I have one line of ancestors that runs back to the mountains of Appalachia, and it is from this line that I may have inherited the few anomalous orange whiskers that sprout on my chin when my grooming is lax. The breed was most likely Scotch Irish, and it is my fancy to trace those whiskers to a dashing Viking rover on the cold grey Irish Sea.
I am just now reading an old letter on the Scotch Irish of Appalachia, and I find one critic charging these people with “provincialism, narrowness, bigotry, austerity, and other shortcomings.” I confess that I bear some tincture of the enumerated traits, but offer no apologies since I deny they are shortcomings. What grabs my attention, though, is the line with which this critic was reportedly answered. He was speaking to “a distinguished professor of Washington and Lee University,” a seat of learning in the mountains of Virginia, and this was the professor’s riposte:
“Much of what you allege is true; but they spit no fire before the late war, and they have eaten no dirt since.”
The letter was written in 1894, so the “late war” to which he alludes was the War Between the States. This was the attitude of the mountain Whites, and I am proud to claim kinship with a people of whom such a thing could be said. Indeed, I propose to take the substance of this line as my personal motto.
Spit no Fire, Eat no Dirt.
For as the author of the old letter concludes,
“There is a grand character summed up in that short phrase: The conservatism that assailed no one, the tenacity of purpose that admits to no surrender of principle.”
*) William Preston, “The Scotch-Irish of Western Virginia,” The Scotch-Irish in America, vol. 6 (1894): 199-201.