I am a Hillbilly

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Give me a moment to explain the statement I made on this title. On this day, I often revisit the fact that my father’s side of the family is Scottish. I often hear on this day, many people speaking of their “Scotch-Irish” ethnicity. So I looked into this “ethnic” group and have learned that it is more of an Americanism than any term that anyone in Ireland, Scotland, or England would be familiar with. But I’m not here to make a case against Scotch-Irish being an ethnicity or not. I wanted to share the story of the Skeens side of my family, which I have partially known, but came to know more intimately this past year.

The story of my people goes way back to the first century AD, known by the Romans as the “Picts,” Latin for piccolos which meant “painted.” They were indigenous tribesmen who painted their bodies and were fierce warriors. Emperor Hadrian feared them so he built a huge wall to keep them from invading the newly found Britannia (parts of Hadrian’s Wall is still standing on the border of Scotland. By the 5th century Celtic immigrants (who were also called Scots) had come to that region. They were mostly Christians (I wonder if St. Patrick ever made it over to Scotland). In the 6th century the king of the Picts was converted to Christianity. In the 10th century the land that the Picts lived on was claimed as Scotland by the king of the Scots who had merged the Scots and the Picts kingdom in the previous century.

The traditional origin of my family name is found in a late 11th century legend. It’s a story about a young man from the Robertson family in Scotland. One of the younger sons of Robertson of Struan was one of King Malcolm’s servants, and was living in the house of Duncan at the time. It’s been said that he went by the name James Duncan. He saved the life of King Malcolm II by protecting him from a pack of wolves with only a small dagger or ‘sgian dubh’ (skene doo) knife. The king rewarded this young man for this heroic, life-saving deed by giving his family a large parcel of land near Aberdeenshire, and called him the lord of Sgian (known to us as Skene).

The family eventually took their name from the ownership of their land. This story is commemorated in the shield of the Skene chief, which displays three wolves’ heads impaled on daggers or ‘durks.’ Now that’s what I’m talking about!


Now I’ll fast forward to the 18th and 19th centuries. The ruggedness of the Scottish land led to the separation of the the Scottish people, from the Lowlanders to the Highlanders. Highlanders were the clansmen. The clan was the way in which you identified who you were, where you came from, how you live, and what you do for a living. “If you were exiled, thrown out, or somehow detached from your clan, you would be called a ‘broken person.’ Broken people are people without community, which is really a death sentence to clans people.” (An Other Kingdom, 30).

This division was marked by racism. The Lowlanders viewed the Highlanders as archaic, barbaric, and savage. You could tell apart the two people groups predominantly by their clothing and/or language (ancient Gaelic). During this era, the Highland Clearances were created. This was an attempt of the English royalty to wipe out the Highlanders; their lives, their culture, and their homes/land. Not only did the Highlanders almost entirely get wiped out, but their settlement patterns, their style and pattern of living has almost no trace to this day, with only remnants of how their civilization lived in a small museum in Scotland.

The Highlanders became such a despised group, that they were not even seen as full humans to most Lowlanders and Englishmen. The Highlanders in return looked at the Lowlanders as traders and half breeds, who mixed their race with the English. This greatly affected my people, and many of them viewed themselves as broken people without their clan. The systemic racism against them has in part, contributed to the angry history our people have, and their hatred for English establishment, or the like.

From this point on, the surviving Highlanders mainly migrated to the Americas, Canada (Nova Scotia), New Zealand, and Australia. Those who were a part of the Skene clan landed in the Carolina’s and made their homes in the Appalachian mountain range, as it was very similar to their lost land in Scotland. Most left their country as indentured slaves, or poor beggars.

This story, my family heritage, is part of the beginnings of the “Hillbilly” culture. Yes, I am a hillbilly. My family name changed many forms once they left Scotland. It can be read as Skene, Skean, Skeen, and Skeens (the “s” was added in the 20th century because it sounded better).

So as a Scottish Highlander, I wanted to say thank you to the Celts, in spite of all the years of hardship. It was the movement of God’s people in the 5th century that has allowed Jesus’ name to be known among my people.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

An Honest Conversation 

“I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom… Is there no virtue among us?… If there be not, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical (highly unrealistic) idea.” James Madison, late 18th century, via Habits of the Heart, 254.

This is indeed a powerful statement from a man who was the chief architect of our infamous Constitution that has helped shape a great nation. The power was always meant to be in the hands of the collective people, people with virtue and wisdom, people who are able to see goodness and honor, and to elect only those who displayed such characteristics. Is this not what we long for in America? Is this not why many people are outraged over the amount of support Trump has won over? The disregard of virtue and character disgusts us and confuses many in our country today. It also reveals how many of us have things we love more than goodness, truthfulness, and human dignity.

