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Medicine as Cultural Baggage in the Ulster-Scots Settlements of the Valley of Virginia

by Familia Ulster Genealogical Review: No. 21, 2005


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by Kenneth W. Keller

"AMERICAN HISTORIANS have given us many studies of Ulster-Scots, or, as they have been more commonly called, ‘Scotch-Irish’ settlements in the United States and the careers of their clergy, attorneys, journalists, and writers.

Students of the folkways of the regions of the American backcountry where they and their descendants lived have also focused upon such topics as their language, architecture, family structure, child rearing, religion, death customs, foods, dress, use of leisure time, wealth, and political ideas have received attention.

When studies of the American Ulster-Scots do mention health, medicine, and disease, it is usually to call attention to the Ulster-Scots or Scottish ‘influence’ upon or ‘contribution’ to American medicine, rather than to describe and explain medical practices in the Ulster-Scots settlements.

One centre of Ulster-Scots settlement that produced considerable medical activity was the principal Ulster-Scots settlement in Virginia, called since the eighteenth century ‘the Irish Tract’, the area spanning Augusta and Rockbridge counties and comprising the Upper James River Valley and the Upper Shenandoah River Valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the first ridge of the Appalachians."

This article examines the customs involving health, disease, and medicine in the principal Ulster-Scots settlement in Virginia. They were similar to or borrowed from the homeland in Ulster, and this medical culture, part of the cultural baggage of the American Ulster-Scots, persisted there long after it was losing favour elsewhere.