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Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish: What's in a Name (Page 3)

An Essay by Michael Montgomery, University of South Carolina

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While Scotch-Irish was certainly cultivated in the nineteenth century by descendants of Protestants to emphasize their Protestantism, this hardly means that it was used only in this way. In his autobiography written in the 1870s, Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey, a founder of the East Tennessee Historical Society, wrote that "My paternal grandfather was Reynolds Ramsey. It is believed that his parents were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and that his father on coming to America settled at New-Castle, Delaware."33 It seems unlikely that Ramsey was here using the term in any sense other than an objective one for a person of Presbyterian heritage whose ancestors came from Ireland. Scotch-Irish may have been used elsewhere by some, particularly in eastern cities, to avoid the label Irish, but as a neutral term it must historically have had, as it still has, considerable currency in places like East Tennessee and the American interior.34

On this basis and also given the earlier record, it is unreasonable either to dismiss the established term Scotch-Irish, which has had good standing for many generations in many parts of the United States, because some may have used it to express prejudice and to substitute for it Scots-Irish, which has much poorer historical support and justification. Scotch-Irish has recently been sanctioned by authoritative reference volumes like Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups and American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation.35 Both have an entry on the Scotch-Irish (not the Scots-Irish) for the eighteenth-century, mainly Presbyterian immigrant stream from Ulster. With regard to the field of genealogy, one notes the pertinent electronic discussion list named (there is no Scots-Irish-L). The Scotch-Irish Society of the United States of America, founded in 1889, has a number of state chapters and publishes an annual journal, the Journal of Scotch-Irish Studies (there is no Scots-Irish Society).

It is sometimes argued that, however much it may have been used in the past, Scotch-Irish is no longer appropriate, because people in Scotland now call themselves Scots, not Scotch, and some people in Ulster call themselves Ulster Scots. Thus, according to this logic, we should replace Scotch-Irish by Scots-Irish. So goes the argument, but let us examine these assertions. It is true that many—probably most—in Scotland today apply Scots to themselves and to the language they speak and that this usage is frequent in writing and in middle-class speech, but a closer look at the history of Scots and related forms is revealing. The on-line Dictionary of the Scots Language cites twenty-nine variant forms and spellings before 1700, but the four of primary interest here (and historically the most prevalent) are Scottis, Scottish, Scotch, and Scots.36 Given this diversity of forms and that their histories overlap, our discussion of them must be simplified somewhat.

Scottis dates from 1375 and was the most common form in Scotland until the seventeenth century. In the sixteenth century it was contracted to Scots and pronounced as one syllable. Dating from as early as 900, Scottish was the earliest form in England and was likewise reduced to one syllable, i.e. Scotch, by the sixteenth century. Under the cultural influence of England, Scotch entered Scotland and became dominant there in the eighteenth century, but people there have long felt, quite accurately, that it was an English form. This view supported its usage when Scots were keen to follow English models, but in the nineteenth century Scotch began gradually falling into disfavor, so much so that many in Scotland now consider it patronizing. Today it is quite often avoided in favor of Scots.

Whatever the attitudes against Scotch may be in Scotland today, it penetrated the speech of the country deeply and remains a subject of periodic and sometimes passionate comment, and there is much evidence that it was not simply replaced by Scots. Writing in the first issue of Scotia: The Journal of the St. Andrew Society in 1907, the editor addressed the terminological issue of whether the publication would use the adjective Scotch, Scottish, or Scots. While granting that "in the opinion of my colleagues, the adjective 'Scotch' and its compounds 'Scotchman' and 'Scotchwoman', are essentially un-Scottish, and altogether to be avoided" and that "of late years there has been a growing tendency to use 'Scots'," the editor had "always regarded [this tendency] as simply a literary renascence; I might almost say an affectation. My strong conviction is that the great majority of my fellow-countrymen habitually employ 'Scotch-man' and 'Scotch' in their daily conversation; occasionally varied by the use of 'Scottish' in more familiar and homely associations."37 Further, the Concise Scots Dictionary (s.v. Scots A) cites Scotch as "still the regular vernacular form" in the latter half of the twentieth century.38 So Scotch has by no means disappeared in Scotland.