I would be neglectful however, if I focused only on Trump’s (or any other candidate’s) virtues and wisdom (or lack thereof) and did not take the time reflect on the virtue and wisdom of our founding fathers as well. The tension of this powerful statement comes from a man (James Madison) who did not count blacks as part of “We the people.” They didn’t even see them as fully human. To be exact, they saw them as 3/5 human. The “We the people” didn’t even fully include women, as they were void of many rights as well, including the ability to vote. This was a founding group of white men who forcefully took land, lives, and dignity from the natives, and to this day, has never fully been acknowledged and dealt with. It seems so easy to overlook this reality and romanticized the goodness of our founding fathers because of all the other good they stood for and the amazing Constitution they created, but to overlook this seems like a grave injustice and inhumane.

This is a generational narrative that has set an infinite amount of implicit rules that most white people are not able to see nor admit. Our nation was founded by white men who set up a nation to cater to people with the same color of skin as theirs. Within all this, implicit rules were established, rules that put white mans needs above everyone else. These unspoken implicit rules have set a culture that has so utterly permeated today’s culture, that to deny there is not equality or equity for people who have darker skin than the average Englishman is ignorant. There are forces at work that people in the dominant culture are not able to see unless they’re able to humbly get out of their privilege and see through the lenses of sub-dominant cultures perspectives.

I say this not to discount the goodness of what America has stood for in many other ways through out all the years, but to seek honest reflection about a nation that has become my heritage, my home. I do believe we live in a very great nation that has fought for justice and peace in many ways. But any good historian (and I am no where close to an historian) would never recount only the good and forsake the ugly of the past. Yet, we as Americans seem to easily neglect the mess as a way to anesthetize our senses to the dysfunction of our heritage, leaving cancer in our souls, slowly growing and hurting and killing us, like a frog boiling in water, and we wonder how we are in the place we are today.

So what is virtue and wisdom? How should we define those words? Does our founding father’s neglect of human dignity towards Women, Blacks, and Indians matter to any of us, or is it easy for us to overlook it and spin the truth of what it was like back then? Was our country founded with “integrous” virtue and wisdom? Does anyone care about our heritage? Do we even care that we’ve never fully acknowledged the atrocious acts of our beginnings? Are we willing to be honest about them, or is it too much for us to take in? Are white people scared to speak out and say that the race issue is the dominant cultures problem? Will white people read this and miss the point I’m trying to make, and become angry with what I’m saying? Where’s our virtue, our wisdom, our courage?

At this moment in history, we’ve been offered another gift. A gift that has exposed, once again, where we are at as a nation, where we are morally, where our allegiances lay, what we truly love and value, and our individual concern that has neglected the common good of the “whole.”

Many of us today are disgusted at what we see? The question is, what are we going to do with our disgust? Are we going to numb ourselves from it and say it really is not a big deal? Are we going to keep on spinning our heritage and twisting historical facts? Are we going to be selective listeners? Are we going to allow our disgust to move us to hate certain people and groups and create more division? Are we going to let the oppressive culture dictate how we treat people? Or are we going to let it move us to compassion that seeks alternative ways to live and honor each other’s diversity? Is it crazy to think that we would allow our disgust to radically change the way we live and love both privately and publicly?

The future holds the mysterious and unknown answers to these questions, and we will soon see what’s next for this people group called Americans. We are all responsible to act and change according to our convictions, and do so in a way that restores human dignity, with a virtue of humility and the wisdom of the divine. May we all be willing to not only take an honest loom at our heritage, but also an honest look at our own lives, our loyalties. We truly are what we love, and what our fore fathers loved, has shaped what we believe and how we behave more than we’re willing to admit.

What do you love, really? Be honest. It’s brutal at first, then you’ll realize you’re human, you’re flawed, and so is everyone else around you. Maybe then we’ll be able to offer more grace to others who are different than us, and will be able to see with a new set of lenses, our country, our families, our personal and public lives, and our need for one another.

Is this the world you want? You’re making it everyday you breathe the air of this world. What is your life song singing? Are you playing on tune? Are you playing in harmony with others or do you prefer solos, or should I say silos? We need each other more than we know, but we need to admit it first. Freedom is at hand, and it’s not the kind of freedom most of us think of. It’s a freedom to be exposed, to be wrong, and to admit it. It’s a freedom to not be in control, and to give up power, and to offer life to those who have had life robbed from them. The freedom we’ve been given, at whatever level we actually have freedom, has been given so that we are able to offer it to others as well.