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The Thistle And The Brier:
Historical Links and Cultural Parallels Between Scotland And Appalachia

by Richard Blaustein


The Thistle And The BrierThis book explores connections and similarities between Scotland and Appalachia from ancient times to the present, concentrating upon cultural revival movements centered around vernacular language, literature and the folk arts. The primary purpose of this book is to show how  Scots and Appalachians in the twentieth century have made creative use of vernacular language, literature and folklore to express and define themselves in their own terms. Hopefully this book will stimulate further discussions of cultural revivals and identity politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Richard Blaustein (B.A., Sociology and Anthropology, Brooklyn College, 1966. M.A., Folklore, Indiana University, 1989, Ph.D., Folklore, Indiana University, 1975) is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Senior Research Fellow of the Center for Appalachian Studies and  Services at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. In 1996, he was a visiting scholar at the School of Scottish Studies and the International Social Sciences Institute of the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his research on Scotland and Appalachia, he is also an internationally known scholar and performer of old-time fiddle and banjo music with numerous publications and recordings to his credit who has performed in the United States, Scotland and the Netherlands.

(excerpted from introduction)

    Prickly plants stubbornly clinging to the stony slopes of marginal uplands, the thistle and the brier are living embodiments of tenacity in the face of adversity.

     The thistle is the ancient national symbol of Scotland, whose motto, translated from the Latin, declares, "None Touch Me With Impunity." Down through the centuries, the thistle has been an enduring symbol of the tenacity of Scottish national identity.    

    Appalachian people share that prickly mixture of pride and defensiveness embodied in the Scottish thistle. Many present-day inhabitants of the Appalachian region of the United States of America proudly claim Scottish ancestry and strongly identify with Scotland to this day.  For roughly a hundred years, the Scottish Connection has been a central theme of American discourse concerning Appalachia.     

    Unlike the thistle, the brier is neither a national nor even a regional identity symbol. Why then did the late Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), a leading contemporary Southern Appalachian poet-scholar-cultural activist, choose to call himself The Brier?

    Deriving his poetic pen name from "brierhopper," a contemptuous synonym for "hillbilly," Miller converted a badge of prickly shame into an emblem of blossoming pride, first stage in healing the fragmented, internally divided identities of subordinated national or regional minorities like Scots or Appalachians. Since the early eighties Miller's "Brier Sermon" has become a primary reference point for Appalachian Studies, comparable in its impact and status to Hugh MacDiarmid's celebrated poem "A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle" (1926) in the discourse of twentieth century Scottish cultural nationalism. Though outwardly different in cadence and accent, "The Brier Sermon" and "A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle" express the same basic human desire for self-definition.

    This book explores connections and parallels between Scotland and Appalachia.  References to Scotland abound in the primary literature of Appalachian Studies, but until I took on this task no one else had taken the time to systematically review the foundation documents of this field to locate, identify and comment upon these Scottish allusions. In Chapter One, I define Appalachia in geological terms, discuss the impact of European colonization on the aboriginal inhabitants of Southern Appalachia, and then proceed to glean the writings of major American commentators on Appalachia published between 1899 and 1936 for Scottish references. The American idea of Appalachia is to a substantial extent grounded in comparisons to Scotland derived from selective, romantic readings of Scottish history and literature by such influential commentators as William Goodell Frost, John Fox, Jr.,  Emma Bell Miles and Horace Kephart. Though largely the descendents of Scottish lowlanders, the people of the Southern Appalachians have been equated with Scottish highlanders in popular and scholarly literature. The romantic haze of the Celtic Twilight continues to confuse perceptions of Appalachian and Scottish highlanders to the present day, despite the best efforts of revisionist regional historians, beginning with John C. Campbell, himself the American-born son of a Scottish highlander. Chapter One ends with a summary of a concise history of Southern Appalachia with a strongly Scotch-Irish emphasis written by Paul Doran, a Presbyterian minister from East Tennessee, published in Mountain Life And Work in 1936, the same year Jim Wayne Miller was born.

    Chapter Two continues with a brief survey of the rise of the present-day Appalachian Studies movement as it has developed in the wake of the War On Poverty initiated during John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson established the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965, including 406 counties in the Appalachian Highland sections of thirteen states from southwestern New York down to northeastern Mississippi, taking in all of West Virginia along with parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. An uneasy and volatile aggregation of scholars and activists drawn from diverse backgrounds, participants in the Appalachian Studies movement have nonetheless found common cause in working to better the lives of the people of a region long seen as out-of-step and out-of-line with the American national mainstream.

