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The Scotch South

IN NOVEMBER 2019 the St Andrew’s Society of the State of New York conferred their Mark Twain Award on me at their 263rd Annual Banquet. As you can see, it was a splendid occasion. At a previous banquet in 1901, their president Andrew Carnegie persuaded his friend Mark Twain to address the Society – hence the name of the award which they now give annually to someone they feel has promoted Scotland well. It was quite an honour to follow in the footsteps of Twain, but I was delighted to do so as I had studied him as part of my American Literature studies at Edinburgh University in the early 1970s. Through Twain, and William Faulkner, I became fascinated by the American South and its deep connections with Scotland and wrote about it extensively in the chapter called The Scotch South in my book The Scottish World. Here is a flavour of what I wrote.

Charleston, South Carolina April 10, 1994.

It is a warm April day in Charleston, that most exquisite of Southern cities. At her home, I am recording Beth Campbell who illustrates her dual identity by recalling her daddy’s funeral where a piper played a lament at the graveside, then she sang the Southern anthem ‘Dixie’ in a church full of black and white mourners. She sings it with heart and soul, giving the air an aching beauty. Her cats purr with pleasure. Prissy is named for the black mammy in Gone With the Wind, MacCailein Mor for the chief of Clan Campbell. I am down home after a twenty year absence, and the old love/ hate feelings for the place are being stirred once again.

When I first visited back in the early 1970’s, following violent desegregation, racism was still an open wound and hatred flared easily. “Y’all have any n… problem over there in Scotland”, asked the boys in the truck festooned with the St Andrews Cross of the Confederate Battle flag as they drove me across the South Carolina line. As a hitch hiker in the South, you quickly learned to avoid discussions with gun toting racists. I changed the subject and survived. The boys all had some ‘Scotch Irish’ in them, though none knew that meant they were of Ulster Scots extraction. Their ethnic identity was distant and vague and what they were not - blacks - was far more important to them than what they were. That has now changed, on the surface at least, to an extent unimaginable a few generations ago. Political correctness is so much to the fore, that the Confederate Battle flag is hardly seen on a public building any more. Following on from the explosion of interest in genealogy generated by Alex Haley’s African American epic Roots, a new ethnic identity is being forged which is replacing the racial identity of the past. In an area whose white population is a mixture of Scots, English, French Huguenot, and German, it is by far the Scots genes people choose to predominate in their new identity as Southerners whose Celtic cultural background differentiates them from the Anglo Saxon North!

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Issue 59 of iScot Magazine is now available for download. The last issue before Brexit ! Jings, Crivvens, Help Ma Boab!