Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Scots-Irish Million Dollar Quartet.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash

It was December 4, 1956. The famous black and white, now sepia photograph snapped that winter afternoon shows four young men, silhouetted against acoustic tile, making joyful noise. Three of the four were standing around the one at the piano, the one who would be king. When this photograph was taken, two of the men were 21-and the other two, 24-years old. Two were Baptists and two the chosen, Assembly of God, with both traditions shot deep in their individual flawed psyches. All were Scotch-Irish, hard-scrabbled proud Southern poor. These young men, young adults in the Post-War '50s, were about to change a culture so profoundly that we can scarcely consider our "today" without them. 

The picture is of Sam Phillips' "Million Dollar Quartet" taken at Sun Studios, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee. The four men were, in order, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the man who would be king, Elvis Presley.

The "Million Dollar Quartet" recordings were of an impromptu jam session between the four young stars. The session seems to have happened by pure chance. Perkins, who by this time had already met success with “Blue Suede Shoes,” had come into the studios that day, accompanied by his brothers Clayton and Jay and by drummer W.S. Holland, their aim being to cut some new material, including a revamped version of an old blues song, “Matchbox.” Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, who wished to try to fatten this sparse rockabilly instrumentation, had brought in his latest acquisition, singer and piano man extraordinaire, Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play the piano on the Perkins session.

Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist himself, but now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. He was, at the time, the biggest name in show business, having hit the top of the singles charts five times, and topping the album charts twice in the preceding 12 month period. Less than four months earlier, he had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, pulling an unheard-of 83% of the television audience, which was estimated at 55 million, the largest in history, up to that time. After chatting with Philips in the control room, Presley listened to the playback of the Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went into the studio and some time later the jam session began. Phillips left the tapes running in order to “capture the moment” as a souvenir and for posterity. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had also enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in (Cash noted in his autobiography Cash that it was he who was the first to arrive at Sun Studio that day). As Jerry Lee pounded away on the piano, Elvis and his girlfriend at some point slipped out. Cash claims in Cash that “no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis”

The following day, an article, written by Memphis newspaperman Bob Johnson about the session, was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar under the title, “Million Dollar Quartet.” The article contained the now well known photograph of Elvis Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

That fateful jam session so caught the public imagination that it is now a successful Broadway show . "Million Dollar Quartet - The Musical" is based around this famous foursome, all of whom grew up in areas influenced by Scots-Irish culture and went on to be trailblazers in the world of Rock 'n' Roll.

a few songs from the famous jam session
Story sources:

Thursday, 27 November 2014

A Scots-Irish Thanksgiving story.

Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News, Maine. 

Every American kid knows the story of Thanksgiving, as told in schools across the land.
There’s the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the winter of hardship, the helpful American Indians and the triumphant and thankful meal at the end of that first year. The story has become part of the national mythology, and influences what we think about the nation’s founding.
In Maine, they have their own tale of Colonial-era suffering and woe that is leavened with cruel villainy, a heroic rescue by the Passamaquoddy Indians, and maybe a miracle or two. Hardly anyone knows this story, and some Mainers think it’s time for that to change.
The action began in Northern Ireland in July 1741, when a group of about 200 Scots-Irish Presbyterians boarded a ship, called the Martha & Eliza. They departed from Londonderry and were bound for North Carolina by way of Philadelphia, in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom from the Church of England. They no doubt sailed from the old world with hope in their hearts about the new lives they could make in America. Times had been tough in Ireland after a volcanic eruption in the late 1730s created a mini ice age, in which winter stayed for two years, freezing the River Shannon solid. The group sailed under an emigration scheme that likely was called “the Grand Design”.
After about three weeks at sea, the passengers were struck down by a serious illness which proved fatal for many. Then, after surviving a hurricane which disabled the masts and swept the ship off course for weeks, the Martha & Eliza finally foundered in late autumn near an island with sand beaches and high cliffs.
 The passengers were stranded on Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Washington County.

