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History of the Scotch-Irish or Ulster Scot

By Linda Merle

WARNING: do not confuse history with family history! History describes events of significance to the nation and mass migrations. Family history describes a single family or individual's history. It is very possible your family is different from the history described below. Mine is! That doesn't mean that either the historians or your grannie is wrong. You do need to be aware of the big picture to do well with family history. Many a brick wall is composed of erroneous assumptions.


Most Ulster Scots were in Scotland before they migrated to Ireland. MOST but not ALL! We'll discuss where else they might have been later. But for now, where were they in Scotland and when did they move to Ireland and why?

Most of them were in areas of Scotland adjacent to Ireland. The largest migration of Scots to Ireland was in the early 1600's. Due to lack of definitive records, we do not have exact numbers, but in the early 1600's 120,000 are believed to have migrated -- from both England and Scotland. Bailyn says in one 24 month period in the 1630's at least 10,000 Scots migrated to Ireland (Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, Vintage Books, 1988, p 26).

In the early 1600's Ireland was the primary destination for migrating Scots because it provided opportunities that Scotland couldn't offer-- and Scots were not welcome in English colonies. Protestants were welcome. Catholic Scots, of which there are many, were not welcomed by the government in Ireland, though some did come, largely at the behest of Scottish Catholic lords, on whose lands in Scotland they may have already been living. But the bulk were Presbyterian lowlanders. They include a group of Protestant lowlanders that the Scottish government settled in Kintyre. They were run off by hostile natives and sheltered by Sir Randal McDonald (Catholic) on his lands in Antrim. He appreciated the lowland farmer. This group were a few of the many victims of the McDonald / Campbell feud.

Many tenant farmers came from Ayrshire -- though Ireland attracted enterprising landlords and merchants from all over Scotland. Other Scots had come from Argyle and other McDonald homelands in the mid 1500's with the McDonalds. Many of them were Catholic. They are still settled in the Glens of Antrim. Many are ethnically Irish because they are Catholic.

Another source of Scottish and English settlers was the Scottish/English border. At the time, James I/VI was breaking up those clans to secure the border between the two countries. Many fled hanging in England or Scotland to Ireland, largely settling in Fermanagh.

Often lords acquiring lands in Ireland recruited from their own Scottish estates or the estates of their neighbors, relatives, and friends.

An unknown number of Scots fled back to Scotland in the 1630's to avoid religious persecution in Scotland.

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In the early 1600's, the Scots joined a small Irish population. Since poor Ulster had been decimated by more than 50 years of war at the time of the Plantations, there were not many Irish. AND, contrary to popular belief, they were not "run off"! If you doubt me, read Elliott The Catholics of Ulster --or any number of history books. True, the government WANTED to run them off and pursue a "Cherokee" type solution. However, they were very short of men to farm and bring in the harvests. They could not afford to displace the Irish as their lives depended on them staying to bring in the harvests. Though the law prohibited the newcomers from renting to Irish, many did anyway. The Church (Protestant) was under no such restraints so many of its tenants were Irish.

The Ulster Irish spoke of course Irish, which was simply a different dialect of Gaelic. Scots and Irish could communicate without difficulty. This isn't surprising since the Scotti, an Irish tribe, moved from Ireland originally. They also followed similar naming patterns to the Irish. There were sons of Hughs, Johns, and James everywhere. So they sometimes ended up with the same or similar surnames as the incoming Scots.

Due to the destruction caused by war, there were no habitable houses. All the churches were in ruin. There were very few priests or Protestant clergy. It is documented that in at least one Antrim parish the entire Irish population became Presbyterian because the only minister about was the Scottish Presbyterian minister. If you wanted the baby baptized, he did it. In a world where religion was not yet politicized, this happened without communal pressure -- in some locations.

In 1641, many Ulster Scots were killed by the Irish in the Rising, but we are not sure how many. We do not know how many people were in Ulster as many had fled to Scotland in the 1630's to avoid the Black Oath. In 1642, more Scots arrived to defend the survivors as part of Monroe's army. It founded the first Presbyterian Presbytery in Ireland. Before that, there was none. Though Presbyterian, not all these men were lowlanders. I have an ancestor who presumably arrived in 1642 in Monroe's army. He came from Kintyre and was a Lamont, though the surname of his descendants is BLACK. They settled into Antrim.

