Ciamar a tha, Y’all? or Celts in America

In January of this year, I began an exploration of family history through American Civil War short fiction based on family stories and research into things Scottish. As the final piece in the series, we are going to come full circle.

Grady McWhiney (1928-2006) was a historian of the American South who focused on the Civil War era and the cultural and economic history of the region. He, in conjunction with Forrest McDonald, authored the “Celtic Thesis.” They posited that through an accident of history, immigrants who settled west and south of Pennsylvania were mainly of Celtic lineage, coming from the western most parts of the British Isles (western Scottish Highlands and Borders, the western isles, the western and northern English uplands, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland). Furthermore, the culture that these Celts brought with them remained intact and created a substantial difference between them and the Yankees of New England who originated mainly from the southeastern lowlands of England.

Celtic Britain and Northern Gaul 1st century B.C.

Celtic Britain and Northern Gaul
1st century B.C.


Invasion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes

Invasion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes

A very brief and completely oversimplified look at British history shows us that prior to the Roman conquest, Celtic tribes covered all of what is present day England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. With the fall of the Roman Empire, far flung regions like the British Isles were left vulnerable to successive waves of invasion. Those invaders came from the east. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes rushed in to fill the void left by the departed Roman legions. They spread throughout most of present day northeastern, eastern, and southern England, leaving a western and northern outer ring of Celts. Vikings came as well, but in smaller numbers and with lesser impact. The Celtic peoples became somewhat marginalized in their own homeland.

Scots-Irish migration west and south

Scots-Irish migration west and south

By the 17th century, migration to the New World was in full flood. The Scots-Irish, Scots, and other Celtic immigrants ultimately settled west and south, whereas the English settled in the Tidewater areas and New England.  Celtic peoples poured into the Appalachians and pushed ever westward, opening the frontier of the new nation to exploration and settlement. It should be remembered that in the 17th and 18th centuries, what we now know as Kentucky, Tennessee,  the western Carolinas, etc. was at that time considered the Wild West.

th_027This brings us to McWhiney’s work Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. McWhiney and his colleague, Forrest McDonald, state in the second prong of their thesis that the differences between the culture, values, norms, and attitudes of Yankee New England and those of the American antebellum South were based on differences between the herding culture found in the Celtic regions of the British Isles and transplanted in the American South vs the commercial mixed agriculture of southeastern England and transplanted in New England.

McWhiney sees the areas of commonalities between Southern and Celtic cultures as follows: importance placed on hospitality, time spent in the pursuit of pleasure vs work, tendency to violence, definitions of what was moral and how they viewed religion, lesser importance placed on formal education, less attention to the conveniences provided by progress, and lesser devotion to making a profit. He states his case well and cites much prima facie evidence to support his thesis.

Overall, I think his thesis holds up well with regard to the Southern piedmont and mountain regions and some areas west of the present day Georgia-Alabama state line. The Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish, and northwestern English influence on the language, music, and traditions of these areas, especially in Appalachia and the Ozarks, has been documented by anthropologists, sociologists, and music historians. I do take issue with his ideas about education in the South, however, as the University of Georgia is the oldest stated-chartered institution of higher learning in the United States, founded 1785.  Of course, that is a personal bias. I must admit I have always been amazed and saddened by a paradox in Southern educational practice. The South has many highly respected private and state universities and colleges, while having some of the worst K-12 educational systems in the nation. It gets back to priorities, as McWhiney proposes, I guess.

Where McWhiney’s thesis stumbles, in my opinion, is with the tidewater areas of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia that were first settled by persons from the more southern areas of England. Some of these early settlers were younger sons of England’s landed gentry and noblemen. Moreover, he pays little attention to the influx of indentured servants from southern England to the coastal South during the early days of European settlement. That said, any student of pre-Civil War history and culture can easily see that there were decided differences in the manner in which Americans in the North and those in the South viewed life and what they valued. Those differences were so marked that I sometimes wonder if the South might ultimately have seceded anyway even if there had never been the fight over slavery. Of course slavery was the issue and the Civil War settled it once and for all. Thank goodness for that!

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina Highland Games

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina Highland Games

The Celtic influence on the culture of the American South can still be seen and heard today. I had an English professor in college who cited research supporting the belief that the accents heard in Appalachia and parts of the South are closer to the way common Englishmen spoke prior to the introduction of the Grand Tour of Europe than the English manner of speaking today. American country music, especially bluegrass and the early tunes of the mountains and several forms of American folk dancing (clogging, square, buck, etc.) bear similarities to their Celtic forebears. Finally, Celtic culture is alive and blooming in America. Highland games and Irish and Scottish dancing have become popular among Americans with Celt lineage and even those without it.


By way of example and for your entertainment, take a look and listen!

Youtube presentation from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia entitled Tradition and Identity in Irish, Scottish, and Appalachian Ballads discussing the connection between the Celtic and the Appalachian music traditions:

NPR Here and Now segment entitled This Music has No Borders: Scots-Irish Music in Appalachia

Youtube of traditional Irish dancing performed by the famous professional dance troupe Riverdance:

Even though the dancers are separated by many years, an ocean, and choice of livelihood, you can still see similarities to the dancing in the video above and this Youtube of very traditional American clog dancing from the 1960’s+/-:

Youtube of Scottish reel dancing. If I didn’t know better, I would think I was seeing American square dancing without a caller:

Youtube of American square dancing:

And what goes around comes around! Here is a Youtube of Diamond in the Rough, an Appalachian Clog Dancing group from the UK:

And a group in the UK demonstrating American square dancing: