"A man with God is always in the majority"
"I love Highlanders, and I love Lowlanders, but when I come to that branch of our race that has been grafted on to the Ulster stem I take off my hat in veneration and awe"
Let us begin by asking a simple question-who are the Scots-Irish? Simple questions very rarely have simple answers, and the answer to this one is more complex than most. Much depends, moreover, on where in the world it is posed. In Britain the term is virtually unknown, and most people would assume that it meant some kind of hybridisation between the Irish and the Scots. Only the Protestant communities of Northern Ireland would generally recognise what is meant, though very few would now accept the designation for themselves, preferring to be described as British or Ulstermen. Only in North America, where the term was invented, would one be likely to encounter an immediate recognition; but even here there are problems. Many of the descendents of the original Scots-Irish settlers would happily wear kilts and tartan on commemorative days, though this would have been a shock to their ancestors, who took particular trouble to distance themselves from all things Celtic and Gaelic. The task of this article is to attempt what is always a dangerous endeavour: the separation of myth and reality, and thus uncover the roots of one of the most remarkable branches of the Scottish-and Irish-race.
The story begins with an ending. In March 1603, the same month that James VI of Scotland began James I of England and Ireland, the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, chiefs of the O’Neills and the O’Donnells, the leading families of the ancient province of Ulster, surrender to the English. Thus concluded the Nine Years War, the latest in a long line of struggles to arrest the steady expansion of English power in Ireland. It was in Ulster that Celtic Ireland had made its last stand against a foreign invader, all the more unwelcome because he now came garbed in a cloak of militant Protestantism, a direct challenge to an ancient Catholic tradition. It had been a particularly bitter struggle, and Ulster had been devastated. The northeastern counties of Antrim and Down, within sight of the coast of Scotland, are described by contemporary writers as ‘all waste’.
For James the conclusion of the Nine Years War came as a welcome addition to his new glories; it also presented him with a problem and an opportunity. As a man and a king he was no more sympathetic to Gaelic traditions and culture than his Tudor predecessors on the English throne. While still King of Scots he had been preoccupied with the problems posed by his own minorities in the Highlands and Islands, whom he once described as ‘utterly barbarous.’ In the 1590s he had even sponsored a scheme of internal colonisation or plantation, handing over the island of Lewis to a party of Lowland adventurers. These men were to bring civilisation and commerce to the western Isles, in a project that allowed for the wholesale extermination of the local Gaelic clans. Faced with the widespread hostility of the Highland communities, the Lewis plantation was a costly failure: the idea, however, remained fixed in the royal mind.
In Ulster, unlike the Scottish Highlands, the local people had been severely demoralised. Plantation was not a new idea in Ireland, but past schemes had achieved very little. To begin with James showed little interest in a fresh project but for a series of unusual opportunities. The first involved two rather shady Lowland opportunists, the kind of men all too attractive to the enterprising king. James Hamilton was a university don and a spy; and Sir Hugh Montgomery, his partner, was an Ayrshire laird. Together they helped Conn O’Neill, an Irish chieftain, escape from Carrickfergus Castle, where he had been imprisoned for rioting, and offered to obtain a royal pardon for him in return for a share of his substantial estates in Antrim and Down. James, originally hostile to the proposal, became the fourth partner in the enterprise, no doubt amused by the audacity of Hamilton and Montgomery. Both men proposed to bring over large parties of Scots Lowlanders to replenish the depopulated areas, thus reviving the hitherto discredited idea of plantation. James now had a way of driving a Lowland, Protestant and English-speaking wedge into the heart of a Gaelic and Catholic world. In granting Hamilton the territory of Upper Clandeboy and Great Ardes, James emphasised the intention "…of inhabiting the same, being now depopulated and wasted, with English and Scottish men; and the carrying of men, cattle, corn and all other commodities from England and Scotland into the said territories. Also, to have liberty to alien [grant] to any English or Scottish men, or of English and Scottish name and blood, and not to have the mere Irish."
