Saturday, August 15, 2009

Great Scots

Betsy Lippitt
After watching the episode concerning Culloden in Battlefield Britain this week, I found myself disconsolately singing

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye

In 1978/79, right after I'd moved to San Francisco, Therese Edell came to perform in the Bay Area with her friend and colleague Betsy Lippitt. At that show, Betsy did a solo where she sang "Cam Ye O'er Frae France?", explaining its origins as a scathing Jacobite rebellion riddle song, and alternating singing with a dazzling rendition on her fiddle. She had the range and clarity to do justice to this difficult song, and I was blown away. She later announced she would be staying on to perform at a club in North Beach a few nights a week, and I went several times to see her again, mostly to hear "Cam Ye O'er Frae France?" and be moved on what felt like a cellular level.

I was later able to get versions of it done by Ewan McColl and Rosie's Bar and Grill, but honestly, they weren't as good as Betsy's rendition.

At that point in my life, I thought most of my European ancestry was Welsh (what I had been told by older folks in the family) with of course some English and the ubiquitous Southern white claim to "Cherokee" back there. However, in 1985, a year after my mother's death, I began doing genealogy research in earnest, wanting to understand what had been handed on in my family and from what sources. At this point, I have a staggering amount of data, and it's been invaluable in dispelling myth, particularly in assisting me to name and claim classism and racism as it permeates my family culture. Every one of us is handed a storeroom jammed chock-full of cultural baggage, good and bad, at the moment of birth. If you, like most Americans, don't know the truth about "your people", you're doomed to perpetuate the crap and sentimentalize the good.

That same year, I began partnering with a woman who had a profound connection to her own Scots ancestry. Her beloved grandfather had been born and raised in the Highlands from 1886 to around the 1920s, when he emigated to America. He never lost his brogue or his culture, living to age 95 and residing with my lover and her family the last decades of his life. With her, I went to my first of many Highland Games festivals, and it was as if I had walked into a home I'd never known existed.

A great deal of my ancestry can be traced back to counties in the south, especially Virginia and North Carolina, that were the refuge zone for displaced Scots fleeing English oppression. The majority of my Southern heritage is mountain South, not Appalachian but the other mountain South, the Scots who hate authority, urbanization, centralized religion, slavery, and upward mobility, who revere education, poetry and language, music (especially fiddles), powerful women, wilderness, and drinking too much.

My new lover wooed me with music played on her grandfather's fiddle. In particular, she landed me with a song she directed toward me in front of a group, causing me agonies of pleasured embarrassment. It's called "Johnnie Lad" and she delivered it in Scots dialect to the heart-catching original strathspey tempo.

Oh ken ye my love Johnny
He is doon on yonder lea
And he's lookin' and he's jukin'
And he's eye-watching me
He is pu'in' and he's teasin'
But his meanin's nae so bad
If it's ever gain' tae be
Tell me noo, Johnny Lad

Tell me noo, my Johnny Laddie
Tell me noo, my Johnny Lad
If it's ever gain' tae be
Tell me noo, Johnny Lad

Oh Johnny's blathe and bonny
He's the pride o' all yon lea
An' I love him best of all
Though he's eye-teasin' me
Though he squeezes me and teases me
And tickles me like mad
Nane's cam near me that can cheer me
Like my ain Johnny Lad

Oh Johnny's nae a gentleman
Nor yet is he a laird
But I would follow Johnny
Although he was a caird
Noo Johnny is a bonny lad
He was ainst a lad of mine
And I've never had a better lad
Though I've had twenty-nine

And wi' you, my Johnny Laddie
And wi' you, my Johnny Lad
I will dance the butles off me shoon
Wi' you, Johnny Lad

So I fell, hard, and I began claiming Scots as my primary European culture of origin. (As an aside, can you frakkin' believe that someone who courted me with that song would turn out to have major COMMITMENT ISSUES? I mean, who could have guessed? Isn't there any way for me to learn some of these lessons by advanced placement tests or something?)

