Background on the Scots-Irish

Larry Pearce

When we hear the word “plantation” we probably think of the American South and slaves picking cotton. In fact, the Haitian word for banana is “plant,” after their enormous orchards begun by their French overseers. While we don’t know when or why the Grays, the Campbells, the Crawfords, and many of our ancestors moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland, we know from family records that most were grown on the British plantation that was “planted” there by King James I in 1610. James’ predecessors had ruled Scotland for many years, and he became the first monarch to govern both England and Scotland. Today, he is best known for his commission to translate the Bible into English, the King James Version. Therefore, Larry Smith argues that our ancestors should be called “Ulster Scots,” because they had originally come from the Scottish lowlands, across the Northern Channel, and were different than those referred to as “Scotch-Irish” by Queen Elizabeth in 1573 for a specific group of Highlander Scots of Celtic ancestry who had gone to Ireland and intermarried with fellow Celts. We’ll look at them in a minute, but the truth is that while the lowlanders were “transplanted” from Scotland to the Irish province of Ulster, they never were truly Irish and seldom even intermarried with the families of the emerald isle. Smith says, “The so-called Scotch-Irish developed customs and manners that were somewhat different than either their Scottish cousins or their Irish neighbors.” But, he continues, they found it necessary to again lift their roots and come to America, especially North Carolina, Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania. From about 1717 they came in five waves, which we shall discuss in this article, along with their earlier background in Scotland and several specific families other than our own in the New World.

Historians and anthropologists have traditionally divided Medieval and Renaissance Scotland, both physically and culturally, between the Highlanders, a primitive Celtic people known as Picts, and the Lowlanders, who recognized a system of rule-by-clans, or family structure. In fact, by the 12th Century this more civilized arrangement developed into what the rest of Europe had, a feudal system where the people traded loyalty to lords for protection. Smith likens the Highlands to the American “Wild West,” where “each of the family clans made and lived by their own laws.” The Lowlands, however, consisted of at least nine different races, Smith says, which most likely meant that they were assimilated into a variety of cultures. Many had originated in Europe, from as far south as the Mediterranean, as far east as Germany, and as far north as Scandinavia:
• Aboriginal natives,
• Gaels,
• Britons,
• Romans
• Teutonic Angles,
• Saxons,
• Normans,
• Flemish, and
• Scots

Ironically, the Scots had originated in Ireland, to the west. They invaded “Alba,” as Scotland was known in the 3rd and 4th Centuries, and settled. The Highlanders always turned back invaders, including the Romans, partly because of the protection they took from the rough terrain but also because of their fierce independence. At times, they became the invaders, taking what they wanted from the Lowlanders. For centuries the English kings thought they could subdue all of the British Isles, but the Highlanders fought back. The Lowlands became the buffer zone, which only served to toughen her people, but fueled animosity to both the Highlanders and the English.

Smith attributes the Scottish colonization of Northern Ireland to two factors: starvation and King James I. First, he says that the Scots were poor, trying to farm rocky soil but ignorant of crop rotation, and they were also probably unmotivated, never knowing when the next invasion would occur.

Second, with the death of England’s Elizabeth I in 1603, the throne went to her nephew James, who had been king of Scotland since 1567. This united the two countries and allowed the new king to use his increased power to colonize the world. Three years before his plantation experiment in Northern Ireland, he had authorized the founding of Jamestown in 1607. The Irish natives had resisted dozens of foreign invasions over the years, including the Vikings in the 9th Century and the Cambro-Normans [Welsh] under Henry II in 1166. Elizabeth I made four tries to colonize Ireland during her reign, but as Smith says, “Each of those attempts ultimately failed because the English settlers either became disillusioned and returned home to England or intermarried with the Irish and adopted their customs and their hatred of the English colonization schemes.” Ironically, the most successful ideological invasion had taken place in the 4th Century by missionaries from Gaul [France], establishing monasteries and converting the Celts to Christianity. Roman Catholic Saints Columba (521-597), born in Donegal, and Patrick (360-460), actually an Englishman, were prominent in that struggle. After founding a church in Derry, Columba took 12 apostles and established a mission on the isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland. For 34 years they evangelized Scotland and eventually won the consent of the powerful Pict king Brude to allow his people to accept Christ. The story goes that the bold, gifted, energetic monk Columba made the sign of the cross, and a set of gates opened in front of Brude, who took this as a sign the he should comply (Fry 40). Columba died in 597, the very year that another Catholic monk named Augustine converted the British king Ethelbert in Kent, which changed all of history [see “Faith of Our Fathers”]. I recommend Peter and Fiona Fry’s The History of Scotland for a complete background on ancient Scotland. For now, however, let’s stick to the last 400 years of our Scotch-Irish.