In the 1680's more Scots came to Ireland, fleeing the Killing Times in south western Scotland.

In the late 1690's, another period of enhanced Scots immigration to Ireland occurred after King William secured his throne. Apparently, whole new towns and villages sprang up at this time. There is also evidence of a famine in Scotland which caused increased migration.

After the Williamite Settlement, there were no large movements of Scots to Ireland because economic conditions in Ireland were not good. Sometimes, they fled to Ireland to avoid religious persecution, though sometimes they fled back to Scotland to escape it in Ireland. People also moved in both directions at various times to avoid political problems. People also migrated seasonally to Scotland to work on farms.

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Non-Scots "Ulster Scots"

However, not all "Ulster Scots" were from Scotland. Assimilating into this ethnic group, which has become synonymous for Presbyterians in Northern Ireland, were the English settlers of the Ulster Plantations. The English did not survive well in the tough climate of Ulster in the early 1600's. The Scots tended to replace them even in the English Plantations.

Other English/Welsh blood was donated by the Chichesters, who started a colony of their tenants in Antrim from their lands in Devon and Wales in the later 1500's. This is called the "Lost English Colony". The surnames remain in the Belfast area.

Also, you have other immigrants such as the Thompson family, who emigrated from Holland. They became a prominent Belfast merchant family. After 1690, many of King William's continental soldiers settled in Ireland. Not too many of Cromwell's soldiers were settled in Ulster since it already was largely in the hands of loyal Protestants.

Protestants such as Huguenots and Germans also settled in Ireland in the 1600's. Many of these settled elsewhere in Ireland than Ulster, though there were settlements of Germans in Antrim and Huguenots in Lisburn -- as well as others.

The surnames of the non-British settlers rapidly became anglicized so that they can be difficult to identify by surname alone.

Finally, Irish assimilated into the Ulster Scots ethnic group. As Irish converted to Protestantism, descendants assumed their families came from Scotland as they adopted the myths of the Ulster Scot as their own. However some don't! Surnames were fluid. Adopting a new ethnic identity was very simple: drop the O. Some Irish surnames began with Mac as well as Scots. By dropping the Mac, the name was anglicized and indistinguishable from English surnames.

In the 1600's, there appears to have been an ethnic fluidity in Ireland. Your "ethnicity" was determined more by your choice of religion rather than your ancestrage. In some areas in south Antrim, it is believed that, due to lack of both Catholic and Church of Ireland clergy and the presence of Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian clergy, the indigenous population became Presbyterian by default. The first Presbyterian minister in Bushmills was an Irishman named O'Quinn in the early 1600's. He preached in Irish to his congregation and went on missions to convert the Irish. Evidence remains that the Scottish Presbyterians maintained an active ministry in Irish though this became impossible to maintain due to the government policies outlawing the use of Irish. Meanwhile, Scottish men were marrying Irish women -- who raised their offspring Catholic and Irish speaking. In fact, when the law was repealed in the early 1600's which made it illegal for Scots to marry Irish, we are told there was "great rejoicing".

Let none of this of course detract from your current ethnic tag. We are who were are; our ancestors, however, may well have been something different. At one time, they were Strathclydians, Mercians, Northumberlanders or Irish or Scots warriors fighting with Irish or Scots warriors of differing clans. These kingdoms and the clan rivalries are forgotten though at one time their inhabitants fought bitterly with one another to establish their cultures in Great Britain. In fact, the Scotti of Roman days were an Irish clan -- from County Antrim. They later invaded Scotland (500 AD) and won the local cultural battle with the Picts.

As long as Ireland and Scotland have been next to each other, there's been migration between the two to adjacent areas. Ulster is adjacent to Scotland -- so that's where many Scots went. It was easy to go over and come back again.

