My brother Bill put me on to this book, in recognition of our own Scots-Irish ancestry. My grandfather, Frank McClure, was the grandson of a McClure who “took up land” in the hills of western Pennsylvania in the 1780s. The people whose land was taken were never mentioned, but my great great grandfather lies buried in a hilltop cemetery on that land, under a great stone dragged up from the Monongahela River.
In Born Fighting, James Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy and now Senator from Virginia, tells the story of the Scots-Irish in the British Isles and then in America. As a military man and the member of a military family, Webb celebrates the contentious and independent nature of the Scots-Irish and emphasizes their prowess as fighters.
They are naturally rebellious, often impossible to control, and yet their strong military tradition produces generation after generation of perhaps the finest soldiers the world has ever seen.
Well, I guess so, but in my mother’s family they didn’t fight much with weapons, although they were known to use their tongues. Kin mattered and personal honesty mattered and the land mattered. The land mattered a lot. In my mother’s stories I never heard the term “Scots-Irish”. To hear her tell it, they were of Scotch descent, part of the Clan MacLeod. On her first and only trip overseas in retirement, her high point was a visit to the ancestral home of the MacLeods in Scotland. As I have since learned, when the Catholic Irish flooded into the eastern cities during the potato famine of the 1840s, the Protestant Irish conveniently remembered that they originally came from Scotland before they settled in Ireland (mostly under Cromwell) and then moved on to North America. So Scots they became, and Scots-Irish we now call them.
With a few political departures, Webb tells the story of their struggles and migrations well. We understand that life is not easy and it is not expected to be easy. The strength to endure is what counts, a great asset when settling a new country. The strength to endure is accompanied by a strong need for independence, found best in the hill country the rich folks don’t want or by moving west. He brings the rednecks and hill billies of the Appalachians and the South into the mainstream of the American experience, and I thank him for that.
I never thought of my grandparents as part of the hill people of Appalachia, but they were– the best part, of course! My mother’s dream of her Scotch ancestry was exemplified by the McLeod print that hung on our dining room wall, right behind my seat at the table. On my own trip to Edinburgh I was delighted to find my clansman again, decorating a tin of toffees or on the label of a tartan necktie.