Just Who Were the Scots-Irish?

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

One of the students in my fall genealogy course commented last week that “My family always says that our ancestors are Scotch-Irish – whatever that means.” In that one sentence, she unwittingly defined the problem with the term “Scotch-Irish,” or more appropriately stated, “Scots-Irish.” The term implies an individual of blended Scottish and Irish origin, but this deduction cannot be further from the truth. First, the term is uniquely American with a clearer descriptor being the term “Ulster Scots.” To understand the Ulster Scots and their history, and eventually to identify your Ulster Scot ancestor, you will need to learn about the political and socio-economic framework within which they existed.

The first clarification is that they were not Irish, but rather Scots from the Lowlands of Scotland. They were Presbyterians, not Catholic.

Why, then, did these Presbyterian Scots come to Ulster in northern Ireland, and why did they later leave their homes in Ireland to come to North America?

Geographically, the northern part Ireland is separated from Scotland by a mere twenty miles and this proximity brought with it constant conflict between Scotland and England and the native – and Catholic – Irish. After James I of England (and VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne in 1603, he believed that it was critical to devise a plan that would enable him to concentrate his military resources elsewhere, without the distraction of warfare with the Irish.  His solution was to invite Presbyterians from the Lowlands of Scotland, in addition to some English, German and French Protestants, to emigrate and settle in what became known as the “Plantation of Ulster.” By doing so, he not only would be able to control a large portion of Ireland, but would also be able to exercise tighter control over the Borders in Scotland. His plan was facilitated in 1607 by the “Flight of the Earls,” who left Ireland to seek help from Spain and Rome in resisting English control. When they were unable to return, their lands became forfeit to the crown. The first settlers arrived in Ulster in 1609 when Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton, both lairds in Ayrshire on Scotland’s west coast, began to implement the King’s plan. These lands granted to the settlers, however, were not vacant and large numbers of native Irish were displaced. The areas being settled included the present-day counties of Donegal, Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh, Down, Tyrone, Coleraine (Londonderry) and Antrim.

The plantation plan proved successful and by 1619, approximately 8,000 emigrants had sailed the short distance to Ulster. These settlers proved quite industrious and established towns and farms, as well as industry and commercial interests. Life, however, was not idyllic and was characterized, instead, by a series of crises and threats, not the least of which were uprisings on the part of the native Irish Catholic population, who deeply resented the encroachments and who viewed the Protestant “incomers” as heretics. This resentment erupted, from time to time, as in the major insurrection of 1641. Nevertheless, the Scots lived in Northern Ireland for slightly over a century.

The five waves of “The Great Migration” out of Ireland by the Ulster Scots that began in 1717 were caused by a combination of political, economic and religious factors.

  • The English landlords were Anglican and realized a large percentage of their income from tithes payable by all, regardless of religion. As Protestants, the Ulster Scots were not members of the official church, a variety of laws restricted their religious and political rights.
  • The Scots settlers had established farms that they had continued to improve through almost four generations. In 1717, as the first group of 100-year leases came due for renewal, the landlords, in a process known as “rack-renting,” raised the rents on the improved lands to such an exorbitant extent that many farmers could no longer afford to remain on the land.
  • Six years of drought occurred between 1714 and 1719 and three consecutive potato crops failed in 1724, 1725, and 1726. A famine in 1740 led to almost 400,000 deaths.
  • The growth in the Irish woolen and linen industry began to threaten those industries in England and Parliament’s Wool Act of 1699 represented a severe financial setback to Ulster Scots whose money was tied to this industry.

These factors, when combined, made the perilous and expensive voyage to North America less of an obstacle than that of remaining on their land that now cost an enormous amount in rents and had become impoverished due to continued crop failures and drought. For those who tried to remain, the ensuing famine represented the tipping point, with entire protestant communities setting sail in search of land, religious tolerance, and a better life in general.

The first wave of migration (1717-1718) saw about 5,000 leave Ulster; the second (1725-1729) was larger. The individuals migrating during these two time periods tended to enter through Philadelphia and the Delaware River. Conflicts flared between these individuals and the Quakers and Germans already living in these areas, and so the third wave (1740-1741) was characterized by a push to the west, across Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and then on into the Carolinas. They would later move into Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee in the years following the American Revolution. The effect of Ireland’s 1740 drought would be the single most significant factor driving migration for the following ten years. The fourth and fifth waves (1754-1755 and 1771-1775) spring, in large part, from effective propaganda from America which took two forms: encouragement from family members already in America and relocation schemes promulgated by several North Carolina governors, among others. During those years close to 250,000 individuals migrated. Throughout the Great Migration, the desire for religious freedom, distance from organized government, and land ownership propelled the Ulster Scots out of Ireland. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were almost always supporters of American independence.

The term “Scots-Irish” and/or “Ulster Scot” became less used as the original settlers became assimilated into the mainstream of American life. It would not regain importance as a descriptor until the nineteenth century brought new waves of Irish immigrants during the potato famine. Individuals whose ancestors had settled in the United States as a result of “The Great Migration” felt the need to distinguish themselves from these new waves of immigrants who were Gaelic Irish, not Scots; Catholic, not Presbyterian; and who tended to settle in groups in cities such as New York and Boston, rather than in the Mid-West and South as had the Ulster Scots. By some estimates as many as twenty-seven million Americans can claim Protestant Ulster Scots origins. Their ancestors made an indelible mark on American history, including such diverse individuals as Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, Mark Twain, John Wayne, and Woodrow Wilson, among others.

Irish research is not a simple task. Research into your possible Ulster Scots heritage may be slightly less difficult if you can establish where your ancestor came from, during what time period, and to which religion he or she professed. If you can trace him or her to a location within the confines of the Ulster Plantation and substantiate that he or she was Presbyterian, you will be able to focus your research more readily. The social status of your ancestor and the survival of records for a particular area will probably govern the success of your research.

You may wish to look at the Scotch-Irish Central website for a series of links to research institutions and resources, and at the website of the Ulster History Foundation. In addition, the following print resources will also be of assistance.

  • The Book of Scots-Irish Family Names by Robert Bell (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1997).
  • Heroes of the Scots-Irish in America by Billy Kennedy (Londonderry: Causeway Press, 2000).
  • Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research by Margaret Dickson Falley. 2 volumes in 3 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1998).
  • The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1962).
  • Scotch-Irish Family Research Made Simple by R. G. Campbell, rev. ed. (Summit Publications, 1987).
  • The Scotch-Irish in America by Henry Jones Ford (Bibliobazaar, 2009).
  • Scotch Irish Pioneers in Ulster and America by Charles Knowles Bolton (Nabu Press, 2010).
  • The Scots-Irish in Pennsylvania and Kentucky by Billy Kennedy (Londonderry: Causeway Press, 1998).
  • The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee by Billy Kennedy (Londonderry: Causeway Press, 1995).
  • The Scots-Irish in the Shenandoah Valley by Billy Kennedy (Londonderry: Causeway Press, 1996).
  • A Short History of Ulster by Sean McMahon (Cork: Mercier Press, 2000).
  • Scottish and Scotch-Irish Contributions to Early American Life and Culture by William C. Lehmann (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1978).
  • Ulster Emigration to Colonial America, 1718-1775. (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2010).
  • Ulster Sails West by William F. Marshall (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996).

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