Book Review: The Scotch-Irish: A Social History

The Scotch-Irish:  A Social History, by James G. Leyburn

As someone who has a great deal of Scot-Irish in my background, which is evident in my light skin with freckles, I picked this book up as a way of reading about the social history of one of the prominent elements of my own background.  Given that this book was published more than 50 years ago, it manages to avoid many of the bad clichés of contemporary social history [1], although the author freely admits that even in his own time social history was viewed as being a place for ethnic stereotypes, whereas today social history is known for being the haven of Marxists writing about class warfare.  And, to be sure, this book is on the front end of that curve, being an effort to present the Scotch-Irish as the quintessential material for the transmission of a middle-class culture without a great deal of aesthetic pleasure.  For all of the book’s dodgy class ideas, it offers something worthwhile for those readers who wish to know more about the Scot-Irish population of the United States, for it should be noted that the Scotch-Irish are known that only in the United States, and, it should be noted, largely as a way of separating the Scot-Irish from the Catholic Irish.  There’s nothing like a desire to separate oneself from the stain of vile popery than to come up with an awkward hyphenated identity, after all.

The contents of this book are focused on areas where people do not know much about Scot-Irish history.  The following questions are explored by the author, and they are questions that people, whether they are of Scot-Irish heritage of not, might actually have:  What was Scottish life like before the union with England?  What led Scots to leave their homeland to settle in Northern Ireland?  Why did many of the Northern Irish Protestants then leave for the American colonies?  Where did the Scot-Irish settle?  How and when did they get their name?  How did they get a reputation for being rebels?  These are worthy questions—and the author does a good job at answering those questions, giving answers that many readers will not likely know, and answers that are truly very interesting—examining the rise of bourgeois American culture, the negative effects of the planter elite on the political legitimacy of the American patriot regime in the Carolinas, and the uncertain relationship between the Irish immigrants and the more staid and responsible German immigrants who also make a lot of my background also.  Apparently the two did not greatly mix at first and settled in neighboring valleys and counties with a bit of bad blood between them.

So, although the book is not a perfect, and even if its class consciousness is a bit forced and even if it does not include as much information about the conflict that the Scot-Irish had their native neighbors whose land they appropriated as I would prefer.  The author even avoids talking about some of the obvious matters of Scot-Irish effects on the United States, like the rise of Jackson, for example.  The author discusses the transit of Scot-Irish from Ulster to rural Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and then figures the Scotch-Irish as having been sufficiently diluted into the generic American identity that that they were not a distinctive element of their own.  That is not something I completely buy, since making fun of freckled gingers or sandy-haired people is still a phenomenon even apart from any Catholic questions.  There are still jokes about whether gingers have souls, and jokes about freckles making black skin if they were all combined together.  I still hear these jokes, and hear them made about others.  So no, the Scotch-Irish are still a distinctive element even without the clan identity of Highland Scots, and even without the Catholic identity of the Southern Irish.  Of course, the book is already over 300 pages and giving a proper history of the Scotch-Irish that continues beyond independence would have made the book even longer, but also likely even more enjoyable.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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