All this pertains to Scotland. What is most important for us in the United States is that, because Scotch was well-nigh universal in England, Scotland, and Ireland in the eighteenth century, it was the form that immigrated and was the natural basis for the compound noun Scotch-Irish in America. This is why during that period Scottish-Irish was unknown and Scots-Irish was much less frequent than Scotch-Irish.

And what about Ulster? Scotch was the principal form there too, and Scots was rare until well into the nineteenth century (the term Ulster Scot(s) apparently dates from around 1870 39). For example, the 1838 Ordnance Survey memoir for the Parish of Templepatrick in southwest County Antrim reported that "a great portion of [the inhabitants] are of Scotch origin and they all have a good deal of Scotch manner and accent."40 In 1880 a compiler of traditional vocabulary in County Antrim and County Down stated that "in some districts in the east of the two counties people still talk a Scotch dialect, but with a modified Scotch accent; the old people talk more 'broadly' than the young,"41 and at the turn of the twentieth century, men in western Ulster hiring themselves out as farm workers spoke of "going up till the Lag[g]an, to lift the Scotch," i.e. to the River Laggan to learn English.42

Even today Scots is not the traditional term in rural Ulster, where Scotch is used in reference to people and their form of speech. This fact is recognized by the names Ulster-Scotch Leid Societie and Boord o Ulster-Scotch, also known by their formal English equivalents, Ulster-Scots Language Society and Ulster-Scots Agency. In that Scots is the more recent term in both Scotland and Ireland, we see that the gentleman who confronted me at the book reception was not entirely in touch with his own background or with the Ulster countryside (nor, perhaps, was the author of the book being launched). Or maybe he did not appreciate (or want to appreciate) that Scotch-Irish refers to an American group, that it is the term generally used in the United States, and that Americans have a right and a prerogative to refer to that group in whatever manner they might see fit because it is an American group. He was not alone in Northern Ireland in preferring Scots-Irish. Other retellings of the story of Ulster immigration to America have also done so, such as the On Eagle's Wing musical drama that debuted in Belfast in May 2004. Usage in Northern Ireland remains divided, however. The Ulster-Scot, the occasional newspaper insert from the Ulster-Scots Agency, normally uses Scots-Irish, but reprints material (such as feature stories from the Knoxville News-Sentinel) having Scotch-Irish, and it also uses both Ulster-Scots and Ulster-Scotch.

The claim that Scotch is properly used only for the drink has moved well beyond teetotalers and those of religious sensitivity on the issue. One rarely sees the usage prescription in print, though Kennedy's books are an exception (he states that because of the association between Scotch and alcohol, Scotch-Irish "causes offence" to many on both sides of the Atlantic 43). That Scotch-Irish is the long-standing historical form in America and that American usage has priority if the group being referred to is an American one do not seem to matter to those holding this view about avoiding Scotch-Irish, which is essentially one of political correctness. From an American point of view, people in Scotland and Ireland are welcome to call the group on their side of the water Scots, but they should be neither indignant nor resentful when Americans use a more historical term incorporating the older form Scotch to refer to their own ancestry. Nor should they insinuate that Americans should change their usage to suit people in the old country, any more than that Edinboro (Pennsylvania) should be respelled as Edinburgh because that's the spelling in Scotland. Like Scotch-Irish, these are all proper names, whether of people or places, are etched into the permanent record (just as is Scotch Street in Dungannon and Portadown, Northern Ireland); they are not like common words whose meaning and pronunciation may change from generation to generation.

Nor does it seem to matter to those who favor Scots-Irish that it is quite fallacious to assert that a term can or should be restricted to only one meaning. Irish refers to both a people and a language, as do countless other terms. If Scotch is to be reserved for only the drink and to be replaced in compound nouns whose centuries-long history can be documented because the word by itself is "offensive," by this logic we should enjoy butterscots candy or use Scots tape. Context almost always indicates which meaning of a word is appropriate in a particular instance. Scotch is rarely ambiguous.

Thus, many reasons and factors legitimate and favor Scotch-Irish. It has been used for more than three centuries and has a much better historical claim than Scots-Irish. It had considerable currency before the late-nineteenth century and was more prevalent in the colonial period than Leyburn suspected. Further digging into the record may produce even more reason to question his belief that his citations "practically complete the colonial list."44 Further, Scotch has been the traditional term for people of Scottish ancestry or tradition in both Ulster and Scotland, and to some extent it is still used. Logical reasons to avoid Scotch-Irish are hard to find.

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