A Portrait of the Ancestors of our American Jacksonian Backcountrymen

Scottish Borderland in its widest sense embraces the country from the Ken to Berwick, and from the Solway and the Cheviots to the backbone of mountain which runs from Merrick to the Lammermoors and cradles all the streams of the lowlands. In that broad region the Britons of Strathclyde, the Northmen from the sea, and the later immigrants have so mixed their blood as to produce a certain uniformity of type, akin to and yet something different from other Lowland stocks. The history of each valley has been the same tale of poor soil, inclement seasons, stunted cattle and niggardly crops, a hard life varied by constant bickering among neighbours and raids into England; these valleys lay, too, in the track of the marching armies, whenever there was war between Stuart and Plantagenet and Tudor, and, save for the religious houses and the stone castles of the nobles, there could be few enduring marks of human occupation. It was a gipsy land, where life could not settle on its lees, since any night the thatch might be flaring to heaven, and the plenishing of a farm moving southward under the prick of the raiders’ spears. There the hand must keep the head, and a tough, watchful race was the consequence, hardy as the black cattle of their hills, tenacious of a certain rude honour, loyal to their leaders, staunch friends, and most patient and pestilent foes. Rough as the life was, it had its codes and graces. The Borderer was quarrelsome, but he was also merciful, and was curiously averse to the shedding of blood. He was hospitable to a fault, scrupulously faithful to his word, and in giving and taking hard knocks preserved a certain humour and mirthfulness. “The men are lyght of harte,” wrote Bartholemew the Englishman in the thirteenth century, “fiers and couragious on theyre enemies.” And Bishop Lesley, writing in the sixteenth century, noted that they were skilful musicians and “lovers of eloquence and poetry.” Mr. Andrew Boorde, an English physician, who visited them about that date, bore witness to the same qualities, and had little fault to find except with “their develysh dysposicion not to love nor favour an Englyshman,” their extreme clannishness, and their boastful pride of race. “Many,” he wrote, “wyll make strong lyes.” Among their green glens harpers and violers wove some of the loveliest of Scottish airs, and the gift of imagination had other issue than mere vaunting, since it gave birth to the noblest ballads that ever graced a literature.”

From John Buchan’s Lord Minto, A Memoir.

See also, (you knew this was coming), David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, to see how these folks fared when they came over here, to North America. (John Buchan, by the way, was quite a guy.)

5 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Ancestors of our American Jacksonian Backcountrymen”

  1. Clan Munro, here. But don’t forget the Irish flavoring to that little mix, that I think Albion’s Seed gives a bit of short shrift to. They don’t call us Scotts-Irish for nothing.

    “their extreme clannishness, and their boastful pride of race”

    That’s why I maintain that Southerners have a bit of an easier time dealing with the Japanese than do Yankees – our culture resembles theirs more. There’s also more than a bit of shame culture in us, overlaid with the guilt culture of the Baptist flavor of Christianity.

  2. John Jay,

    That’s why I maintain that Southerners have a bit of an easier time dealing with the Japanese than do Yankees – our culture resembles theirs more

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that! Deciphering the circumlocutory speech patterns of little old ladies from the deep south is great training for dealing with the Japanese and other Asians.

  3. From John Buchan’s 39 Steps, ch 1.

    ‘For three hundred years they have
    been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The
    Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to
    find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have
    dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something,
    an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English.
    But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and
    find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the
    manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your
    English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job
    and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up
    against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a
    rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just
    now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his
    aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location
    on the Volga.’
    (Note that these are words not of the narrator but of a [sympathetic] character…)

  4. Buchan certainly was anti-semitic, in part, though elsewhere he demonstrates a philo-semitic streak as well. I think he was typical of his generation, though perhaps more poetic, in believing in essentialist racial and ethnic cultural characteristics. Gertrude Himmelfarb has a very good discussion of this aspect of Buchan’s character and writings in a chapter in her excellent book Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition .

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