Often, it was difficult to tell a Scot from an Irish because in many cases, they shared a common culture and spoke a common tongue. They had similar cultures. Many Scots clans are founded by Irish clans. In fact, Scotland is a colony of Ireland. Before 500 AD the "Scotti" were in Ireland. Scotland was called "Alba" then and Picts lived there. The Scotti established a colony on the western shores. Eventually, these Antrim boys lost their lands in Ireland to marauding Irish clans, but they supplanted the Picts. Kenneth McAlpin united the thrones of the Picts and Scots. However, the eastern lowlanders were a different people. They are the descendants of Angles and Vikings and Pictish clans, not the Irish Scotti.

In the late Middle Ages, a new phenomena began to occur that would have a massive impact on Ireland. Irish lords began to hire Scottish mercenaries to help fight their intertribal and wars with the English. They were called Galloglass soldiers from the Irish gall oglaigh or stranger soldiers. They were apparently from the western Scotland and of mixed Scots and Viking origin. They changed the course of history in the 1500's. Through one dynastic marriage, an Irish lord got 10,000 of these soldiers. Some of them settled down in Ireland and established clans of their own. The McSweenies are one example of a galloglass clan who assimilated into the Irish. If they stayed Catholic, they assimilated into the Irish and lost their ethnic identity as Scots.

As mentioned, the majority of the Ulster Scots came in the Ulster Plantation period. They came willingly, recruited by their lairds, many of whom were also acquiring Irish estates. Their forte was not only farming but also the skilled labor required to create a colony. They could build homes, raise livestock, blacksmith, and so on.

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Seventeen Hundreds

Much of the text on this page has focused on the sixteen hundreds since it was the formative period of the Ulster Scots. It was also a very turbulent hundred years in Ireland. Nonetheless, Scots didn't attempt to emigrate to the Americas in any large numbers. A few did leave. In fact Rev Mckemie began the Presbyterian Church in America. However most didn't leave till the 1700's.

In the early 1700's, the political situation in Ireland stabilized. There would be no more rebellions till 1798. However, economic conditions worsened, at least partially due to trade restrictions placed on the economy by Parliament. These laws, also, impacted the Scottish economy. Consequently, Ireland was no longer an attractive destination for immigrants.

While in the 1600's, the Presbyterians were persecuted, and neither, they or Catholics worshipped in churches, as the Penal Laws were reduced in the 1700's, they began to construct churches, called meeting houses. While in the 1600's, it was common for families to move to new farms frequently, in the 1700's people "settled down" and attempted to hold onto the lease that they'd had. Thrown into competition over reduced resources, Irish and Scots began to conflict locally. For instance the Hearts of Oak disturbance.

The great wave of emigration of Ulster Scots to American began in 1718 and continued till the start of the American Revolution.

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Colonial United States

Many other peoples came to the new world before the Ulster Scots. They did not begin coming in large numbers in 1718. Here is a summary of their migration. Most of this information is from Leyburn The Scotch-Irish.

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Aborted Exit: Eagle Wing: 1639

Rev. Robert Blair of Bangor, Down, Rev. James Hamilton of Ballywater, Rev. John McLellan of Newtownards, and Rev. John Livingston (late of Killinchy) on receiving an invitation by the Governor and Council of New England, built the Eagle Wing in Belfast, named after a passage in Exodus: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine." She was forced to Scotland and then turned back by a hurricane. Over 140 people died and the Rev. Blair had a son born. They never attempted the passage again -- though descendants of the leaders did immigrate.

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New England

The first to emigrate came to Boston. Their ministers were invited by the Rev. Cotton Mather. In 1781, the first five ships arrived in Boston harbor. However, they did not receive a warm welcome since they were very different from the ethnocentric Massachusetts Bay Colony. Massachusetts was a theocracy aimed at a homogeneous society.

The Ulster Scots attempted to set up insular, isolated colonies in which they could be themselves, but the New Englanders literally tore down their meeting houses. Hence, the Scotch Irish moved to the frontier in search of places beyond the control of Massachusetts. As Massachusetts moved in to control them, they moved on. Hence, they are to be found in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Western Massachusetts.