In 1601 the homes, farms, food and livestock in Ulster were completely destroyed when Elizabeth sent 20,000 troops to quell a rebellion in Munster. The Irish nobleman Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone in Ulster, had sought to takeover all of the province with the help of 4,000 soldiers sent from King Philip III of Spain. With their defeat, the British court declared that at least two-thirds of Ulster should be forfeited to the Crown. Subsequently, about a half-million acres in Northern Ireland were divided among English gentry, military personnel who had assisted in the fight, and the Church. In 1610 James I opened six counties in Ulster to the poor of London and the Lowland Scots as follows: two to the English, two to the Scots, and two mixed. Three other counties already had a mixture of the two people residing there at the time of the plantation scheme. According to Smith, “King James specifically excluded Highlander Scots from the colonization scheme; he believed that they would simply team up with the native Irish to cause discord and unrest.” Furthermore, he says that, while the Scottish settlements succeeded, the English ones failed; they found the ground poorer than their own back in England and they didn’t like the weather. The Scots, on the other hand, found the soil better than their native ground, and a certain peacefulness could be found in this new land, unlike back home. Over the years additional Scots took the place of the departing English.

By the early 17th Century, the Protestant Reformation had taken a hold of Scotland, and Frenchman John Calvin’s Presbyterianism [or the New Testament Christian democracy – see “Faith of our Fathers: Part II”] through Scottish John Knox found itself at odds with James, who liked the Episcopal [or appointment of bishops ala Henry VIII’s Church of England]. Many strict Scottish Presbyterians, fearing a return to Catholicism, began emigrating to Ulster looking for freedom from the threat of persecution back in Scotland.

By 1620, and the landing of the Mayflower in the Massachusetts colony of Puritans, there were as many as 50,000 settlers in Ulster, but in only 20 more years the population had doubled. In 1641, not unlike our Native Americans, the native Irish had had enough of the “intruders.” Their native homesteads were gone. While the Irish remained poor, the Scots seemed to prosper, building wool and linen mills. But perhaps most importantly of all, while the Irish were Catholic and obeying Rome, the Scots were Protestant and were free to serve no one mortal, only God. Smith believes that “rumors of an invasion to be carried out by the Scots aimed at ridding Ireland of all its Catholics enraged the Irish and they decided that they needed to strike first instead of waiting for the Scottish army to arrive on Irish shores.” Over 9,000 Irish troops stormed Ulster that October, killing some 2,000 settlers, but the war, which lasted nine years, ultimately cost 15,000 people their lives.

Meanwhile, the English Civil War was raging, the king against the parliament over who would rule Britain. Because the Ulster Scots had defended the Puritans years earlier, King Charles I was hostile to them. They agreed with the Parliamentarian Roundheads of Oliver Cromwell, especially since his party had called for Presbyterian rule in Britain. In 1644, some 26,000 Scots fought with Cromwell to defeat the King’s army at Marston Moor, but only four years later the outspoken Presbyterians were ousted from the House of Commons, and the Ulster Scots threw their support behind Charles. In 1649, he was beheaded, and his would be successor, 18-year old Charles II, planned to sit in court in Catholic Ireland. But, Cromwell, still in rebellion against the Throne, led his army there the following year. Historians estimate that 616,000 died in his nine-month campaign to suppress both Catholics and Presbyterian Royalists and establish Puritanism. He too was eventually beheaded, and Charles II became a strong advocate of the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters [desirous of Presbyterian rule in Britain] to maintain their support. Charles II was finally reestablished as king in 1660, and within 20 years felt he had to restrict the powerful Presbyterians. Many moved to Ulster to avoid the conflict.