Grand Manan island

 The captain, Matthew Rowan was a scoundrel. He & his crew abandoned the passengers, taking the ship's longboat. The shipwreck survivors were left to scrounge for clams and make crude shelters on the deserted island.  When the captain finally returned several weeks later — mainly to salvage the goods off the boat -  most of the men from the emigrants camp had left on a quest for help, never to be seen alive again. Some of the remaining women had gone farther afield in search of more food, and the crew left them behind without a search. Captain Rowan did take a group of 48 hungry, debilitated survivors to St. George, where he took their clothes, goods and money before leaving them to the mercy of the villagers.
Meanwhile, the women left behind faced extreme privations, including hunger, cold, death, despair and fear of the Indians. But as fate would have it, the island on which they were marooned was sacred to the Passamaquoddy, the people of the dawn. John Bear Mitchell, a lecturer in Wabanaki studies at the University of Maine, said that Grand Manan features prominently in the Passamaquoddy creation story. Dawn, the daughter of the sea and sky deities, was chased to sea by wolves and became the island.
“It’s believed to this day by Wabanaki men and women that that island has the spirit of Dawn in it because it is her,” Mitchell said, “Men will go out there and do their first hunt. Women do after-winter ceremonies there.”

A Passamaquoddy indian huntsman

In the spring of 1742, Passamaquoddy hunters were shocked when they paddled to the island for their hunt and heard an English speaking voice — a mother carrying an infant. When they learned the 10 or so women had survived all winter on food they literally pulled from the rocks – edible seaweed and shellfish such as clams, periwinkles and mussels, they were astounded.
“They knew the only way the women had survived was that Dawn had taken care of them and the baby,” Mitchell said.
Instead of bringing the women to the relatively close French settlement (who were at war with the British Isles at the time) and ransoming them there for profit, the Passamaquoddy hunters decided instead to deliver an SOS letter to the nearest British settlement.
That they would paddle over 100 miles in an open canoe, risking their lives on the women’s behalf, is even more remarkable.
A ship from St. George went to Grand Manan to pick up the last survivors, bringing them back. Many stayed in St. George, not wanting to risk anything else in the name of adventure. They married local men and put down deep roots in Maine. It’s said that the women from the shipwreck kept a good relationship with the local Indians.
There was a huge prejudice against the Indians at the time. But the people the emigrants had trusted — the captain & his crew, had let them down. The people who had rescued them were the Indians.
Mitchell said people can learn a lot from the stories of positive interactions between Europeans and Indians, like the story of the rescue of the women from the Martha & Eliza, instead of concentrating on the myths of settlement and conquering.
“Focusing on positive interactions is sort of like Thanksgiving,” he said. “It refocuses Thanksgiving from Pilgrims and Indians to family time. We’re taking care of people. As humans, this is what we do, and this is what we should be doing.”

Read the full story at BDN maine. and at

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Halloween & the Ulster-Scots (Haleve Nicht)

'A Haunted Halloween In Northern Ireland'

"...Ulster-Scots traditions are not simply a melange of Scots and Irish phenomena. Significant elements are exclusive to Ulster and perhaps most significantly, these communities appear to have generated a distinctive pattern of calender customs with it's own set of cyclical balances and relationships"... American folklorist, Jack Santino, Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life.

The word Hallowe’en comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve. It is also know as Haleve Nicht in Ulster-Scots.  The date of 31st Oct. was  adopted & Christianised by the church in the 8th century as the eve of All Saints Day, but the day originates with ancient pagan festivals held by the Celtic speaking peoples of Ireland & Britain, particularly the Gaelic festival of Samhain  & the Briton festival of Calan Gaeaf .  Halloween was and still is one of the most important festivals of the year throughout Scotland & Ireland.  It was the climax of the harvest and throughout the upland areas of Ulster it also marked the traditional date of the return of cattle & their herds from the summer pastures on the mountains. The 1st of November was the New Year of the Celtic calendar and as such was the most important day of the Celtic year. Halloween was the only one of the ancient Celtic quarter days observed by the Presbyterian communities (the other quarter days being Lughnasa /Lammas, Imbolc & Beltaine).

