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Issue 19 - Arms across the Irish sea

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


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Arms across the Irish sea

The link between Scotland and Ireland is a strong one, never more so than with Ulster. David Gordan looks at the association and its implications worldwide.

The Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots. Whatever name you choose, more than 27 million Americans claim their roots lie in the borders and south west of Scotland, and the townlands of Ulster.

They arrived to colonise the north of Ireland before making their way to America, settling in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Their roots in the Scottish Borders and on the west coast are well documented. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Scotland was a land of poverty, violence and religious intolerance.

The Borders area was a marshy and mainly uncultivated region farmed by tenants. As was also the case in the Highlands, the average home was made with mud walls and had a central hole on the roof acting as the chimney.

Whilst life was generally poor, religion was strong. In the reformed Presbyterian Church, discipline was strict, with everyone compelled to attend church twice on Sundays. In some districts, particularly during the Covenanting period, houses were checked to ensure no one had stayed at home.

Around the same time, land in Ireland owned by the Lord of Clandeboye, Conn O’Neill, was divided up between two Scottish landowners, Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton. Both men wasted no time in enlisting Scottish settlers for their new extensive tracts of land.

They brought in farmers, who, in turn, brought in under-tenants, craftsmen and labourers. The Ulster Plantation stemmed from this move, with settlers arriving from Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, the Lothians, and Dumfriesshire. Border families included the Armstrongs, Johnstons, Bells, Grahams, Scotts and Elliots who had hitherto survived in Scotland through cattle stealing, kidnapping, blackmail and general looting. Many had created fortified towers to secure their home territory and consequently left their indelible mark on the area. Traces of many of these towers are still visible today.

As a teenager, James VIth of Scotland (later 1st of England ) had taken action to bring the ‘Border Reivers’ into line. One punishment was the gallows, although the alternative was often a one-way trip to the Ulster Plantation.

Possibly as a result, the ‘planters’ had a tendency to be fearless and anti-authoritarian.

Such traits, it is claimed, have continued through the generations.

Scottish settlers crossed the short stretch of sea in a variety of ships and landed in Donaghadee and Carrickfergus, where the tenant farmers set about creating employment for blacksmiths, masons and carpenters to make the most of the new areas they inhabited.

Throughout the initial period, inevitably, there was a simmering body of discontent. Many people remained very poor, and the promises made to them about their new life never materialised. Atrickle of immigrants started to make the journey across the Atlantic to Maryland and Philedelphia.

Presbyterian clergy had led the early migrants, and churches and communities were already in existence. Emigrant networks grew, and many started to take the long trip to the new land.

One minster, James McGregor, organised five ships to take his congregation, virtually en masse, to America. They arrived in Boston, where the New England Puritans met them with disdain. As they were largely of English descent, the Puritans did not have any warm feelings towards the Scots or Irish. However, they soon realised that the Scots-Irish could act as a useful buffer against the hostility of indigenous Indians.

By the mid 18th century, it is estimated that at least one sixth of the white population of North America was Scots-Irish. However, that figure could have been greater if many of those who attempted the journey had made it safely to land.

Some sea journeys, estimated to last eight weeks, took three months. One is recorded as having taken seventeen weeks. On one ship, the surviving passengers ate six of those who died. Life on board was grim, with many families packed into small spaces below decks.

Food and fresh water was rationed and, in some cases, virtually non-existent. Resilience was the backbone upon which today’s Scots-Irish culture has flourished.

The Scots-Irish have given America more than a dozen Presidents, and their traditions were instrumental in the creation of the military. Today, the cream of the country’s business leaders, athletes and politicians all claim Scots-Irish descent. Country music was formed in the Appalachians and Shenandoah; literary greats also formed many of their stories from tales of the original settlers.

It could be argued that the Scots-Irish are still a dominant force in American culture today.

The Scots-Irish Story is being told in a new stage performance, emanating from Northern Ireland, but touring around Europe and the USA. Innovative and spectacular in its presentation, the story is set in both the past and the present.

On Eagles Wing will be shown on PBS television in the Summer/Fall of 2005 and the live stage show will be touring the country during the year.