Ireland was formally an English possession, so it was important to emphasise English as well as Scottish settlement, though for reasons of geography and temperament, the new plantation was almost exclusively Scottish, as James himself clearly recognised it would be: ‘The Scots are a middle temper, between the English tender breeding and the Irish rude breeding and are a great deal more likely to adventure to plant Ulster than the English.’
Taking the lead of Montgomery and Hamilton, land hungry Scots crossed the North Channel in ever increasing numbers. What they found would have daunted all but the hardiest spirits: ‘…parishes were now more wasted than America (when the Spanish landed there)…for in all those three parishes [Glenabbey, Donaghadee and Newtonards] thirty cabins could not be found, nor any stone walls, but ruined roofless churches, and a few vaults at Grey Abbey, and a stump of an old castle in Newton, in each of which some gentlemen sheltered themselves at their first coming over.’ But the land was good and largely unfarmed, as the native Irish economy had been pastoral rather than arable. Settlers were also encouraged by the promise of long leases, far better than the unfavourable terms in their native Scotland, where short leases acted as a disincentive to good husbandry and improvements. Plantation, the Scots were soon to show, could be made to work, especially when it was supported by adequate military force.
A second and more significant opportunity came in September 1607. Although Hugh O’Neil, Earl of Tyrone, and Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnel, had made their peace with the government some years before, they had been subject to almost continual harassment by the Dublin authorities. Fearing for their safety, the two chiefs left for the continent, never to return, an episode famous in Irish history as ‘The Flight of the Earls.’ James now had huge territories in central and western Ulster: Hamilton and Montgomery’s free enterprise scheme was supplemented by the Plantation of Ulster. Land was granted to men known as ‘undertakers’, who pledged themselves to bring over settlers from England and Scotland; only the more inferior lands were to be allotted to the native Irish. This time more English settlers began to make an appearance, though they continued to be numerically weaker than their Scottish cousins. This is hardly surprising: England was richer and far more settled than Scotland, and Ireland remained a dangerous frontier. Native Irish chieftains, deeply resentful of their changing circumstances, took to the wilds as outlaws, and as ‘woodkernes’ represented a real threat to the more isolated settlers, many of whom were wiped out in midnight raids. The descendants of the Scots migrants were later to face a similar threat on the American frontier. While the Irish raiders were tough, the Scots were even tougher. Many of the early migrants came from the Scottish borders, men with names like Armstrong, Bell and Elliot, where they had been hardened in an age-old struggle with the English.
Despite the woodkerns-and the wolves-the Plantation survived and prospered. In 1634 Sir William Brereton, in a journey through Ayrshire noted that: ‘Above the thousand persons have, within the last two years past, left the country wherein they lived…and are gone for Ireland. They have come by one hundred in company through the town, and three hundred have gone on hence together, shipped for Ireland at one tide…" By 1640 it is estimated that as many as 100,000 Scots had settled in Ulster compared with some 20,000 migrants from England.
As well as new modes of farming the Scots brought a strict Calvinist doctrine, which by the late 1630s was taking a firmly Presbyterian shape, as opposed to the episcopacy favoured by the king. Later in the century an Anglican opponent of the puritans detailed the impact of Scottish Presbyterianism on Ulster:
"Hereupon followed the plantation of Ulster, first undertaken by the city of London, who fortified Coleraine and built Londonderry, and purchased many thousand acres of land in the parts adjoining. But it was carried on more vigorously, as most unfortunately withal, by some adventurers of the Scottish nation who poured themselves into this country as the richer soil; and, though they were sufficiently industrious in improving their own fortunes there, and setting up preaching in all churches wheresoever they fixed, yet whether it happened for the better or the worse, the event hath showed. For they brought with them hither such a stock of Puritanism, such as contempt of bishops, such a neglect of the public liturgy, and other divine offices of this church, that there was nothing less to be found amongst them than the government and forms of worship established in the church of England."
Charles I, James son and successor, in attempting to force Scotland to accept the English forms of worship, took a path that led directly to the Civil Wars. This had a profound effect on the Protestant settlers in Ulster. Although the Scots had originally been made welcome by the English Lord Deputy in Dublin, their enthusiasm for Presbyterianism made them politically suspect. Confronted by official hostility they faced an even greater threat in 1641 when the native Irish rose in revolt, venting years of frustration on the bewildered and badly frightened settlers.