Ulster-Scots were superstitious people and belief in fairies & the supernatural world was wide-spread. Writing in 1821, the Rev. John McCloskey of Banagher parish, Co Down proposed that the Scots who migrated to Ulster in the seventeenth century came with the "whole train of witches, the tribe of fairies, the overlooking (bewitching) of horses and cows." Some believed that "the Irish & Scots fairies fought regularly every year for control of the magical realms of Ulster.". 

Ulster-Scots Halloween traditions included lighting bonfires, parties with special food & games, practical jokes and children visiting houses guising (wearing a disguise) & rhyming - all with a heightened sense of the supernatural. Turnips were hollowed out and faces carved into the flesh. They were then illuminated by candlelight and put outside the home to ward off evil spirits.

Turnip lanterns
 In Fermanagh it was believed that on the Eve of All Hallows the dead would take revenge for any hurt done to them while alive. So people with troubled consciences avoided graveyards or if they heard steps behind them did not turn around for this meant instant death.

Hallowe’en was more celebrated for fortune-telling than any other night of the year. In Armagh pairs of nuts were put on the hearth and named after courting couples. The behaviour of the nuts was supposed to be indicative of the future of the couples: if the nuts jumped apart it meant arguments and infidelity, if they stayed together, long life and happiness.

Children went around neighbours houses rhyming in the hope of receiving apples or nuts (or in more recent years, money). The most popular rhyme was a slightly altered version of a Mumming rhyme usually associated with Chritsmas:

"Hallowe'en is cumin' tha goose is gettin' fat.
Wud ye please put a penny in tha oul man’s hat.
If ye havnae got a penny a ha’pney wull do.
If ye havnae got a ha’pney God bless you.
And yer oul man too."

A 1817 description from Islandmagee, County Antrim read: "On Haleve, alias Hallow-e'en, apples & nuts were eaten, with which young boys & girls often play some harmless tricks, for the purposes of prying into futurity about sweethearts; boys also go about and strike the doors of dwelling houses with cabbages, or the like.". One of the more popular pranks was to remove a gate from a field or garden and place it on a roof to make it look like the work of a devious supernatural being.

Halloweve – An Ulster-Scots poem by Adam Lynn of Cullybacky in Co Antrim, describing typical Halloween customs (circa Oct 1900).

Haleve comes bit yince a year, 
The auld folks used to say ; 
So Wully axed me ower yin eve 
To drink a cup o’ tae; 
So ower goes I, and, boys a dear, 
We had a desplr’t time, . O’ which I wush tae gie some hints 
In this bit simple rhyme 
On Haleve Nicht.

The table sure it almaist groan’d 
Wae iverything you’d name; 
If anything wus left ava 
It was nane 0’ oor blame; 
The tableclaith was then fouled up, 
The fun it did begin, 
I hope the tricks the youngsters played 
Wur tainted not wae sin 
That Haleve Nicht

" Bless me," said I, " what noise is that? " 
The door it got some slaps; 
Said I, ” If this ere hoose wus mine 
I’d go’ot an’ choke them waps.”
J est then we all begun tae sneeze,
No’ yin 0’ us could speak
The hoose it was completely filled
Wae pepper and tow reek
That Haleve Nicht.

As soon as this had cleared  awa’ 
The big tub wus brung in, 
Then for a red-cheek’d epple, ‘od, 
The dookin’ did begin ; 
Anither yin swung frae the roof, 
Beside a lichted split, 
And many a bluidy mooth was got 
By hanching for a bit 
That Haleve Nicht.

A turnip peelin’ was hung up 
Withoot a crack or fla’
An’ yin young lad he’ it’ a her’n,
The heed and banes and a’.
Some roucht at tricks wae luckin’ glass,
An’ ithers wae a plate,
The hale idea was tae ken
Wha’d likely be their mate
Some Haleve Nicht.

Bit naethin’ bate the burnin’ nits, 
And hoo they bleezed thegither, 
'Twas very seldom, I should think, 
They seemed tae like each ither ; 
But is the cause no’ at the heart, 
As some 0’ them hes nane, 
And some hes bad and some hes guid, 
And weer we no’ the same 
This Haleve Nicht ?

Halloween in the USA. 