But when I began mooning over the devastating loss to My People at the last battle on (ahem) English soil, I decided to do another reality check. It turned out to be a lot more work than I had anticipated, nailing down my European roots by percentage, without the aid of those expensive and as-yet-not-quite-complete DNA tests.

I began by going to my pedigree. (You can view it online here.) It's unusually complete because I've worked my digits numb tracking down all the surname and lineage losses which occur because of the fucking rule that women give up their names when they marry, a custom that I don't think men will ever be stupid enough to take on. ("As long as he neeeds me....") What make this automatic 50% of surnames excision particularly galling is that for almost all of us, the only parentage we can claim with certainty is maternal. It's well-known in genealogical circles that over time, there's a 6% "non-paternal event" rule when looking at paternal ancestry. This means that on average, one of our six times, the guy who you think fathered that child did not, in fact.

Also, do the math. With all the work I've done to fill in "wife" blanks, I've got around 150 different known lineages in my 10-generation pedigree. I'm equally descended from all 150 of those names, not just the name on my birth certificate, and that's only for the past 300-400 years. When you consider human beings have been "human" for around 150,000 years (let me know if that number has changed), migrating into every corner of the globe and mixin' it up, even with "non-paternal" events, you can grasp how it is that you, whoever you are, is related at the level of at least 30th cousin or closer to ANY other human being on the planet, no matter who they are.

This is partly because of line collapse; I can guarantee you, in your pedigree are many individual ancestors who contributed to several lines that led to you, not just one. Pedigrees begin as ever-expanding fans but after a while start moving back in again, like the sides of a diamond, as we reach eras when the total number of people on the planet would equal customers in the Mall of America on the day after Thanksgiving.

I limited my investigation to less than 12 generations because before that, Europeans weren't here in North America and that's what I was after, finding out where the Euro of my European-American tag specifically first drew breath. You can view the detailed version of my results here in a separate post.

What I found out is that while Scots is the highest of the smaller percentages, at 9% of those I could reliably document, it's nothing compared to the 42% who are definitely English. As in slaughtered My People at Culloden English. Time to eat a pasty, play some Silly Wizard, and reconsider.

(Silly Wizard performing "Donald McGillavry")

Other startling or interesting facts which emerged were a few rogue Swiss and Danes, a miniscule percentage of German when you consider it's the #1 European ethnicity in the U.S. (I'm guessing concentrated above the Mason-Dixon line and out West), no French at all (I like the French), and almost as many real Irish as Scots. Yeah, I know that Southern label of "Scotch-Irish", it's a myth. Those are Scots who got deported to Ireland, especially after the Jacobite Rebellion, and forced to live cheek by jowl as unwanted intruders. Those clever English, figuring out how to punish Irish and Scots simultaneously. I do have Scots like that in my lineage, and I call them Scots, not Irish. From what I can tell, at least one of them was a Jacobite and lucky to have survived with his life. His son migrated to America and gleefully joined the Revolution, winning a commendation for his actions at the Battle of King's Mountain.

For those of you not in the know, the Battle of King's Mountain is what really won the American Revolution, not all that "shot heard round the world" crap up in New England. It was brutal and decisive, and a majority of the Southerners who went on a kill-the-English rampage there had Scots blood in them. Payback, baby.

So where am I picking up this almost primordial attraction to Scots identity? Here's something a little hard to admit: I'm a pacifist who's reached that identity by decades of intense inner work, and I don't think I can be dissuaded from it by argument or threat. But when I hear pipes and drums, I get scared I could be seduced into battle simply by the music. It feels almost genetic, my response.

Well, I kept digging, and found out a few other very significant facts. One is that I mustn't overlook the reality that 51% of these ancestors' origins I don't yet know, I can only assign an "earliest known place and time in America" to them. Perhaps they will skew the Scots ratio, if I ever nail down their hop over the Atlantic.

A second is something I've suspected but never seen in such stark numbers. Of all these lineages, only ONE came from Europe to a Northern State -- and that was Pennsylvania, a common landing spot for Scots who then scurried down the Shenandoah Valley to less "English" environs. Everybody else went directly to the South.

