Hillbillies and Rednecks
By Todd J. Wilkinson
Many words commonly used in America today have their origins in
our Celtic roots. While the following terms discussed are
associated today with the American South and southern culture,
their origins are distinctly Scottish and Ulster-Scottish
(Scots-Irish), and date to the mass immigration of Scottish Lowland
and Ulster Presbyterians to America during the 1700's. Whilst there
are other competing explanations of the derivation of some of them,
we prefer the ones here!
The origin of this American nickname for mountain folk in the
Ozarks and in Appalachia comes from Ulster. Ulster-Scottish (The
often incorrectly labeled "Scots-Irish") settlers in the
hill-country of Appalachia brought their traditional music with
them to the new world, and many of their songs and ballads dealt
with William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King
James II of the Stuart family at the Battle of the Boyne, Ireland
Supporters of King William were known as Orangemen and Billy
Boys and their North American counterparts were soon referred to as
hill-billies. It is interesting to note that a traditional song of
the Glasgow Rangers football club today begins with the line,
'Hurrah! Hurrah! We are the Billy Boys!' and shares its tune with
the famous American Civil War song, Marching Through Georgia.
Stories abound of American National Guard units from Southern
states being met upon disembarking in Britain during the First and
Second World Wars with that tune, much to their displeasure! One of
these stories comes from Colonel Ward Schrantz, a noted historian
and native of Carthage, Missouri ative, and veteran of the Mexican
- and veteran of the mexican Border Campaign, as well as the First
and Second World Wars - documented a story where the US Army's 30th
Division, made up of National Guard units from Georgia, North and
South Carolina and Tennessee arrived in the United Kingdom...'a
waiting British band broke into welcoming American music, and the
soldiery, even the 118th Field Artillery and the 105 Medical
Battalion from Georgia, broke into laughter.The excellence of
intent and the ignorance of the origins of the American music being
equally obvious. The welcoming tune was Marching Through
The origins of this term are Scottish and refer to supporters of
the National Covenant and The Solemn League and Covenant, or
Covenanters, largely Lowland Presbyterians, many of whom would flee
Scotland for Ulster (Northern Ireland) during persecutions by the
British Crown. The Covenanters of 1638 and 1641 signed the
documents that stated that Scotland desired the Presbyterian form
of church government and would not accept the Church of England as
its official state church.
Many Covenanters signed in their own blood and wore red pieces
of cloth around their necks as distinctive insignia; hence the term
Red neck, which became slang for a Scottish dissenter. One Scottish
immigrant, interviewed by the author, remembered a Presbyterian
minister, one Dr. Coulter, in Glasgow in the 1940's wearing a red
clerical collar - is this symbolic of the rednecks? Since many
Ulster-Scottish settlers in America (especially in the South) were
Presbyterian, the term was applied to them, and then, later, their
Southern descendants. One of the earliest examples of its use comes
from 1830, when an author noted that red-neck was a name bestowed
upon the Presbyterians. It makes one wonder if the originators of
the ever-present redneck jokes are aware of the term's origins?
Another term for Presbyterians in Ireland was a Blackmouth. Members
of the Church of Ireland (Anglicans) used this as a slur, referring
to the fact that one could tell a Presbyterian by the black stains
around his mouth from eating blackberries while at secret, illegal
Presbyterian Church Services in the countryside.
Another Ulster-Scot term, a cracker was a person who talked and
boasted, and craic is a term still used in Scotland and Ireland to
describe talking, chat or conversation in a social sense ('Let's go
down the pub and have a craic' or 'What's the craic?'). The term,
first used to describe a southerner of Ulster-Scottish background,
later became a nickname for any white southerner, especially those
who were uneducated.
And while not an exclusively Southern term, but rather referring in
general to all Americans, the origins of this word are related to
the other three.
Often used in Latin America to refer to people from the United
States, gringo also has a Scottish connection. The term originates
from the Mexican War (1846-1848), when American Soldiers of Scots
descent would sing Robert Burns' Green Grow the Rashes, O!, or the
very popular song Green Grows the Laurel (or lilacs) while serving
in Mexico, thus inspiring the locals to refer to the Yankees as
green-grows or gringos. The song Green Grows the Laurel refers to
several periods in Scottish and Ulster-Scottish history. Jacobites
might change the green laurel for the bonnets so blue of the exiled
Stewart monarchs of Scotland during the Jacobite Rebellions of the
late 1600's - early 1700's. Scottish Lowlanders and Ulster
Presbyterians would change the green laurel of James II in 1690 for
the Orange and Blue of William of Orange, and later on, many of
these Ulstermen would immigrate to America, and thus change the
green laurel for the red, white and blue.
An opposing theory to the origin of Gringo claims that the term
actually comes from the Spanish word "griego", which means "Greek",
as in the expression, It's all Greek to me. The term reportedly
referred to foreigners living in Spain, whose accent made their
attempts to speak Spanish difficult to understand by Spanish
natives. The term may specifically refer to the Irish, many of whom
fled to Spain in the late 1600's to escape religious
Adamson, Ian. The Ulster People: Ancient, Medieval and Modern.
Bangor, Northern Ireland: Petani Press, 1991.
Bruce, Duncan. The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing
Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature and the
Arts. Secaucus, New Jersey: Birch Lane Press, 1997.
Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in
America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
McWhiney, Grady. Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South.
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Personal Interview, Mr. Bill Carr, Ayrshire native and member,
Celtic Society of the Ozarks, January 2001.
Colonel Ward Schrantz papers, Jasper County Archives and Record
Center, Carthage, Missouri.
Stevenson, James A.C. SCOOR-OOT: A Dictionary of SCOTS Words and
Phrases in Current Use. London: The Athlone Press, 1989.
Urban Legends Reference Pages:
Walsh, Frank, and the 12th Louisiana String Band. Songs of the
Celtic South album, 1991.