Saturday, July 14, 2007

Honor among (Scottish) thieves

Dave Armstrong's post raised a question that I have been asking myself for some time: why are Scottish Protestants so ornery? The phenomenon, particularly manifested in anti-Catholicism, appears to generally apply not only to the Scottish Covenanters or Presbyterians, which one might take as the official version of Scottish Protestantism, but also to those of Scottish descent who adopt other forms of Protestantism (see, e.g., Southern anti-Catholicism among Scotch-Irish converts to Baptist or Methodist denominations). It's clearly not ALL Scots or Scots-Irish, but the generalization is not a bad one.

Being three quarters Cajun and growing up in the southern half of Louisiana, Scottish culture is pretty much an enigma. The name "Cajun" comes from the French North American settlement called Acadie, whose inhabitants called themselves Acadiens, shortened to 'cadiens and anglicized to Cajuns. That settlement was in turn colonized by England, who named it New Scotland, Nova Scotia. As far as I know, the Cajuns got along with the Scottish settlers relatively well, as we generally do with people who aren't English colonial governors, and we get along with the Scotch-Irish fairly well even in the modern South. But one still does find anti-Catholicism in any Southern state, including the Scotch-Irish strain thereof, so I have seen it even though I have never understood it.

But I was a little curious as to how Dave, a Scot himself, had none of this anti-Catholic hostility even in his Protestant family. Unlike the folks I describe above, Dave is genial in disagreement, although lacking none of the Scottish strength of opinion. Turns out Dave's clan falls in a certain group of rogues known as Border Reivers, the Scottish equivalent of cattle rustlers and horse thieves, also known as the "riding clans" for their proficiency in horsemanship (an essential characteristic for remaining alive in their line of "work"). The website above provides the following summary:

The Border Reivers were a group of Anglo-Scottish families that conducted raids against towns, farms and even fortresses during some of the most turbulent years in British history. The region between Scotland and England, which includes The Borders, Dumfries and Galloway on the Scottish side, and Cumbria and Northumbria in England, were wartorn and unsettled for more than three hundred years. From the reign of Robert The Bruce to the ascension of James I to the throne of England, Scottish and English armies led punitive expeditions against one another, ravaging the countryside.

These were also years of great treachery, during which many families, noble and common alike, switched allegiances as it suited them. Those families that resided along either side of the border did not know whom to trust, and took the law into their own hands to survive. Alliances developed, like the bond between the Elliotts and the Armstrongs - but so did feuds, such as those between the Kerrs and the Scotts, the Maxwells and the Johnstones, and the Fenwicks and the Elliotts. These families sallied forth against one another, stealing cattle and sheep, burning homesteads, and avenging grievances with utmost violence.

The Border Reivers became so inured to the continual strife in their lives that, when they baptized their sons, they left the right hand unblessed, so that it might wield a sword. That was when they baptized their sons at all. The Border Reivers were not known for their piety. It was said that they would rob Jesus himself if he rode among them. A tale is often told of how a man visiting The Borders asked why there were no churches in the town, to which his interlocutor replied, "Nae, we're all Elliotts 'n' Armstrongs here." Nor were the churchmen any fonder of the reivers. The Archbishop of Glasgow publicly cursed them with a resounding ferocity that still has the power to chill our souls.

Riding their shaggy ponies of Norse extraction, dressed in an assortment of helmets and homemade armor, the Elliotts and their counterparts brought sword and musket to bear against their enemies with neither rest nor mercy. Even when England and Scotland were officially at peace, the raids continued.
The era of the Border Reivers ended abruptly when Elizabeth I died and James I was crowned King of England. The Elliotts had often served as mercenaries to Elizabeth, and had harried James's mother, Mary Queen of Scots, on her behalf. Consequently, they feared and resented the Stuart king. In defiance of the new regime, a large party of Elliotts, Armstrongs and Grahams rode into Cumbria, and stole 3,000 sheep. This last hurrah of mayhem took place in 1603, and has been remembered ever since as "Ill Week". Later, more than a hundred of the perpetrators were apprehended, and many were hanged. Many others fled with their families to the Ulster Plantation of Northern Ireland, where they served as a buffer between the Gaelic Irish and their English overlords. The Border Reivers thereafter became the core of that fiercely self-reliant people known to history as the Scotch-Irish.

So it would appear that while the border clans were just as stubborn and contentious as any other group, and probably even more so (the Border had its own law a great deal like that of the American Old West), they also weren't culturally the type of folks to get into a fight on a matter of religious principle. I expect that this brand of cultural pragmatism is reflected in the less anti-Catholic Scottish culture.

Despite having reached the conclusion, I haven't yet reached the punch line. I mentioned above that I was three quarters Cajun, but unsurprisingly for a Southerner, the other quarter is Scotch-Irish. And what is my grandmother's surname, the one that was given to me as my middle name and the one that I gave to my son as his middle name? If you've been paying attention, the name won't come as any surprise; it names the same clan that was the faithful ally of Clan Armstrong: Elliott. Talk about Providence! An Armstrong and an Elliott just happen to meet each other in an entirely different kind of "sheep stealing!" And it also explains why a certain member of Clan Buchanan might be nervous...LOL!

UPDATE -- Turns out the Elliott branch isn't the Scotch-Irish part of Grandma's family. The Elliotts were from England, which would make them "Scotch-English," I suppose. That's assuming they aren't English Elliotts of non-Scottish extraction. But since I bear a Breton name myself, I'll throw in my lot with the Celtic country over the Angles and the Saxons!