They continued to migrate westward to New York (Newburgh area) and beyond to Pennsylvania. Then they joined other newcomers in the Great Migration southward and westward.

The first five ships who brought Ulster immigrants are know as the Five Ships.

For more history see This Link.

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Though a Quaker, William Penn, the proprietor of the Pennsylvania colony, provided freedom of religion in his great experiment. It wasn't long till it was the destination of choice for all kinds of European dissenters, especially Germans. Philadelphia was an important port. However, many also came through New Jersey and various Delaware ports.

They first settled in Lancaster County but soon began moving westward and southward since they didn't like living with the Germans who were also moving to Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, they clustered on the frontiers where they bore the brunt of the Indian massacres during the French and Indian War in the 1750's. The failure of the nonviolent Quaker government to provide protection caused great bitterness.

Only a few hardy souls survived the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution west of the Alleghenies. After the Revolution, though thousands poured west to Pittsburgh and beyond.

Before the Revolution, outgrowing their cradle in Lancaster County, many treked southward down the great Philadelphia Wagon Road to the Virginias and the Carolinas.

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Southern Colonies

The Scotch-Irish, moving down the Wagon Road from the north, were joined by countrymen arriving from Ulster. They moved southward and settled the inland Great Valley of Virginia first, then moved to the hilly Carolina Piedmont area to the south. In the 1750's and later, the Scotch-Irish were still arriving via Philadelphia and then traveling by land up to 700 miles southwest to the Carolinas. However, they also entered through Charleston though almost none are known to have entered ports in North Carolina. The South Carolina colony had developed a plan in 1731 to increase immigration by offering poor Protestants land. It gave 100 acres were given to the head of the family and 50 to each additional family member. The grantees had to pay quit rent two years after receiving the grant. Then, he was entitled to another grant on the same terms. The grantee had to clear and cultivate the land at a rate of 3 acres out of every 100 acres per year. In 1752, grantees were provided with tools and provisions. In 1761, the colony offered to pay passage for these poor Protestants but required a certificate from their church testifying that they were of good character. These terms expired in 1768 though the Council ruled that poor Protestants would still be given land free of charge but still were charged various fees. They, also, had to travel to the land and to appear in person before the Governor in Council to request land.

Thus the names of grantees appear in the Council records.

Families from Ulster and elsewhere (Pennsylvania, Scotland) began to flood in. In the 1750s, while still more came in the 1760s and even after the bounties expired. They continued to come after the Revolution. Note that, some Catholics also came from Ireland, including a few that were granted land though their religion was known.

The most well known group was that of the Rev. William Martin, arriving on five ships in 1772. In Ulster, he had ministered to scattered Reformed Presbyterian societies on either side of the Bann till 1760, when they were divided, and he chose the Kellswater congregation in Antrim. Conditions worsened in Ireland with higher taxes and economic hardship. He received a "Call" to go to Carolina following violence related to high rents. After he preached a sermon calling his congregation to join him, some 467 families did so in five ships. His leaving destroyed the fledgling Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery in Ireland.

The Reverend was the first Covenanting minister in South Carolina, serving at the Catholic (universal) Presbyterian Church on Rocky Creek. All kinds of Presbyterians worshipped there in common: Associates, Covenanters, Burgher, Anti Burgher, Seceders. He was a patriot in the American Revolution. His families settled throughout South Carolina. They are documented in a book Scotch-Irish Migration to South Carolina, 1772 by Jean Stephenson.

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Post-Colonial History

The post-colonial history of the Scotch-Irish is the history of America. They largely determined the local culture in areas where they predominated: Appalachia, Pittsburgh, and the New South. African slaves picked up their accent and modified their style of church singing to create the Negro spiritual. Other people assimilated into them, creating the phenomena of people who were culturally Scotch-Irish, but whose ancestors had never seen the sun rise in Ireland.

They were extremely avid democrats, perhaps a natural result of Presbyterianism. Consequently in the second American Revolution, they were all Jeffersonian Democrats -- confusingly, this means they were Republicans. With their vote in 1800, they set the rudder of the nation on its future course as a champion of the rights of the common man.