I've done a lot of research for other people over the years, and if you're white, non-Jewish, and from immigrants prior to 1900, almost always, your ancestry will be overwhelmingly either Northern or Southern, but not really very mixed. We've been a divided nation from the outset. Jamestown vs. Plymouth Rock. Those first waves of colonists came from very different parts of the British Isles, with different cultures and goals. The Civil War ended slavery -- mostly, let's add, because of the efforts of African-Americans, not the heroic Union Army who then immediately went on to happily wage genocide on the Plains Indians and not because of Lincoln. But racial equality was quickly put in a tiny little box, and the war only exacerbated cultural divides between North and South.

So, then I looked at where in the South most of my folks started out. It's not surprising that Virginia and North Carolina came up with 84% of the known total. They were settled early, seaboard states, and that makes sense. But the counties within those states where my ancestors congregated: Aha, I see a pattern. They were counties crammed FULL of Scots. I mean, even some of my ancestors from Germany and Southern England who arrived in, say Rowan County, North Carolina, a Scot stronghald, they promptly began intermarrying with Scots, taking on the culture and behavior.

It is conditioning, after all. Not just skirl and percussion.

I have a lot more to say which can wait for other essays. In particular, I do want to answer an earlier comment's question about "What if Boudicca had defeated the Romans?", though of course my answer will go the touchy-feely, anthropology route, not rely on military history. But it will have to wait, I have other writing to do today.

I'll close with Steeleye Span performing "Cam Ye Oer Frae France?" at the 1987 Philadelphia Folk Festival. It's not Betsy Lippitt, but you'll get the idea, especially when they stop singing and the drums take over. Below the video are lyrics and a little explanation of the Jacobite code buried in the lines, copied from various other sites.

And who will be our Bobbin' John?

[Members of Steeleye Span: Tim Hart (dulcimer), Peter Knight (harmonium), Bob Johnson (guitar), Rick Kemp (bass,drums) and Maddy Prior (vocals)]


Cam ye o'er frae France, cam ye doon by Lunnon
Saw ye Geordie Whelps and his bonnie woman
Were ye at the place ca'd the kittle hoosie
Saw ye Geordie's grace ridin' on a goosie

Geordie he's a man, there is little doubt o't
He's da'en a' he can, wha can dae wi'oot it
Doon there cam a blade, linkin' like my lordie
He would drive a trade at the loom o' Geordie

Though the claith were bad, blithely may we niffer
Gin we get a wab, it makes little differ
We hae tint our plaid, bonnet, belt and swordie
Ha's and mailins braid ... but we hae a Geordie

Jocky's gone to France, an' Montgomery's lady
There they'll learn to dance - Madam, are you ready
They'll be back belyve, belted brisk and lordly
Brawly may they thrive tae dance a jig wi' Geordie

Hey for Sandy Don, hey for Cockolorum
Hey for Bobbing John and his Hieland quorum
Many a sword and lance swings at heel and hurdie
How they'll skip and dance o'er the bum o' Geordie

NOTE: When George I imported his seraglio of impoverished gentlewomen from Germany, he provided the Jacobite songwriters with material for some of their most ribald verses. Madame Kilmansegge, Countess of Platen, is referred to exclusively as "The Sow" in the songs, while the King's favorite mistress, the lean and haggard Madame Schulemburg (afterwards named Duchess of Kendall) was given the name of "The Goose". She is the "goosie" referred to in this song. The "blade" is the Count Koningsmark. "Bobbing John refers to John, Earl of Mar, who was at the time recruiting Highlanders for the Hanoverian cause. "Geordie Whelps" is, of course, George I himself. The references to "whelps" are not just ordinary insults, but scurrilous puns on the family name of the House of Hanover, "Guelph".

Lunnon = London
Kittle Housie = Brothel (a.k.a. the Palace)
Linkin = Tripping along
Claith = Cloth
Niffer = Haggle
Gin = If
Wab = Web (or length) of cloth
Tint = Lost
Ha's and Mailins = Houses and Farmlands
Gane = Gone
Belyve = Quickly;
Brawly = WEll
Hurdie = Buttock