Guess who's not Gaelic

  Dear HCN,

Lisa Jones' profile of Jim Catron describes quite accurately the philosophy and attitudes of one of several British cultures that reached what is now the United States during the 17th and 18th centuries (HCN, 3/13/00: The last Celtic warlord lives in New Mexico). But the one thing that Jim Catron's culture is not now, and never has been, is Celtic. It has been called various things - Scotch-Irish, Borderer, backcountry, southern highland. Its people came from the Border country between England and Scotland, as Lisa Jones describes, and their genetic makeup undoubtedly included Celtic elements, but they were not culturally identified with the Scottish Highlanders, and their language was not a Gaelic one. South of the Border they spoke an English dialect; north of it they spoke Scots, a language with many of the same roots as English.

Beginning in the 17th century, thousands of Borderers settled in northern Ireland. In this they were abetted by the dire economic conditions in their homeland, and the active encouragement of the British government centered in London, which, in its centuries-long campaign to conquer Ireland, found the Borderers a convenient buffer population. In Ireland, the Borderers continued their cultural pursuits of cattle rustling and guerrilla warfare, this time against the native Irish tribes, who were Gaelic-speaking Celts. This was the beginning of the great hatred between Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, a feud which has about as much to do with religion as a stuffed turkey has to do with art.

Early in the 18th century, northern Ireland's British rulers grew alarmed at the rising prosperity and religious nonconformism of the Borderers (who were mostly Presbyterians). They proceeded to tax their businesses, seize their lands, and persecute them for not attending Anglican services. The Borderers began to leave for America in large numbers.

As the new immigrants arrived in ports like Philadelphia, the Puritans and Quakers - representatives of two other British cultures - looked upon these uncouth, rough-speaking people with horror and were delighted when they moved into the backcountry, there to become a buffer against the powerful Eastern Indian tribes. The Borderers were happy to do this. They liked living alone. This is Jim Catron's culture, as it was the natal culture of Bill Clinton, George Wallace, Bill Bradley and Lyndon Johnson.

This is the culture which hates the federal government, regarding it as the lineal descendant of the irksome British tyrants. As a people, Borderers had little use for the law, for the law had never protected them. They valued strength and pugnaciousness over learning.

In the U.S., states dominated by the Borderer culture (like Idaho) value "local control" to such an extent that they are willing to let school buildings fall down around children's ears rather than allow the state to pay for fixing them.

Borderers disliked authority: it had too often been used to oppress them; at the same time, they were intolerant of those with differing beliefs and ways of life. They disliked cities and hierarchical religions; in the American wilderness, they adopted colorful varieties of Protestantism. Many of their descendants today are Baptists, Pentecostals or evangelicals. Although Borderers have often been elected to the presidency, they lost all their great political battles, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Sagebrush Rebellion. And with each loss, some of them retreated farther into the hinterlands.

Many Borderers who came to the Western territories in the 19th century had fought on the losing side of the Civil War, like Jim Catron's distant relative, Thomas Benton Catron. A lawyer, Thomas and his son Charles used their legal skills to separate the Hispanic population of New Mexico from their land grants. They were not, by any stretch of the imagination, cowboys. They were Border reivers with new tools.

If it gives Jim Catron joy to shout, "The federal government hates us because we're armed, dangerous, wild and free!" then fine and dandy, but the facts are otherwise. The federal government is not afraid of them because they are dangerous and armed; the feds are not afraid of them at all, nor does the government care very much about them, one way or the other.

It is too busy paying attention to other American cultures which are willing to be actively involved in government at all levels, and which are not predisposed to see Government as alien, dangerous, and tolerable only when minimized.

Since my cultural background is largely Borderer, too, I have long had an interest in the subject. For HCN readers who are curious about American cultural history, the following books may be of interest: Bradley, Bill: Time Present, Time Past. Crawford, Max: Lords of the Plain. deBuys, William: Enchantment and Exploitation. Fisher, David Hackett: Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Fraser, George MacDonald: The Steel Bonnets: The Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers. Gilbert, Bil: Westering Man. Waters, Frank: To Possess the Land.

Louise Wagenknecht
Leadore, Idaho
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