Sunday, September 11, 2016

Winchester, Virginia, 1755: "The inhabitants are a spurious race of mortals known by the appellation of Scotch-Irish."

Spooktacular Halloween Fest 2007

A few days ago Hillary Clinton said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters are ‘a basket of deplorables’. I suspect this will come back to haunt her. It plays very firmly into the ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ view of the world. And not dissimilar to being called, 261 years ago, ‘a spurious race of mortals’. 

That quote has two different sources:

• one is in a 1755 letter by Col. John Banister of Petersburg to Robert Bolling of Chellowe, Buckingham County, Virginia. You can read it all here. (the letter also says that the Scotch-Irish referred to the Blue Ridge Mountains as ‘Blue Ledge’. According to Chambers Scots Dictionary, ‘ledge’ in Scots means ‘parapet’ or ‘top’).

• The second source is from Scotsman Lord Adam Gordon in 1760, using exactly the same form of words about the inhabitants of Winchester. It is quoted in Essays in Scotch-Irish History, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation (first edition 1969, back in print again - click here to buy), in the essay 'Education in the American Colonies' by Esmond Wright M.P., then the Professor of Modern History at Glasgow University. Previously he had studied at the University of Virginia, where he became an authority on Colonial and Revolutionary America. Wright provides a stout defence of the historical veracity of the term ‘Scotch-Irish’ - he also says that none less than Thomas Jefferson even used the term of himself. (the quote also appears in The Story of Winchester, published in 1925, attributed to Gordon.)


Winchester is a pretty, historic, town. We drove past it in July, having picked up some literature about it in the Virginia Welcome Center, on Interstate 66. We turned south at Front Royal, down into Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive. Had we turned north, about half an hour along the road we would have arrived in Winchester.

Winchester was the birthplace, and final resting place, of country singing legend Patsy Cline (1932–1963), full name Virginia Patterson Hensley - her mother’s Patterson line likely to be Scotch-Irish. My late mother was a big Patsy Cline fan. In her last few months when she was housebound on Sunday mornings I would skip the mission hall service and take my old 1920s L-4 Gibson guitar up with me to see her,  and play familiar hymns and songs that she loved and would sing along to. Times that are too precious to have filmed or photographed, her voice weakened by old age and injury, yet still holding fast to simple profound Gospel truths. Old songs like this one:


Patsy Cline died in a plane crash and was buried at Shenandoah Memorial Park, less than three miles from Winchester’s Opequon Presbyterian Church which dates back to 1736, a congregation which first gathered in a log cabin under the oversight of Donegal (Pennsylvania) Presbytery. The building there today was built in 1897, but there’s a gravestone from 1742 in the adjacent cemetery. The name on the stone is John Wilson, who buried his wife and ’two childer' with ‘IRLAND’ chiselled into it - and is thought to be the earliest settler gravestone in the Valley of Virginia.

The stone crumbled under the unskilled hands of the husband, who brought it from the hill side on the west and inscribed the letters himself as a memorial to his young wife. Tradition says he was the school master. (source here)

My mother’s folk are all Wilsons. It’s a small transatlantic world.

In the same cemetery stands this stone:

To the memory of
Samuel Glass
and his wife
Mary Gamble
Emigrants from Banbridge
County Down, Ireland
A.D. 1735
Their Children
Were all born in Ireland
And came with them.


There is another, intriguing, connection with Winchester. It concerns an Ulster-Scot whose roots were at Killinchy in County Down, who fled to America as a boy after the 1798 Rebellion. He eventually settled at Winchester and became, in his day, an author of some importance. More about him soon...

What a ‘spurious race of mortals’. What a ‘basket of deplorables’ they were … and still are.