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"Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" Michael Pollan.

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Friday, March 5, 2010


When I wrote my book, “Scotch-Irish Foodways in America,” I made a very conscious decision early on to use the term Scotch-Irish and not Scots-Irish.

The Scotch-Irish are the descendants of a mixed group of mainly Scottish and English Borderland tenant farmers who relocated to Ireland during the 17th century Plantation of Ulster period- where they met and mixed some more with hired Highland Scot mercenaries, Huguenots, and a even a few stray Irish natives. After a little over 100 years, they then moved on to America, where many of them interacted and intermarried with other ethnic groups-the German Protestant settlers in Pennsylvania and the English West Country fisherfolk in New England.

From around the early 19th century, the terms Scots or Scottish did become the preferred usage among educated Scottish people for themselves, Scotch being regarded as an “anglicized affectation.” In modern usage in Scotland, "Scotch" is not used for ethnic identity but as a descriptive term for something [eg. Scotch Whisky]; when applied to a person it has “patronizing and faintly offensive connotations ...". To be politically correct, Scotland, Scots, and Scottish culture should not be described as Scotch.

While many of us would love to be back in that starkly beautiful country [Northern
Ireland is beautiful too!]we are not. In America, the term Scotch-Irish has been used as a non-offensive ethnic descriptive for this mixed group for a very long time. While this Americanism doesn't abide by the rules of properness more recently established in Scotland, a land that we left hundreds of years ago, it has been in use here since the 1700s and is what we called ourselves. The term "Scots-Irish” seems to have appeared very recently. I can not find it in any historical records-although early on members of this group were often, and confusingly, called simply the Irish in early New England. The fact that they are confused with Papists is the subject of some early 18th century umbrage that got written down. The usage "Scots-Irish" may be regarded as a well-intended effort to accommodate modern Scottish preferences that is without historical precedent, an attempt to retrospectively apply 21st century feelings to the words of 18th century people.
As a historian, it was difficult for me to do so. Hence the use of Scotch-Irish.

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary,the term Scotch-Irish is recorded as being from 1744, while the term Scots-Irish is not recorded until 1972. There was historically an area of York County in Maine called Scotland, but it was settled earlier on by released Highland Scottish prisoners who had been sent to Maine after losing the Battle of Dunbar to Cromwell’s Army and not the Scotch Irish.

Scotch-Irish evidence:

 An affidavit of William Patent, dated March 15, 1689, in a case against a Mr. Matthew Scarbrough in Somerset County, Maryland, quotes Mr. Patent as saying he was told by Scarbrough that " was no more sin to kill me then to kill a dogg, or any Scotch Irish dogg..."

 A report in June 1695 by Sir Thomas Laurence, Secretary of Maryland, that "In the two counties of Dorchester and Somerset, where the Scotch-Irish are numerous, they clothe themselves by their linen and woolen manufactures."

 In September 1723, Rev. George Ross, Rector of Immanuel Church in New Castle, Delaware, wrote "They call themselves Scotch-Irish,...and the bitterest railers against the church that ever trod upon American ground."

 Another comment from 1723 that "...great numbers of Irish (who usually call themselves Scotch-Irish) have transplanted themselves and their families from the north of Ireland."

 During the 1740s, a Marylander was accused of having murdered the sheriff of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, after calling the sheriff and his assistants "damned Scotch-Irish sons of bitches."

Oxford English Dictionary citations are:
 From 1744 in the Collections of the Massachuseets Historical Society: 'The inhabitants [of Lancaster, Pa.] are chiefly High-Dutch, Scotch-Irish, some few English families, and unbelieving Israelites."

 From 1789: "[The Irish of Pennsylvania] have sometimes been called Scotch-Irish, to denote their double descent."

 In the 1876 BANCROFT History of the U.S.,page 333: "But its convenient proximity to the border counties of Pennsylvania and Virginia had been observed by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and other bold and industrious men."

 The February, 1883 edition of Harper's Magazine: "The so-called Scotch-Irish are the descendants of the Englishmen and Lowland Scotch who began to move over to Ulster in 1611."

And yes, potatoes are mentioned in the historical records in association with the Scotch Irish in New England from the 1720’s onward. Bonny Clabber is noted even earlier, in the records from the Richmond Island fishing outpost in Maine, as is the use of oats, and getting sick of clams in the winter when there was little else to eat.

But no matter what name you call these people by, one thing stands out: they are truly a remarkable group of Americans! And they brought with them and made some great tasting food!


  1. In Londonderry and Derry, NH I see both Scots and Scotch used equally. Personally, I don't think folks here care which one is used, and sometimes I'll see both spellings in one paragraph!

  2. I feel like cheering when I read this defense of the term "Scotch-Irish". It is the correct term, and Scots-Irish an affectation.
    "Scotch" and "Ulster-Scotch" are the everyday speech equivalents we use back here, but somehow "Scotch" has become (wrongly) regarded as impolite.
    An American friend, Professor Michael Montgomery, who is author of "Smokey Mountain English", and is the leading academic authority on the Ulster-Scots language, has written a brilliant defense of the term "Scotch-Irish" in America.