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Scottish Hillbillies and Rednecks

By Todd J. Wilkinson, FSA Scot.

Many words commonly used in America today such as Hillbillies and Rednecks have their origins in our Scottish 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.

HILLBILLY (Hillbillies)

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.

William of Orange

William of Orange

Greyfriars Kirk Yard

 The signing of the National Covenant, Greyfriar's Kirkyard, 1638  

Supporters of King William were known as “Orangemen” and "Billy Boys" and their North American counterparts were soon referred to as "hillbillies". 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".  

Stories abound of American National Guard units from Southern states being met upon disembarking in Britain during the First and Second World Wars with the tune, much to their displeasure! One of these stories comes from Colonel Ward Schrantz, a noted  historian, Carthage Missouri native, and veteran of the Mexican Border Campaign, as well as the First and Second World Wars, documented a story where the US Army's 30th Division, made up of National Guard units from Georgia, North and South Carolina and Tennessee arrived in the United Kingdom…”a waiting British band broke into welcoming American music, and the soldiery, even the 118th Field Artillery and the 105 Medical Battalion from Georgia, broke into laughter. 

The excellence of intent and the ignorance of the origins of the American music being equally obvious. The welcoming tune was “Marching Through Georgia.”

REDNECKS

The origins of this term Redneck 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.

Many Covenanters signed in their own blood and wore red pieces of cloth around their necks as distinctive insignia; hence the term "Red neck", (rednecks) 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 - Rednecks?

*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 countryside.

CRACKER

Another Ulster-Scot term, a "cracker" was a person who talked and boasted, and "craic" (Crack) 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.

GRINGO

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.”

Another account of Gringo from Tom Mathews

 

"Gringo" is a corrected form of griego as used in the ancient Spanish expression "hablar en griego", that is, to speak an unintelligible language or "to speak Greek." Which is also a Latin expression “Graecum est; non potest legi” (It is Greek; it cannot be read).

Verification: Diccionario Castellano of 1787 noted that in Malaga "foreigners who have a certain type of accent which keeps them from speaking Spanish easily and naturally" were referred to as gringos, and the same term was used in Madrid, particularly for the Irish.

 

As you can see the word gringo was documented in Spanish dictionaries long before the Spanish (Mexican) American war.

Sources

Adamson, 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 Press, 1989.

McWhiney, Grady. Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Personal Interview, Mr. Bill Carr, Ayrshire native and member, Celtic Society of the Ozarks, January 2001.

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.

 

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