    To acquaint my readers with the ideas of some of the leading scholar-activists in Appalachian Studies since the early nineteen seventies concerning Appalachian otherness, the assumption that Southern mountaineers are a people apart from other Americans, I review a set of selected critical essays beginning with founding figures like Helen Lewis, Cratis Williams and Wilma Dykeman and culminating with a detailed survey of Rodger Cunningham's controversial, award-winning book Apples On The Flood (1987). In his ambitious psychohistory of the Scottish people and their Appalachian descendents, Cunningham proposes that the internal division of the contemporary Appalachian psyche can be traced back to waves of invaders subordinating native inhabitants of the Western fringe of Atlantic Europe, culminating in the imposition of English upon Gaels in the lowlands of Scotland in the fourteenth century. While some scholars might argue with Cunningham's chronology, the external imposition of official language and the suppression of native speech ways in culturally depriving schools has undeniably been part of the common experience of Scottish and Appalachian schoolchildren within living memory. Much of the creative activity in Scotland and Appalachia today can be interpreted as cultural therapy promoting "healing of the divided self," through reviving and reinventing indigenous language and literature along with various genres of folk and traditional song, music, and dance.

    Chapter Three was written when I was reconsidering my theoretical assumptions concerning cultural revitalization and seeking to expand beyond my primary concern with revivals of folk and traditional music, which I had investigated in my 1975 doctoral dissertation on the rise of the Old Time Fiddlers Association Movement in the United States. 

    In 1994, I visited and interviewed my old friend Flora MacDonald Gammon of Waynesville, North Carolina, whose family played a key role in initiating the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, now one of the largest Scottish heritage gatherings in North America. Chapter Four presents her life-long involvement with Scottish heritage activities and Appalachian folk revivalism.

    About the same time, I had read Edinburgh University sociologist David McCrone's illuminating book Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of A Stateless Nation (1992) and began to correspond with him via e-mail in 1994. Chapter Five discusses McCrone's book and its implications for understanding identity politics in Appalachia, including a comparison of David McCrone's critique of American sociologist Michael Hechter's application of Immanuel Wallerstein's world systems theory in his book The Celtic Fringe (1975) with Appalachian/Scottish-American sociologist Roberta McKenzie's penetrating analysis of the intellectual history of the concepts of world systems theory and internal colonialism in the discourse of Appalachian Studies since the early 1970s.

    When I visited face-to-face with David McCrone in Edinburgh for the first time in 1995, I had to acknowledge that the Scottish folk revival, though tremendously interesting to me, was only one component of a wider cultural and political movement paralleling the rise of the Appalachian Studies movement in the United States. In  1996, I had the opportunity to talk at length with some of Scotland's leading scholars, artists and activists concerning cultural revivals and identity politics.

    Chapter Six compares Jim Wayne Miller's Brier Sermon with Hugh MacDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle. Chapter Seven presents the late Hamish Henderson's reflections upon the folk revival and its interconnections with poetry and other facets of contemporary Scottish cultural nationalism. Chapter Eight begins with a critique of  Ian McKay's deconstruction of the twentieth century folk revival in Nova Scotia in his book The Quest of The Folk, strongly influenced by Appalachian cultural critic David Whisnant's All Things Native And Fine (1983) and ends by identifying key points of convergence in the careers of cultural leaders in Scotland and Appalachia.

    Chapter Nine documents that many leading figures in Appalachian Studies, like their counterparts in Scottish cultural nationalist circles, have sought to reclaim vernacular speech ways suppressed by colonialistic school teachers intent upon imposing elite linguistic standards.

    Chapter Ten is an edited transcription of a conversation with Joy Hendry, editor and publisher of a major Scottish literary magazine. Her lucid observations concerning poetry as a paradigm for all genres of creative self-expression highlight the central concern of this book: how peripheral people including Scots and Appalachians seek to recover their native voices as they struggle to define themselves in their own terms. This book concludes with reflections on the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament on the first of July 1999 and a call for expanding trans-Atlantic dialogue concerning connections and parallels between Scotland and Appalachia.

North American readers can order this book online from www.mcfarlandpub.com.  In Europe, North Africa and Middle East, contact www.eurospan.co.uk. In Australia and New Zealand, order from www.dadirect.com.au, and in India , www.vivagroupindia.net.


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