Monday, October 27, 2014

Where I'm From

Where I’m From
There is a swing on my back porch built by my husband’s grandfather. It is my favorite place to sit when the early morning light touches the mountains behind my house, and the mist hangs over their peaks like white lacy shawls. From my perch, I can watch the sun climb high into the sky and burn the mist away, revealing the deep greenness that is cooling to my eyes. As the swing dips to and fro, I marvel that these mountains are my home.
            My corner of Appalachia is southwestern Virginia, where the rugged mountains soar high into the sky. In spring and summer, they vibrate with green, but in the fall, they transform into a kaleidoscope of color. Man cannot duplicate the gilded color of the autumn leaves – saffron and sunflower yellows, russet and chestnut browns, and my favorite, reds that range from crimson to oxblood.
Even in winter, the forest has a stark matchstick beauty like an old black and white photograph. When the snow falls, it softens the mountains craggy features into a fairytale landscape.

            Like many of the people in these mountains, my family has lived here for generations, and we claim Ulster Scots’ ancestry. Our descendants were the people who left their homes in Northern Ireland and the lowlands of Scotland during the Great Migration that took place during the eighteenth century. Most Ulster Scots came first to Pennsylvania and as the land opportunities dried up, they migrated down into Virginia, some traveling into southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee and beyond. They were almost exclusively protestant Presbyterians looking for the opportunity to own land, and even though farming the rocky ridges of southwestern Virginia was a daunting task, it was far better than what they had left behind.
The Ulster Scots, or the Scotch-Irish as they are usually called, brought more than their religion to Appalachia. Our traditional speech was influenced by the Scotch-Irish emigrants, and not the result of Elizabethan England influence. Growing up, I heard the Ulster-Scots influence on our language every day. My parents used the adjective “airish,” meaning windy and chilly, and they also warned me of “taking a backset,” a reversal of health, when they didn’t think I was taking care of myself after a cold or the flu. Both of those terms are Scotch-Irish as is “you’uns,” a contraction of “you” and “ones,” also seen in “young’un and big’uns.” Those words are just as much a part of central Appalachian culture as is our love of helping verbs and prepositions, also a result of our Scotch-Irish heritage. In Appalachia you may hear, ‘I was wondering if you “might could” help me?’ and ‘I “used to could” or “you might could.” You will also hear, “it’s a quarter “till” three” instead of the more traditional “it’s a quarter to three.” I recently heard a grandmother try to convince her grandson, who was sitting under a table in McDonalds, to come out. Apparently, he did not want to leave, and all of her attempts to convince him had failed. I walked up just as she said this preposition riddled sentence, ‘I said for you to get back up and out from under in there!’
In southwestern Virginia and other parts of Appalachia, our Scotch-Irish heritage influences the pronunciation of numerous words. I, myself, can’t distinguish between the pronunciation of “i” and “e” in words like “pin/pen, tin/ten, and bit/bet,” to the extent that I would have to see the written word before I could distinguish the meaning. Even our southern drawl with its love of stretching out vowels in short words like bad/ba-ud and bed/be-ud is attributed to our Ulster-Scots ancestors. After all, in NASCAR we don’t race cars, but rather we race ca-urs.
The people of central Appalachia have inherited more from the Ulster-Scots than religion and language. Numerous surnames native to southwestern Virginia are western European (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales) in origin, and are more telling of a person’s heritage than the blue eyes and red hair that favor so many of our residents. Often, Ulster-Scots’ emigrants changed their names to a more traditional spelling, an example being dropping the “O, Mc, Mac” part of the surname. “O” is really a word all by itself, it means "grandson".  Only in recent years has it been attached to the surname with an apostrophe. “Mac” is the Gaelic word for son.  It is now often abbreviated to "Mc.” Many surnames common to southwestern Virginia are Ulster-Scots in origin. Blackburn is commonplace and is found in several places in Scotland’s Lowlands, including Berwickshire, Sterlingshire, and Edinburgh. In Ulster many Blackburns claim the Sterlingshire decent. (
On a recent trip to Ireland, I visited the Aran Islands, population approximately two hundred. Our tour guide mentioned there were only nine surnames on the island and rattled them off. When he said Mullins, I said, “Wait! Did you say Mullins? There are a lot of Mullins where I live.” At first, I don’t think he believed me, and then he joked, “One bloke must have gotten in a boat because Mullins have lived on this island for centuries.” Other common Scotch-Irish surnames prevalent in southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky are Thompson, Sullivan, Horn, Ward, and my great-grandmother’s surname Williams, first recorded in Rockbridge County, Virginia. (
A lifelong resident of southwestern Virginia, I have experienced the religious fervor, clannish behavior, and fierce almost feudal behavior of protecting the family that is part of our Ulster Scots heritage. I know families with Scotch-Irish surnames who have lived in the same hollows in central Appalachia for more than two hundred years, and I have studied the Ulster Scots influence on our language. Even the mountain people’s love of moonshine came about because of the Scotsman’s’ and Irishman’s’ love for and lack of whiskey. (This American liquor made from corn is even more potent in its effect than true Scotch or Irish whiskey.) We still eat traditional Scotch-Irish foods like mashed potatoes and cabbage, and the ballads they brought from home are still sung here. We have their love of music and dance, and the roots of our blue grass music are in Ireland, Scotland, and England. Even our superstitions and belief in spirits can be traced to the Ulster Scots. They believed in fairies, goblins and ghosts and these beliefs crossed the Atlantic with them. It is from these immigrants that came the saying of “God bless you” when someone sneezes – done to ward off the evil spirits, of course.
Nestled in these mountains, the Ulster Scots legacy has been preserved for centuries, but now, the modern world penetrates this fortress that once was only trespassed by the brave pioneers. As I admire them from my back porch swing, I realize these mountains have changed and will continue to change, and it is up to people like me to preserve our heritage by seeking out and writing down the stories of our ancestors.

Works Cited


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