Rory McSween of Rockingham, NC: an old Carolina Highlander

There are lots of untapped sources which can help us fill out our knowledge of Scottish Gaelic immigrant communities in North America, especially local newspapers. I recently came across this account of local history from the newspaper The Rocket (June 3, 1897) from the city of Rockingham, North Carolina. In this article, the author (L. H. W.) recalls people from his childhood in the neighborhood (in Richmond County) who were still strongly Gaelic, despite being one or two generations removed from the Scottish Highlands.

The most interesting character in this sketch is a man called Rory McSween in English (or Ruairidh MacSuain in Gaelic). Although the description certainly demonstrates some influence from romantic literature in English (he explicitly mentions Walter Scott), he is clearly attempting a realistic portrayal of someone who was well known by others, including those who were reading the newspaper.

Some of the traits described about Ruairidh contradict modern stereotypes and assumptions about Scots and Scottishness: he was not an excessively pious man in religious terms, but was devoted to his native language, culture, and belief system; although he was able to read Gaelic, he had not been subjected to formal education (which was almost inevitably anglocentric in nature); he cared little about money.

This sketch is a fascinating glimpse of Gaels in North Carolina, one that shows the consistency of Gaelic traits and cultural patterns across the diaspora.

“Little” Rory McSween had several brothers, all of whom exhibited in a remarkable degree the peculiar habits, customs, and characteristics of the Scottish clansmen, down even to a period of seventy five or more years after the family had migrated from Scotland hither.

The oldest of these was Sween, who many of my readers may remember. He was, although born I believe in Richmond County, the most completely typical Highlander I ever knew, and always reminded me of some of Walter Scott’s character portraitures …

His parents were natives of Scotland, and gave to their children not only Scottish features, but Scottish tongues, training, prejudices, and opinions as well, and in none of them did the national tribal characteristics crop out more plainly and unmistakably, than in Sween; and in his loyalty to his race and clan, their habits, custom and belief, his own individual pride, which would never allow him to humble himself to any living man, his native hospitality at his home (a point of national honor), his steadfastness to his friends, his haughty bearing and unswerving devotion to the land and ways of his father, marked him indelibly as a Scotchman indeed, and a true clansman.

I have seen him come into town barefooted, but his graceful carriage, his springing step, his uplifted hand, and proud aye, haughty men, all seemed to say he was a true child of the mountain and the mist, owing allegiance to none whose name he did not bear and when he had partaken of enough usquebaugh to bring out all the Scotch in hum, he could be, and often was, the most sarcastic, cutting and proud fellow < … ? … > he had an ineffable, unutterable contempt for the English language, and for everybody who could not answer his hail in Gaelic.

He swallowed his whiskey with a Gaelic sentiment, satirized and cursed his enemies and sang his songs in Gaelic, and in short, was the very impersonation of a wild Hieland man and a McSween.

He was as poor as a pauper but would have starved sooner than beg, was at times a brawler, fighter and swearer, but was truthful, and like all his race, an at least habitual observer of the Sabbath, and there was not enough money in the state to bring him to do a mean act.

I do not know that he was, even in the smallest sense, an educated man, beyond his ability to read Gaelic. He spoke English fluently and correctly, but never when he could use Gaelic, and was as skilled in Scottish folklore and legendary wisdom as an Hieland oracle or prophetic seer.

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