Ulster who were mainly Scots or of Scottish descent.

The Americans call this group that we call the Ulster Scots the “Scotch Irish”. They were a hardy lot who opened up large parts of the emerging US by fighting the Indians just as their ancestors had fought the native Irish at the time of the plantations in Ulster.

Although these settlers hated the Irish for their Catholicism, they also hated the English whom they regarded as exploiters and a threat to their Presbyterian faith.

Once in America, they became fervent supporters of the fight against British rule and provided troops, senior officers and political leaders, including a large number of US Presidents.

“Cold Mountain” does not use the term “Scotch Irish” but there are several references to the characters´ Celtic ancestry, the origin of their music, their fondness for whisky and their religion for the reader to know the author has them in mind.

By contrast, many of the Highlanders whose ancestors constantly opposed English rule and were decimated at Culloden ended up in the US and Canada where they became loyal subjects of the Hanoverians.

Indeed Highland regiments were among the British forces fighting the American revolutionary army led by Washington which, in turn, had a huge number of “Scotch Irish” on its side.

Highlanders took part in the storming of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in 1759 only 14 years after Culloden. (Just to add to the confusion, there were also Scots Jacobites among the French forces.)

These two different attitudes have always puzzled me.

On one hand, people who shared the Protestant faith with the English (albeit a different sort of Protestantism) ended up fighting against them to obtain their freedom in another country. On the other, Scots who were mainly Catholic Gaelic speakers and had fought against the English at home ended up as their strongest allies abroad.

Another puzzling aspect is that the descendants of Scottish settlers in today´s Northern Ireland are among the strongest defenders of the UK. Some of their political and religious leaders have urged Scots to vote no in the independence referendum.

Their forebears fought for American independence yet they feel today´s Scots should resist independence.

This dichotomy cannot simply be explained by blaming classic English divide and rule policies.

Perhaps it reflects the inconsistency of the Scot who can have two different natures at the same time, like Robert Louis Stevenson´s Jekyll and Hyde.

As Alan Bold so memorably wrote in “Modern Scottish Literature” published in 1983: “Although Scotland is not officially an independent state, Scottishness is a recognized state of mind: sometimes an independent state of mind, occasionally a theocratic state of mind, frequently a confused state of mind. The Scot is sufficiently unsure of his independence to assert it aggressively. The extremism of the Scot, which ranges from lachrymose sentimentality to vicious brutality and from cosy domesticity to disorderly drunkenness, is evidence of uncertainty. Scottish literature tries to make artistic sense of this confusion.”

Obviously, it will be impossible to alter a national trait like this in the run-up to the referendum but it is a psychological factor that the nationalist side will have to contend with.

*The Confederate flag was based on the Saltire incidentally.


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