The colony survived, though it entered a prolonged period of stagnation and crisis, which only really came to an end with the defeat of the Catholic Jacobites in the war of 1689-1691. During the wars the Ulster Scots had played a full part, assisting, amongst other things, in the famous siege of Londonderry. Among their rewards they could expect, at the very least, a measure of religious toleration: after all, the revolution settlement had at last conceded the right of Scotland to a Presbyterian church after years of Stewart persecution. But the Ulster Presbyterians were in caught in a paradox: though the reign of William of Orange brought a measure of calm, they were still subject to a religious establishment in Dublin, which remained strictly Anglican in outlook. During the reign of Queen Anne the Presbyterians, though part of the victorious Protestant party, were to find themselves just as outcast as their despised Catholic neighbours.
The successive wars had the effect of once again depopulating the fields of Ulster: many of the original settlers had been killed or had returned to Scotland for their own safety. An appeal was made for fresh settlers, with twenty-year farm leases being held out as bait. Thus began the last great wave of Scots migration to Ulster. In the decade up to 1700 an estimated 50,000 people made the crossing. Politically this last wave was among the most significant, especially for the future of America and the creation of that unique outlook that was in time to be known as Scots-Irish.
By 1707, the year that the Scottish parliament merged with its English cousin, the Protestant colony of Ulster was a hundred years old. The differences that had existed between the original settlers, whither Scots or English, had largely ceased to exist. It is now possible to discover a distinct Protestant Ulster identity, recognisably unique and distinct from the sources of origin. With the absence of outmoded feudalism, still present in Scotland, looser kinship ties, and a freer labour market the Ulster Protestants began to develop in an unanticipated direction. If anything religion provided the common bond, rather than race, uniting dissenters of differing faiths, though it is also true to say that the Scots settlers had acquired a cultural domination over their English counterparts. Though loyal to the crown, they were a people who, through decades of adversity, had become self reliant, and never quite lost the feeling that they were surrounded by a hostile world: ‘They learned from hard experience’, one commentator noted ‘that one must fight for what he has; that turning the other cheek does not guarantee property rights; in short, that might is right, at least in the matter of life and land ownership.’ In the early years of the eighteenth century they found themselves once again under attack, though this time from a totally unexpected direction.
In 1704 the government of Queen Anne, dominated by the Anglican High Church party, passed an act that had a direct bearing on the Ulster Scots. All office holders were obliged to take communion in the Established Church, a measure which at a single stroke virtually wiped out much of the civil administration in the north of Ireland. It was even seriously suggested that Presbyterian ministers could be brought before Anglican church courts, charged with fornicating with their own wives. The worst features of the new legislation was removed by the Toleration Act of 1719, but the damage had been done, and full discrimination against the Presbyterians was not finally ended until the middle of the nineteenth century. The irony and unfairness of the new policy was pointed out, amongst others, by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe:
‘It seems somewhat hard, and savours of the most scandalous ingratitude, that the very people who drank deepest of the popish fury, and were the most vigorous to show their zeal and their courage in opposing tyranny and popery, and on the foot of forwardness and valour the Church of Ireland recovered herself from her low condition, should now be requited with so injurious a treatment as to be linked with the very Papists they fought against…There will certainly be no encouragement to the Dissenters to join with their brethren the next time the Papists shall please to take arms and attempt their throats. Not but they may be fools enough as they always were to stand in the gap.’