After the Revolution, the Scotch-Irish continued to spread out all America. In their rush to far distant mountains, they perhaps forgot the Boyne and the walls of Londonderry and their enemy the Irish, replacing them in the pantheon of myths with the American Revolution, the Alamo, and the American Indian. But, they are all the same, myths still!

Migration, of course, halted with the American Revolution, but began soon after it was over. Troubles with the British in the early years continued. The British stopped American ships and pressed Americans and emigrants into their navy. Both Irish and Americans protested, so eventually forced impressment stopped, but not before the War of 1812. This war also brought immigration to a halt. The early post-revolutionary years saw the arrival of many political refugees from the United Irish Rebellion. This new wave of Ulster migrants are under studied. Their impact on the fledgling Republic is extremely underrated.

Gradually as the new century grew older, the Ulster Presbyterian was joined by growing numbers of Catholic Irish. The USA was democratic in principle, though still, they were to learn, a land where Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, were disadvantaged. But they could get ahead nonetheless because there were jobs. They poured into the country to build the canals of the early 1800's, to work in the mills of New England, and to push west, where they met on the Pacific more Irish Catholic workers getting off the ships in San Francisco Harbor.

Post-Revolutionary Ulster Immigrants often joined their cousins and were not so different from them. However, as the 19th century continued, events in Ireland had changed those who stayed in Ireland. Having survived the United Irish Rebellion and the terrors of the Wexford Massacre, they had relived the horrors of the 1641 Rising and were now convinced that they would never be safe from genocide. The rebellion had seemingly rendered permanent the chasm between Protestant and Catholic. It caused the Presbyterian to ally with his Church of Ireland landlord against the Catholic. In Ulster, the Scot entered into an uneasy alliance with the Protestant Ascendancy that has lasted -- along with the unease -- to this day!

By 1830, Ulster migrants were establishing a support network based on the Orange Order (Founded in 1795). It helped new arrivals, getting them jobs and housing. Though early records are rare, you can use its records to research ancestors.

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British North America

What is now known as Canada was settled later than what is now known as the USA -- largely. We are ignoring, of course, many exceptions. However until after the American Revolution, British policy was to discourage settlement in Canada. Afterwards, it began to look for ways to attract settlers. In addition, various land speculators brought some Scotch Irish to Canada quite early.

After the American Revolution, some people moved from the USA to Canada. Apparently, few of them were Scotch Irish. The Scotch-Irish were predominantly rebels in that war, but this doesn't mean that ALL were. Some were Loyalists.

In addition, the border between the United States and Canada has always been porous. Since it is also highly rural, it was often not clear to people which side of the border they lived on. Some New England Scotch Irish did move to northern Vermont. There, they intermarried with Canadians.

After the Revolution, it was cheaper to travel to Canada, so many British, bound for the USA, still arrived at Canadian ports. It is estimated that up to one third of American immigrants entered the country this way.

The policy of the British Government protected the native peoples of British America at a time when the US government was out to exterminate them. Hence some Indian tribes in Canada, out of gratitude to the British Crown, formed Orange Order lodges of their own.

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One of the causes of the American Revolution was the British practice of using the American colonies as a dumping ground for convicts. Back then, there were no prisons to house convicted criminals, except for debtors prisons like the Clink in London. Most convicts were sentenced to be whipped or fined. Serious criminals were permanently disposed of. Many were given a choice of exile in the colonies, either permanently or for a certain numbers of years. If they returned, they were hung. Prisoners were shipped off to America and there sold as indentured servants. For more info read, Immigrants in Chains by Peter Coldham. Benjamin Franklin said that a third of the population were descended from or were these British prisoners. While some were simply poor people, vagrants, and petty criminals, some were violent. They preyed upon other colonials.

After the American Revolution Britain began to use her remaining colonies as penal colonies. Including, of course Australia.

Some of these criminals were Protestants from Ulster -- Ulster Scots.

In addition, others chose to emigrate to Australia where they sometimes became prominent citizens.

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