Monday, 11 May 2009

The Ulster Origins of an American Icon

a rural settler scene played out many times in colonial Americas, from the New England backcountry to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghenies. The name 'Hillbilly' reflected both the ethnicity and geography of the Scots-Irish pioneers in North America. Illustration by Fergus Elder.

The article below was submitted by Fergus Elder, a native of Northern Ireland that has lived in Lancashire, UK, for some ten years now, where he teaches school.

One note from the editor's desk... the terms Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, etc., all refer to the same group here in my native South. The terms are not necessarily derogatory, it entirely depends on context. All three are still to this day commonly used affectionately within Anglo-Celtic society in the South. This community is more diverse than the media stereotypically defines it and you will find it has Plantation origin Ulster Scots, but also many Highland Scots, Highland Scots from Ireland (Redshanks), native Irish, Border English and Scots, Welsh and even Manx, and all went into the making of the Hillbilly.

The Ulster Origins of an American Icon
by Fergus Elder

Hillbilly. American [sic] colloquialism., often derog. A person from a remote rural area in a southern State. Oxford English Dictionary

Hillbilly. Noun. A disparaging term for an un-sophisticated person.
…a pejorative term for people who lived in isolation in mountainous regions of North America such as the Appalachian Mountains and Ozarks. Webster’s American Dictionary

I have chosen an expression which crops up frequently in popular use but which few people (even relatively well informed people) seem to know the origins of; add to this the paradoxical and apparently undeserved present day connotations associated with it, and we have an idiom which is somewhat misunderstood – “hillbilly”.

The term hillbilly can be broken down and simplified into the more easily understood, if less comprehensive definition; “hill” – mountain dweller or person who lives in the hills and, “billy” – a protestant of mainly Scots-Irish descent and follower of William of Orange. Bill or Billy is short for William hence, “hillbilly” – a protestant who lives in the hills. Both the Oxford English and Webster’s American dictionaries give the definition for hillbilly as being made up of - part modern social perception and part geographical fact. The term itself is an historic one which dates back to the latter part of the 17th Century and the reign of James II. James was the catholic incumbent and as such, was much disliked by the mainly protestant inhabitants of Ulster, who’s allegiance lay firmly with the Dutch Prince, William of Orange who, it was hoped might himself accede to the English throne and by doing so, re-establish a protestant monarchy. In 1689, he did just that, with the help of first and second generation Scots and English Planters now living in the north of Ireland. Due to their fierce loyalty to the protestant King, William III, they became known as “Billy-boys”, a term still in use today in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, although few would dispute its negative, sectarian connotations. Within a generation, the nickname had crossed the Atlantic to the American colonies and, in its new guise, would reflect the destination of choice for a significant number of 18th century Scots-Irish settlers, namely, the low hills and ridges of the eastern Appalachians ◊. The expression Hillbilly was born.

It is unfortunate, not to mention odd, though, that a title first used to describe a group of pious and enterprising settlers has, in more recent times, become synonymous with rustic vulgarity, ignorance and slovenliness. Is it fair, for instance, that a people such as the descendants of the backwoods and mountain dwelling farmers of Scots-Irish heritage – the original hillbillies - should have become, not only connected with, but the focus of, such long standing ridicule within American society - a society on which they, as a group, have had a no small measure of influence?

Today, the term hillbilly is used insultingly, in reference to, on the whole, white, working class Americans. Interestingly, another word, “redneck” like hillbilly which it pre-dates, can also be traced back to Ulster-Scottish roots. The name is taken from the religious group known as the Covenanters who met in Edinburgh in 1638* to sign a document which would assert their rights as Scotsmen to follow a religion other than that of the Church of England. In doing so they advanced the cause of their own more fervent and, ultimately democratic, Presbyterian faith.

Many signed in blood as a symbol of their commitment and afterwards, would wear pieces of red material around their necks in order to identify themselves with the movement. They became known as red-necks. Later on, as a result of persecution in Scotland, many Covenanters moved, first to the north of Ireland and then to the American colonies. They took the name redneck with them and today, like hillbilly, it is used to the detriment of lower-class whites. It should be pointed out however, that those who signed the National Covenant were in the main, high ranking noblemen and clergy, members of the upper echelon of Scottish society and that those for whom the term redneck was originally adopted were, if not aristocratic, at the very least learned and radical. These are hardly phrases synonymous with apathetic stupidity or ill-educated loutishness.

In America, the term wasn’t always meant as derogatory but more likely an innocuous label which allowed for easy distinction to be made between similar frontier settler groups living in relative proximity and comparable circumstances. Groups of settlers such as Germans, Scandinavians and, those (more adventurous) English colonists, willing to leave the safety and security of the cities to step out along the trail - groups who, despite their differences in origin and heritage, shared many qualities and characteristics, not least their protestant faith. Their closely guarded independence notwithstanding, all would have come into contact at one time or another whether to trade goods, to fight, marry or to form political alliances. It stands to reason that each group should refer to the other in the context of where they’d hailed from and where they now lived. Therefore the term hillbilly would have seemed a natural title for the Scots-Irish members of the young society. Better still, not only was the term accurate in a geographical sense but it also had hard line religious and even militant connotations. Given the harsh social circumstances and the political climate of colonial North America, it might be argued that the tag ‘hillbilly’ was in fact advantageous and even, enviable. Could it have been, in a contrary twist, a term of reluctant respect? Perhaps not, although what is certain is that an expression which latterly became a negatively loaded and judgemental one, formally was simply descriptive, appropriate and “relatively inoffensive”*.

It is estimated that, over the course of the 18th Century, a quarter of a million Scots-Irish emigrants left their Ulster home for America*. They followed in the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers of a century before and settled first, not in Appalachia ◊ but in New England. Initially the new arrivals were not welcomed by the Puritan population of Boston however, it didn’t matter. An innate desire for the independent rural existence they’d always known caused most ‘Scotch-Irish’ as they’d become known, to leave the city almost immediately and drive west and north. Families with all too familiar Northern Irish names such as Crawford, McClintock, McFarland and Hunter were moving to outlying English communities, in order to (in the words of one grateful Governor of Massachusetts concerned with Indian attacks on outlying villages) “…help defend the menaced western frontier, 50 miles from Boston.”* Other families with names like Anderson, McCulloch and McCurdy moved even further away, founding the towns of Colrain(e) and Warren, Massachusetts. The Alexanders, McKeens and Weirs founded Londonderry, New Hampshire, while members of the Orr family, the Montgomerys, McCobbs and McCrackens headed up the coast into what is now Maine. Some of them remained by the sea and founded Belfast.* Others explored inland, up the Wiscassett and Kennebec Rivers establishing backcountry homesteads and townships where they farmed and fished and reared their families. The hillbilly had arrived in America. He’d travelled from Scotland via Ulster to get there, and he wasn’t about to let others’ perceptions or prejudices stop him from making his mark.


Robert said...

you happen to know how I can contact to author of this article? My email address is


Anonymous said...

would you happen to have an email contact for the author of this article?

My email is


Barry R McCain said...

I'll look him up for you when there is a lull in the action...

Barry R McCain