The Ulster Presbyterians had endured-and survived-past waves of religious discrimination, and would most likely have continued to thrive in the face of official hostility. But in the early years of the new century they were faced with an additional challenge, one that threatened the whole basis of their economic existence in Ireland. By 1710 most of the farm leases granted to the settlers in the 1690s had expired; new leases were withheld until the tenants agreed to pay greatly increased rents, which many could simply not afford to do. Rather than submit to these new conditions whole communities, led by their ministers, began to take ship for the Americas: a new exodus was about to begin. In 1719, the year after the first great wave moved west, Archbishop William King wrote an account of the migration from Ulster, pinpointing the real source of the upheaval:
‘Some would insinuate that this in some measure is due to the uneasiness dissenters have in the matter of religion, but this is plainly a mistake; for dissenters were never more easy as to that matter than they had been since the Revolution [of 1688] and are at present; and yet never thought of leaving the kingdom, till oppressed by the excessive rents and other temporal hardships: nor do any dissenters leave us, but proportionally of all sorts, except Papists. The truth is this: after the Revolution, most of the kingdom was waste, and abandoned of people destroyed in the war: the landlords therefore were glad to get tenants at any rate, and let their lands at very easy rents; they invited abundance of people to come over here, especially from Scotland, and they lived here very happily ever since; but now their leases are expired, and they are obliged not only to give what they paid before the Revolution, but in most places double and in many places treble, so that it is impossible for people to live or subsist on their farms.’
As the years passed thousands of people crossed the Atlantic from Ulster, just as their ancestors had crossed the North Channel from Scotland a century or more before. However, by 1750 the pace of migration began to slow, as relatively normal conditions returned to Ulster after years of economic dislocation. The period of calm was all too brief. In 1771 a fresh wave of migration began, once again induced by the greed of the landlords, which was arguably to have serious consequences for the security of the British Empire in North America. Faced with a fresh series of rent hikes, local people at first mounted some resistance, gathered together in an organisation known as the Hearts of Steel; but the landlords had the law and the army on their side. In the short period left before the outbreak of the American Revolution a further 30,000 Ulstermen left for the colonies, joining some 200,000 who had already made their homes there earlier in the century. The contemporary image of the Ulster Protestant is most commonly that of the Orangeman, with all of his exaggerated loyalty to Britain and the Crown. For the dispossessed of the 1770s the opposite was true: they had lost everything, and came to America with an intense hostility towards all things British.
For the original Quaker and Puritan settlers of the thirteen colonies, largely English in origin, the emigrants of Ulster, an increasingly common sight, were usually described as ‘Irish.’ To counter this misconception the newcomers adopted the older description of ‘Scots’. It was in this semantic exchange that a new breed took shape: they were the ‘Scots-Irish.’ For many years these people had lived on a frontier in Ireland, and it seemed natural for them to push on to a new frontier, where land was both plentiful and cheap, introducing a new urgency and dynamism into a rather complacent colonial society. Before long these ‘backwoodsmen’, distrustful of all authority and government, had established a hold on the western wilderness, fighting Indians and wolves in much the same way that they had once fought wolves and woodkern. In Pennsylvania the Scots-Irish established an almost complete domination of the outer reaches of the old Quaker colony. It was a dangerous life, but one which has established a lasting image in American history and folklore:
‘He was a farmer so far as was needful and practicable out of the reach of all markets, though as often as not his corn was planted and his grass mown, with the long-barrelled short-stocked ponderous small-bore rifle upon which his life so often hung, placed ready and loaded against a handy stump. What sheep he could protect from the bears and the wolves, together with a patch of flax, provided his family with covering and clothing. Swarthy as an Indian and almost as sinewy, with hair falling to his shoulders from beneath a coon-skin cap, a buck-skin hunting shirt tied at his waist, his nether man was encased in an Indian breach-clout, and his feet clad in deer-skin and moccasins.’
With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775 the Scots-Irish, in interesting contrast to many of their Scottish cousins, were among the most determined adherents of the rebel cause. Their frontier skills were particularly useful in destroying Burgoyne’s army in the Saratoga campaign; and George Washington was even moved to say that if the cause was lost everywhere else he would take a last stand among the Scots-Irish of his native Virginia. Serving in the British Army, Captain Johann Henricks, one of the much despised ‘Hessians’, wrote in frustration ‘Call it not an American rebellion, it is nothing more than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.’ It was their toughness, virility and sense of divine mission that was to help give shape to a new nation, supplying it with such diverse heroes as Davy Crocket and Andrew Jackson. They were indeed God’s frontiersmen, the real historical embodiment of the lost tribe of Israel.
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