Although the Christianised All Hallows' Eve was observed in America in the early days by English Anglicans & Catholics the modern spooky holiday & its supernatural traditions were brought to America by Ulster-Scots, Irish & Scottish immigrants.  Halloween didn't take off as a mainstream secular holiday in the USA until the early 1900's. Up until that point it was more commonly associated with people of a Scottish background than any other ethnic group.

illustration for Robert Burns' Halloween
The first book on the history of Halloween in America ‘The Book Of Halloween’  (1919) describes festivities such as hosting a ‘Scotch party’, using Robert Burns’ poem ‘Halloween’ as a guide to costumes and party games. Burns' poem of 1785 was influential in spreading the customs of the holiday to a wider American audience. Today's American customs of wearing costumes, carving pumpkins and Trick 'r Treating are evolutions of old traditions from Scotland & Ireland.

Early 20th century Halloween cards in the USA frequently included symbolism such as tartan, thistles and men in kilts (see samples below). They reveal just how closely Scotland was associated with Halloween in American minds…   


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The story of Jean Watson and King William of Orange.

The feisty Ulster-Scots widow from Donaghadee who walked all the way to the Boyne to retrieve what was hers and came face to face with the King.

William III lands at Carrickfergus castle (click to enlarge)
Article © by Jason Burke
See full article at

King William III landed at Carrickfergus on 14 June 1690 with a fleet of around 300 vessels.  Having mustered an army of 36,000 men, this was the largest troop that Ireland had ever seen and is likely to ever see.  A witness to the landing observed, "the lough between this and Carrickfergus seems like a wood, there being no less than seven hundred sail of ships in it… I cannot think that any army of Christendom hath the like.". The Williamite army proceeded south in order to confront James II who by this stage was perched on a strategic position at the River Boyne near Drogheda.  William’s journey took him to Belfast where he stayed at the old Belfast Castle before leaving again on 17 June 1690.  It is reported that he stopped briefly at the site of the modern ‘King William’s Park’ (Lisburn Road, Belfast) before making another stop at Malone due to a rain storm. 

36,000 troops and several hundred ships was a formidable force by any standards, it was sure to crush most enemies in its path, most, that is, except for one audacious Ulsterwoman…

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Scots-Irish & the American Declaration of Independence.

“Signed by Order, and on behalf of the Congress JOHN HANCOCK, PRESIDENT Attest. Charles Thompson, Secretary."

That phrase (above) at the end of the Declaration of Independence should serve as a reminder to all of the debt owed to the Scots-Irish who played such vital parts towards the setting up of their Free and Independent States. 

These were to be the only two signatures on that historical document for many days; that of the President of Congress, John Hancock whose ancestors came from County Down in Northern Ireland, and that of Charles Thompson, born in Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland, who's penmanship drafted the original document.
The first printed copies of the declaration were known as the Dunlap Broadsides. Dunlap was born in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. It was first read in public by the son of an Ulster Scot, Colonel John Nixon.

The historic Declaration contained sentiments closely identified with the aspirations of the Presbyterian immigrant stock from the north of Ireland who settled in the American colonies during the 18th century. A significant assertion was: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Apart from JOHN HANCOCK & CHARLES THOMPSON, at least five other signatories were Scots-Irish... 

THOMAS McKEAN, leading Delaware signatory of the Declaration, was the son of William McKean, an Ulster emigrant from North Antrim who came to Pennsylvania via Londonderry as a child and later married Letitia Finney, whose family had also emigrated from Ulster.

GEORGE TAYLOR, a signatory for Pennsylvania, emigrated from Co Antrim as a 20-year-old in the 1720s and he settled in the Scots-Irish dominated Chester county.

JAMES SMITH, another Declaration signatory from Pennsylvania, emigrated from the north of Ireland as a 10-year-old at about 1719 and, like George Taylor, he also settled with his Presbyterian family in Chester county.

MATTHEW THORNTON, signatory from New Hampshire, landed on American soil as a four-year-old in the passage of five ships carrying 120 Presbyterian families from the Bann Valley (Coleraine-Ballymoney-Aghadowey-Macosquin).

