Scots, Scots-Irish among Greenville's first settlers


There are 29 columns of "Mc" and "Mac" names in our telephone directory. From McAbbie to McZeno, Celtic prefixes dominate the surnames in this county; Greenville is a Scots-Irish stronghold.

Every "Mac" in town (and a lot of non-Macs, too) should turn out -- tartan not required -- for the first Greater Greenville Scottish Games and Highland Festival, to be held at Furman on June 9 and 10.

It will be an opportunity to celebrate an intrinsic part of the Upstate's heritage.

First some definitions. Scots (a noun) are people; Scotch (either a noun or an adjective) is the whiskey (or whisky, if you prefer their spelling); Scottish (always an adjective) are the games, marmalade and customs.

The term "Scots-Irish" is American; at home they were called "Ulstermen." They were Lowland Scots who England forcibly uprooted from their homeland and resettled in Ireland, primarily in County Ulster, in the 17th century. British rulers wanted these "civilized" Protestants to leaven Ireland's wild Catholic majority. They predominate here because of an accident of history.

The great migration of both Scots and Scots-Irish across the Atlantic came between the 1707 Act of Union with England and the beginning of the American Revolution, with perhaps 20,000 arriving between 1765 and 1775.

Most Scots-Irish landed in Philadelphia, where merchants considered them the "scum of two nations." Proud, quick to take offense and audacious, they would "not fear the devil should they meet him face to face." (It should be considered, though, that these businessmen weren't especially fond of anybody unlike themselves.)

Pennsylvania's leaders decided to remove them from their City of Brotherly Love as quickly as possible and settle them farther west, where their ferocity would be a barrier against attacking Indians, and their belligerent Presbyterianism would not affront peace-loving Quakers.

So Ulstermen and Scots Lowlanders alike settled first in the frontier Pennsylvania back country. However, many soon drifted southward along the Great Wagon Trail, which ran from Harrisburg through the Shenandoah Valley into the Appalachian foothills of the Carolina piedmont just east of Greenville, ending at Augusta, Ga. Our inviting and isolated mountain valleys with their streams and relatively fertile land promised a livelihood, and many settled in upstate South Carolina both before and after the American Revolution.

They were independent, family-oriented subsistence farmers, who, says tradition, moved on when they saw the smoke of another man's fire.

It was the sharp-shooting Scots-Irish under Daniel Morgan who defeated the Redcoats at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Their heritage, after all, was centuries of war and wrangling. The Scottish lowlands had been disputed territory since 1040; only three English monarchs had not seen their land invaded by Scotsmen or had themselves invaded their neighbors to the north.

Their men were bred to fight; their women, to breed and work. Large families of sons were necessary to protect their property and raid others' land. This region's fighting spirit comes from them; there never has been an American war they have not embraced.

But the Scots also had a heritage of education and religious fervor. They were among the most literate people in Europe, whose educated Presbyterian clergy became schoolmasters to the colonies. In 1775, a Philadelphian asked, "Why cannot England find Englishmen fit to preside over our universities without being forced to send us Scotsmen?"

The Cameronians combined these traditions. These fierce country people were said to both worship and fight with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. They later formed the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Although some of these immigrants were well to do -- the Calhouns, who arrived in the 1730s, were large property holders -- many had little more than they could carry with them on a mule and backpack; they squatted illegally whenever they found a likely place. They were necessarily ready to move at an hour's notice, so they built log cabins -- disposable and cheap -- as their homes, and thus are responsible for America's most traditional house form.

The Scots and Scots-Irish were not the original settlers of Greenville County, but they came early. Brandon, Earle, Alston and most others who filed deeds immediately after the conclusion of the Revolution were English. However, we owe Greenville's development to one: Vardry McBee, the father of this community, purchased 11,028 acres of land around the Reedy River from Lemuel Alston in 1815 and began to build a town.

His biographer, Roy McBee Smith, does not indicate if the McBees came to this country directly from Scotland or were Scots-Irish transplants, but accompanying their family Web site is a blare of bagpipes.

Others, coming from Charleston as well as from the north, settled here later. Southern vocabularies absorbed their language: "redneck" originally meant a Presbyterian; "cracker," for a vulgar braggart; "honey" as a term of endearment. Some are still dialectical -- "fixin'" as in "fixin' to go; "hant" for ghost; "man" (as in "stand by your man") for husband.

Canny and competitive, Scotsmen became merchants in Charleston, ingenious and often experimental farmers in the upcountry, inventive artisans wherever they put down roots. While many Scots-Irish became city-dwellers, others tended the land or, later, the looms of textile mills after subsistence farming became a losing struggle.

Even then they were fighters, although their competitiveness was funneled into athletics (mill baseball and basketball leagues were rife with Scots' names.) We can thank the Scots for curling, ice hockey, golf, track and field events, basketball and hopscotch. (I suspect, though, that there won't be much hopscotch at the Greenville Games.)

While both the high road and the low road may have led to Loch Lomond, Scotsmen invented the bicycle, steamboat and railroad -- all ways to travel away.

Judith Bainbridge