Thursday, May 11, 2017

'O Liberty's a braw thing!' - David Bruce, SW Pennsylvania, 1801 - "Originally Written under the Signature of the Scots-Irishman"

David Bruce was born in Caithness, Scotland, but seems to have lived for a time somewhere near Londonderry & Coleraine. He emigrated to the US and arrived at Bladensburgh, Maryland, in 1784. He moved onwards to Burgettstown in Washington County in frontier south west Pennsylvania around 1795. He published poems in regional newspapers, some of which are brilliantly rich with the hamely tongue.

Politically charged, a collection of them was later published as a bound edition in 1801, entitled Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Originally Written under the Signature of the Scots-Irishman. The poems give superb insight into the political convictions of a relatively obscure rural ’Scots-Irishman' in America. They were expertly analysed by Harry R Warfel in 1925 (in two related papers in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, in the July and October 1925 editions) who detailed the political context in which Bruce was writing.

The excerpt below shows that from Bruce's perspective, even after the French Revolution, the establishment gradually resumed control. It is perhaps also a reference to the experiences of post-Revolution America.


"I, far owre th'Atlantic's wave,
A thoughtless multitude amang,
Frae mad Democracy to save
Pour out my unavailing song'

That Bruce wrote for a Pennsylvania readership in (Ulster-) Scots tells us that the local community was literate enough to be able to read it. It's also a barometer of the politics of the frontier in the aftermath of the Revolution, when new political debates were raging within the new nation. Federalists were all the rage, their party run by Alexander Hamilton who in his early life was influenced by the thinking of a Belfast Presbyterian minister, Hugh Knox (see previous post here).

Significantly, it shows the usage of the term Scots-Irish a good 40 or 50 years prior to the ‘famine Irish’. Normally of course you’d expect to see Scotch-Irish, but nevertheless it is a self-identification in a rural community long before the mid-1800s. There is a common myth that these distinctive terms only emerged after the later arrival of the ‘famine Irish’, to draw distinction, but this is not true. (It is a myth which to the modern mind carries with it the silent inference of social or even sectarian prejudice).

A PDF edition is online here (1801)
Warfel’s analysis is online here (1925)