EDWARD RUTLEDGE, whose father Dr John Rutledge left Co Tyrone in the north of Ireland in 1735, was and a signatory of the Declaration from South Carolina.

Other Declaration signers - WILLIAM WHIPPLE, ROBERT PAINE and THOMAS NELSON - are also believed to have some Ulster links.

Flag of Mecklenburg County, N.C.

A forerunner to the American Declaration of Independence was the Mecklenburg Declarationsigned at Charlotte in North Carolina on May 20, 1775 by 27 leading citizens in the region, 18 of whom were of Ulster-Scots Presbyterian origin.This Carolina backcountry document fearlessly staked the claim for American independence, with the signatories declaring themselves a free and independent people. Similar patriotic sentiments were expressed at the time by Scots-Irish settlers at Abingdon, Virginia, at Pine Creek in western Pennsylvania and at Hanna’s Town in south-western Pennsylvania.

Famous quotes regarding the Scots-Irish and the American war of Independence...

W. McKinley - Scots-Irish were first to proclaim for freedom in United States
T. Roosevelt - It's doubtful if we wholly realise the part played by the Scots-Irish.
T. Roosevelt - The most ardent Americans of all were the Presbyterian Scots-Irish.
Hessian Commander - This war is nothing more or less than a Scots-Irish rebellion.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

AUDIO: Ulster-Scots in the American colonies in first half of the 18th century.

Conceived in Liberty Vol. II

Conceived in Liberty, authored by Murray Rothbard, is a 4-volume narrative concerning the history of the United States from the pre-colonial period through the American Revolution. The volumes, released in the 1970's are beloved by specialists and respected by historians.

The 12 minute audio excerpt presented below is from Volume II, Chapter 10: "The Ulster Scots". Volume II - "Salutary Neglect" covers the American colonies in the first half of the 18th century. 
Chapter 10 details the arrival & settlement of the Scots-Irish in Pennsylvania, as well as the reception they received from the Puritans in an earlier settlement in New England.

10. The Ulster Scots. Conceived in Liberty: Vol. II - "Salutary Neglect": The American Colonies in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century.

An early 18th century Ulster-Scots homestead.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Legend Of Stumpy's Brea - video

Stumpy's Brae is an 1844 Ulster-Scots poem by Cecil Frances Alexander. In October 2013 it was adopted into a spooky 30 minute dramatised ghost story by the BBC. The drama's dialogue is in Ulster-Scots. 

Cecil Frances Alexander, the author of the poem, was the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Derry. She also wrote the famous hymns "All Things Bright and Beautiful", "There is a Green Hill Far Away" and the Christmas carol "Once in Royal David's City".

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Indentured Servitude in colonial America.

A great many Ulster-Scots (Scotch-Irish) went to America during the colonial period as Indentured Servants. This was in lieu of payment of passage which could sometimes be the equivalent of three years earnings for a farm labourer. It's estimated almost half of European emigrants to America in the colonial period were indentured. These contracts lasted on average three to seven years in which the unpaid servant (or rather his labour) was owned by whomever buys it on arrival at port. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

The ancient connection between Scotland, Ulster & Appalachia.

"Scotland and Northern Ireland have many ancient bonds that have endured throughout the aeons of both recorded history and back into the dark shadows of the misty primaeval. The oldest and least known is that they are closely related geologically, both being made up of tertiary basalt, a type of black igneous rock, and carboniferous limestone, a sedimentary rock with marine origins. 

Moreover, Ulster, Ireland's northern-most province, and western Scotland are actually part of the same prehistoric mountain chain, a chain that is millions of years old and that once included the Appalachian Mountains of North America. This geologic connection is quite ironic when one considers that the same stock of people came to live in all three locales in the historic era: the Scots in Scotland, the Ulster Scots in Ulster, and the Scots-Irish, as they came to be known, in America."

E. Estyn Evans, The Personality of Ireland.

UPDATE: There is now an International Appalachian Trail for walkers that stretches across eastern USA, Canada, Ulster, Scotland & western Europe. See the website for the Ulster stretch here...