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  1. Politics
3 April 2000

What if Scotsmen had guns?

New Statesman Scotland - Celtic hot-headedness may have been crucial to the shaping of mode

By George Rosie

The American psychologist and crime expert James Garbarino set the cat among the pigeons when he told a conference in Hamilton recently that, if young Scottish males had access to guns, then their murder rate would be as high as it is in the south Bronx, the Desire “projects” in New Orleans or inner-city Detroit. Even without guns, he said, our young men kill one another at four times the rate of the English or the Welsh. Almost as bad were young New Zealanders, denizens of a country that has a huge Scottish element in its population. The reason for this carnage, Garbarino suggested, was that Scots are quick to take umbrage at an insult and respond with violence.

Garbarino really startled his audience when he went on to suggest that it was immigrant Scots who gave the United States its peculiar culture of violence. He claimed that most of the USA’s mayhem stems from south of the Mason-Dixon line where: “There is a higher incidence of an insult or show of disrespect leading to a murder where young men cannot bear the humiliation. There are historical reasons for this.” And the main reason Garbarino cited was the waves of immigration in the 18th and 19th centuries of Scots (and Ulster Scots) into that area. The English and Welsh preferred to settle in the states of the north and mid-west which, as a consequence, are more peaceable.

Not surprisingly, Garbarino’s thesis brought down the ire of Caledonia’s critics. Joyce McMillan accused him of falling for Hollywood’s Braveheart version of Scotland and Scotsmen. The historian Tom Devine pointed out that the image of “warring Highland clansmen being exported to America is figment since most of the immigration to America wasn’t from the Highlands”. This is true enough, but ignores the fact that much (and perhaps even most) of the Scots’ immigration to America was from the Scottish borders, where bloody, inter-family feuding and cross-border violence was endemic.

Garbarino’s thesis may be exaggerated, but he does seem to have a point. He also has his academic supporters. In recent years, American historians have been examining the history and demography of the southern states and have been surprised to find just how “Celtic” they are. One estimate is that, by the time the civil war broke out in 1861, something like three-quarters of the South’s population had Celtic roots, mostly Scots and Ulster Scots (although, by then, there was a big population of Catholic Irish in New Orleans and southern Louisiana). But is there any evidence that southerners are any more belligerent than other Americans? According to an essay by the political analyst Michael Lind in the American journal Foreign Affairs, there is, and it is strong.

What Lind argues is that those early, quarrelsome, violence-prone Scots and Scots-Irish settlers were crucial in shaping the culture of the South, a culture that later immigrant groups absorbed. Lind cites the historian Wilbur Zelinsky, who wrote that “in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score initial colonisers, can mean much for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants”. The result, Lind contends, has been that in almost every conflict in which the USA has been involved the southern states have been the most hawkish and have provided a disproportionate number of combatants. America’s Scots-Irish, “back-country” presidents such as Andrew Jackson, James Polk and Lyndon Johnson have always been the aggressive ones. In Lind’s view, the southern states of Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas have produced an Anglo-Celtic “Cavalier” culture, while the rest – stretching from the Appalachians to Texas – make up the “Scots-Irish Highland South”. These southern cultures have been – and remain – fiercely at odds with the “Yankee” and “Quaker” cultures of the northern states.

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Interestingly, Lind’s argument is an echo of one made by Mark Twain, that shrewd observer of his fellow countrymen. Twain once claimed that Scotland’s bestselling novelist, Sir Walter Scott, more or less created the American civil war. “It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war,” Twain wrote, “and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste. Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.”

James Garbarino’s contention that the Scots and Ulster Scots of the South are responsible for American violence may be overblown. It probably is. It certainly ignores the contribution made by Italian Mafiosi, Jewish mobsters, Chinese “triads”, Colombian drug cartels and the rest of that wretched underworld. But he does have a case. And it is a useful counterpoint to our customary view of Scots-Americans shaped by a century of hagiography about John Muir, Alexander Graham Bell and Andrew Carnegie.