Todd J. Wilkinson
Vice-President, Celtic Society of the Ozarks
Many words commonly used in
America today have their origins in our Celtic roots. While the following
three terms are associated today with the American South and southern
culture, their origins are distinctly Scottish and Ulster-Scottish
(Scots-Irish), and date to the mass immigration of Scottish Lowland and
Ulster Presbyterians to America during the 1700’s.
The origin of this American
nickname for mountain folk in the Ozarks and in Appalachia comes from
Ulster. Ulster-Scottish (The often incorrectly labeled “Scots-Irish”)
settlers in the hill-country of Appalachia brought their traditional music
with them to the new world, and many of their songs and ballads dealt with
William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II of the
Stuart family at the Battle of the Boyne, Ireland in 1690.
of King William were known as “Orangemen” and "Billy Boys" and their North
American counterparts were soon referred to as "hill-billies". It is
interesting to note that a traditional song of the Glasgow Rangers
football club today begins with the line, "Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the
Billy Boys!" and shares its tune with the famous American Civil War song,
"Marching Through Georgia". There are many reports of Southern National
Gaurd units being serenaded with this tune, much to their chagrin, upon
arriving in the British Isles during the First and Second World Wars, as
the tune is very popular with British and Commonwealth military bands!
The origins of this term are
Scottish and refer to supporters of the National Covenant and The Solemn
League and Covenant, or "Covenanters", largely Lowland Presbyterians, many
of whom would flee Scotland for Ulster (Northern Ireland) during
persecutions by the British Crown. The Covenanters of 1638 and 1641 signed
the documents that stated that Scotland desired the Presbyterian form of
church government and would not accept the Church of England as its
official state church..
Covenanters signed in their own blood and wore red pieces of cloth around
their necks as distinctive insignia; hence the term "Red neck", which
became slang for a Scottish dissenter*. One Scottish immigrant,
interviewed by the author, remembered a Presbyterian minister, one Dr.
Coulter, in Glasgow in the 1940's wearing a red clerical collar -- is this
symbolic of the "rednecks"?
Since many Ulster-Scottish
settlers in America (especially the South) were Presbyterian, the term was
applied to them, and then, later, their Southern descendants. One of the
earliest examples of its use comes from 1830, when an author noted that
"red-neck" was a "name bestowed upon the Presbyterians." It makes you
wonder if the originators of the ever-present "redneck" joke are aware of
the term’s origins?
*Another term for
Presbyterians in Ireland was a "Blackmouth". Members of the Church of
Ireland (Anglicans) used this as a slur, referring to the fact that one
could tell a Presbyterian by the black stains around his mouth from eating
blackberries while at secret, illegal Presbyterian Church Services in the
Another Ulster-Scot term, a
"cracker" was a person who talked and boasted, and "craic" is a term still
used in Scotland and Ireland to describe "talking", chat or conversation
in a social sense ("Let’s go down to the pub and have a craic"; "what's
the craic"). The term, first used to describe a southerner of
Ulster-Scottish background, later became a nickname for any white
southerner, especially those who were uneducated.
And while not an exclusively
Southern term, but rather referring in general to all Americans, the
origins of this word are related to the other three.
Often used in Latin America to
refer to people from the United States, “gringo” also has a Scottish
connection. The term originates from the Mexican War (1846-1848), when
American Soldiers would sing Robert Burns’s “Green Grow the Rashes, O!”,
or the very popular song “Green Grows the Laurel” (or lilacs) while
serving in Mexico, thus inspiring the locals to refer to the Yankees as
“gringos”, or “green-grows”. The song “Green Grows the Laurel” refers to
several periods in Scottish and Ulster-Scottish history; Jacobites might
“change the green laurel for the “bonnets so blue” of the exiled Stewart
monarchs of Scotland during the Jacobite Rebellions of the late 1600’s –
early 1700’s. Scottish Lowlanders and Ulster Presbyterians would change
the green laurel of James II in 1690 for the “Orange and Blue” of William
of Orange, and later on, many of these Ulstermen would immigrate to
America, and thus “change the green laurel for the red, white and blue.”
Ian. The Ulster People: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Bangor, Northern
Ireland: Petani Press, 1991.
Bruce, Duncan. The Mark of the
Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy,
Literature and the Arts. Secaucus, New Jersey: Birch Lane Press, 1997.
Fischer, David Hackett.
Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University
McWhiney, Grady. Cracker
Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
Personal Interview, Mr. Bill
Carr, Ayrshire native and member, Celtic Society of the Ozarks, January
Stevenson, James A.C.
SCOOR-OOT: A Dictionary of SCOTS Words and Phrases in Current Use. London:
The Athlone Press, 1989.
Walsh, Frank, and the 12th
Louisiana String Band. Songs of the Celtic South album, 1991.