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Who are the Scots-Irish? A Beginners Guide.

I nearly called this blog post “Who were the Scots-Irish?”  But “were” is past tense, and the Scots-Irish of America are not a historical footnote, they live and breathe here in the United States today.  The problem is, many are simply not aware of their Scots-Irish roots.

Scottish Lowland Roots:

The Scots-Irish began their journey to America from the Lowlands of Scotland.  The Scottish Lowlands is an area from the Clyde in the East across to the Firth of Forth in the West, and everything south, all the way to the English border.  The Scots-Irish are primarily, but not exclusively, Presbyterian.  They first arrived in Ulster (in the Northern part of Ireland) in 1604.  They lived in Ireland for approximately 100 years before the beginning of the Great Migration to the American Colonies in 1718.  That is not to say all the Scots-Irish migrated “en masse” to North America.  To the contrary there are approximately 800,000 Protestants still resident in Ulster, many of whom are Scots-Irish Presbyterians, while others are of English, Welsh or even French Huguenot heritage.   At this point I would like to note that the Scots-Irish living in Ulster today use the term “Ulster-Scots” rather than Scots-Irish.  As the term Scots-Irish is used exclusively in America, and as we are in the United States, I will use the term Scots-Irish in this blog.

There were three waves of Scottish migration to Ireland in the early part of the 17th Century.   The first Scottish settlement came in 1604 to 1605.  Influential Irish landowner Randal MacDonnell, in a deal with King James 6th of Scotland (who also became King James the 1st of England),  was granted extensive additional land in North Antrim.  This land grant of “The Route” was agreed providing Randal MacDonnell settled the new lands with Scottish Protestants.  An agreement was made which may have increased MacDonnell’s holdings in the area up to 300,000 acres.  This deal was unusual at the time as Randall MacDonnell was a Catholic, there was even a chapel in his residence at Dunluce Castle.  However, MacDonnell acquired the land and therefore more wealth, while James (now King of both Scotland and England) increased the Protestant population of Ulster, Protestants being considered more loyal to the crown than the native Irish.  So both these powerful men were happy with the arrangement and the ensuing plantation.

The 2nd wave came came in 1606 with Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton.  This was a private undertaking by these two prominent Scottish Landowners, whereby they acquired two thirds of the land of native Irish Chieftan Conn O’Neill.  This acquisition seems a little opportunistic, if not downright deceitful.  But more on this little piece of intrigue in another post.  Having acquired the land of Conn O’Neill, Montgomery and Hamilton sent over tenants from their estates in the Scottish Lowlands, places such as Dumfries & Galloway & Ayrshire.  They settled primarily the North Down area of Ireland, areas such as Comber, Bangor, Donaghadee, Newtownards and further along the Ards Peninsula.  It is thought between 1604 to 1607 around 10,000 Scots migrated to Ulster as part of the MacDonnell, Montgomery & Hamilton enterprises.  It is thought the success of these first two plantations influenced King James in his subsequent decision to grant the Charter for the 1607 Jamestown Settlement in Virginia.

Thirdly came the official plantation.  King James was enthused by the success of the two previous enterprises, but in 1607 a major event also took place, the Flight of the Earls.  This happened in Sept 1607 when the Irish nobility fled from Rathmullan on Lough Foyle to Continental Europe in an attempt to evade persecution, and rally Catholic support for their cause.  By 1608 King James of England took the opportunity to seize the large landholdings of these native Irish Cheiftans and settle them with Protestant subjects.  The official Plantation of Ulster had begun.  Initially King James wanted the Plantation to be available to both English & Scottish Protestant subjects, but for a variety of reasons the Scottish Presbyterians were the great majority of settlers.

The Scots-Irish remained in Ireland for generations, approximately 100 years.  They made a living from farming and trading in the growing towns such as Derry / Londonderry and Belfast.  They lived through the Irish rising of 1641, the Siege of Derry in 1689 and the Battles of the Boyne, Aughrim and Limerick from 1690 to 1691. They brought with them to Ireland many Scottish customs, speech patterns, architecture etc.  But they also adopted many Irish traits during their long soujourn in the Emerald Isle.  By 1718 they began to migrate to the New World.

Battle of Aughrim by John Mulvaney
The Battle of Aughrim 1691, by John Mulvaney.

This migration began in earnest in 1718.  The Scots-Irish who came to America were almost entirely Presbyterian.  At the time in Ireland they were considered “Dissenters”.  This meant they were not congregants of the Established Church of England (in Ireland known as the Church of Ireland), with the English monarch as head.  Also, because of their “dissenter” status, some of the harsh Penal Laws designed primarily for the native Irish Catholics also applied to the Presbyterians.   For example, the Penal Laws meant the Scots-Irish could not be elected to public office & therefore could not effect the laws by which they were governed.  They also had to pay “tithes” (taxes) to the Established Church even though they did not worship there. These “tithes” would have been used to pay for the upkeep of the Established Church and not their own Presbyterian churches & preachers.  Both the Presbyterians and the Catholics greatly resented this law.  In addition, economic circumstances caused rents to rise rapidly during this period while incomes fell.  Here I examine in more depth these reasons “Why the Scots-Irish Came to America”.  But for now, suffice to say, between 1718 and 1770 there took place a Great Migration of Scots-Irish to the American Colonies.  On the eve of the American Revolution in 1775, more than 250,000 Scots-Irish called the New World home.  It is said that “one in six” of the Colonists were Scots-Irish.

Andrew Jackson defies British Officer
Teenage Andrew Jackson defies British Officer and is cut by a sword. He carried the scar and his dislike for the English for rest of his life. As a man he would meet them again at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.  The British would pay a heavy price.

Their significant role in the ensuing American Revolution cannot be overstated.  Indeed, King George of England referred to it as the American Revolution as the “Presbyterian Rebellion”.  The Scots-Irish experience at the hands of the English in Ireland was fresh in their minds, stories handed down from father to sons and daughters.  By way of example, President Andrew Jackson’s parents had a farm just outside Carrickfergus in Ulster.  The family sailed for America around 1765.  Andrew Jackson and his two older brothers all fought in the Revolution.  Taxation without representation was not going to wash in the New World; the Scots-Irish were angry and would fight for their rights.

Charles Lord. M.Ed

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