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Issue 45 - The Ulster Scots

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009


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The Ulster Scots

James Irvine Robertson considers the Scots that emigrated to Ireland, and from there the United States.

They used to be called the Scotch-Irish, but in the last century natives of Scotland became afraid that we might be confused with a bottle of Scotch whisky. So we called ourselves Scots, a prissy word.

Scotch is robust and splendid. You can chew it before spitting it out at the foreigner who dares call you English. Robert Burns claimed to be Scotch. Sir Walter Scott was Scotch. And we can be sure that those who emigrated to Ireland some four centuries ago were Scotch.

Ask the average Scot the meaning of Scotch-Irish and he will look blank. Do the same in the United States and you will achieve instant recognition. The Scotch-Irish slip through the net of Scottish history, but their influence on the development of the United States was profound, possibly more so than that of emigrants from Scotland itself.

For centuries people travelled back and forth across the channel between the north of Ireland and the south west of Scotland.

Travel by sea was easier, quicker, safer, and more comfortable than travel overland, so links across the water were strong. The Scotti, the ancient Celts, themselves came from modern Ulster, settled in Argyll and called it Dalriada. By 1400, Clan Donald held lands on both sides of the North Channel.

The English had been in Ireland since the mid-12th century and, after the Reformation, when Irish Catholics came to be considered untrustworthy and likely supporters of the French, Spanish and England’s other enemies, the Crown decided to take full control. By 1603, the armies of Queen Elizabeth had spent nine years trying to crush Irish resistance. The fighting was centred in Ulster where Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, was losing a war that left a devasted country with an estimated 100,000 dead, many from starvation. He surrendered in 1603, the year James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne to become James I of Great Britain and Ireland.

In 1607, O’Neill and his allies tried and failed to resurrect the rising and their estates, some half a million acres, were confiscated.

As King of Scots, James had had his fill of recalcitrant Gaels and he readily agreed with a strategic plan to settle the shattered province with Protestants from mainland Britain. Some came from northern England or even further afield, but the great majority were Lowland Scots, particularly Borderers, a tough people with a tough Calvinistic creed.

With the newly united kingdom, the constant skirmishing at the frontier between England and Scotland, which had been a way of life for centuries, was being rigidly suppressed. Transporting some of those responsible to Ulster was considered to be a good way of reducing the likelihood of trouble. The emigrants were happy to leave behind the high rents, grinding poverty and poor land.

In their new country, they found a sullen demoralised population that deeply resented the new arrivals but who were the occupants of virtually virgin land, good land at that, since the native Irish kept cattle and sheep and rarely put a plough to the soil.

From the beginning, the Scots clustered together to protect themselves against the hostile natives and they flourished. More joined them and, by the 1630s, when Charles I’s attempt to impose bishops and a new prayer book on Scotland swelled the number of arrivals, it has been estimated that some 80,000 Scots had settled in the province.

Then came the Civil Wars – King against Parliament. Ireland was the first country affected when the indigenous Irish rose against the incomers. Perhaps 12,000 settlers lost their lives – killed or driven from their homes to die of exposure and starvation in the depths of winter. Ten Thousand Covenanters, led by Campbells, landed from Scotland to wreak revenge. Clan Donald of Antrim, hereditary enemy of the Campbells, was targeted. Relations between the settlers and the native Catholic population were never easy – nor could they be – but the legacy of bitterness from those years still endures.

Many from that Covenanting Army joined the Protestant settlers rather than return to Scotland; many of these were Highlanders, who, in spite of the difficulties of settlement within a divided community, considered the opportunities available would give them and their families a better life than they had back home. The divisions became apparent even amongst themselves in 1648 when Royalist and Parliamentary supporters fought against each other.

This constant strife only succeeded in thinning the population and made room for the next great wave of immigrants from Scotland who came in the 1690s. Some 50,000 were to flee the nation-wide famine that struck Scotland, attracted by the 20-year farm leases on offer in Northern Ireland. Most, again, were from the Scottish Borders, almost all were Presbyterian Calvinists and, in spite of their support for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which replaced the Catholic James with King William, they found that the Irish- Anglican establishment treated them little better than the Catholic Irish and banned them from any civil office.

When their leases expired, the landlords pushed up the rents and many of these people could neither afford the higher rents, nor, one suspects, did they see why they should pay them. Having already moved from Scotland, it did not seem that big a jump to move on again. Some 20,000 crossed the Atlantic early in the 18th century, and, by the time of the American Revolution in 1776, it has been estimated that a quarter of a million Ulster Scots were living in America. Their tradition of self reliance, independence of spirit and considerable scepticism when faced by the British establishment meant that their support for the Revolution was overwhelming. Truly it could be said that they made America.

Of course the emigration stream did not end in the 18th century. Ulster became a stepping stone for scores of thousands of other Scots who ended up in the New World.

Weaving, for example, was an early industry in the west of Scotland and many weavers crossed to Ulster to exploit the opportunities provided in the thriving linen industry in the Province. When this was hit by competition from the newly mechanised mills in northern England, many of those who had been employed in the industry, with their families, followed their fellow countrymen to take the long established route across the Atlantic to North America.

Seventeen American presidents are believed to have family links to the Scotch-Irish, which provides some measure of their influence in the creation of the United States.