When James II came to the throne in the 1680s, Catholicism was restored. He declared war on Protestants in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. By 1688, the whole realm was in disorder, James fled to France, and the German William of Orange came to claim the Throne. Meanwhile, James planned his return by joining forces with the Irish Catholic General Tyrconnel and together they moved on Ulster. Only a few towns there were fortified, and the Scots took shelter in those. The rest of the countryside was destroyed in a “scorched earth” policy. After 105 days, and a siege on Londonderry, James’ army retreated. William landed in Ireland the next year with 10,000 troops and defeated James at Boyne. It has been estimated that nearly a half-million Irish Catholics migrated to France to escape the solid Protestant stronghold in Ulster, while many more simply moved south to the Catholic sections of the Emerald Isle.

We said above that the Ulster Scots thrived on the commerce that the manufacturing of woolen goods generated. In 1699, however, the British Woolens Act forbid them to trade with anyone except England, which already had many woolen mills. Economic depression set in. This, along with the practice in the early 1700s of “rack-renting,” or raising rents on homes and farms by unscrupulous landlords, forced many Ulster Scots to look to the New Land, America. Furthermore, a severe drought that lasted from 1714-1719 affected the growing of food and flax for weaving and grass for their sheep. According to Smith, “It is often noted in a broad statement that the Europeans immigrated to the New World because of religious persecution, and that may have been the reason for some of them, but the Ulster-Scots came primarily because of droughts and the failing economy in their homeland.” He names five waves of emigration from Ulster:
• 1717-1718, five thousand reportedly sent back favorable findings.
• 1725-1729, over six thousand came in 1728 alone.
• 1740, a major famine forced many out.
• 1754-1755, the governor of North Carolina invited his fellow Ulstermen to come.
• 1771-1775, twenty-five thousand mostly from Antrim. Rack-renting was severe.

Over 200,000 people, mostly Ulster-Scot Presbyterians, sailed for America between 1717 and 1775. Smith points out that their choice of where to settle was somewhat limited. The southern colonies had a plantation system with slave labor and therefore little open land and few jobs. Maryland was a Roman Catholic colony. New York and Boston were filling up fast and the Scots probably saw another Europe [New England?]. But Pennsylvania, originally under Quaker governor William Penn, welcomed all religions. However, the English Quakers and German Mennonites had already settled the eastern and central portions. The hills and valleys and the climate of Western Pennsylvania reminded many of the Ulster-Scots of their homeland, and so they came. While hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics would eventually settle along the railroad tracks and rivers to work the mills and mines around Pittsburgh, the Scotch-Irish got here first and claimed the rich farmland, some along creeks and streams, but mostly atop the ridges and south-facing slopes.

The treaties between Native Americans and the colonies in 1754 and 1768 opened up new lands, especially west of the Allegheny Mountains to white settlers [see “Pittsburgh in 1820 and Beyond”]. Our Grays probably landed in America around 1790, while our earliest known Ulster Scot ancestor was the grandfather of Thomas Campbell’s wife Mary, James Crawford, who came from Derry County, Ireland, to Indiana County, PA, in 1784 [see “Introduction to Thomas and Mary Crawford Campbell” – also note that a portion of land adjacent to present-day Indiana County is named Derry]. Thomas Campbell didn’t arrive until 1828, but family records indicate that he came straight from County Down, Northern Ireland, to join other family members already in the Pittsburgh area. Research is ongoing as to when and where other branches arrived, maternal and paternal.

As the rich farm lands of Pennsylvania filled up, and with the Indian threat out of sight and out of mind to the west, the Ulster-Scots tended to move south along the Appalachian Mountains into Virginia and North Carolina. Eventually, they wondered west into Kentucky and Tennessee, but some who stayed isolated in the mountains preserved their dialect, music, and customs for hundreds of years. Despite the disparaging label as “hillbillies,” these Scotch-Irish still provide a rich glimpse of the culture their ancestors first brought with them, the basis of what is truly early American.

In future articles we’ll look specifically at the Gray, Campbell, and other Clan of Scotland and Ireland and connect our very own ancestors to Scottish king Kenneth MacAlpin, who reigned from 843-860, and the more famous Robert Bruce, who reigned from 1306 to 1329. We’ll consider family crests and mottos and list some of the other famous namesakes in America and around the world.

Works Cited

“Campbell, Joseph.” Memoirs of Allegheny County, PA, 1904.

“Clan Campbell.” 12/10/02<>.

Coffman, William. E-mail on the Campbells of Pittsburgh. 9/13/02.

Fry, Peter, and Fiona Somerset Fry. The History of Scotland. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995.

McGowan, Charlene. “The Massacre of Glencoe.” 12/11/02 <>.

Norfleet, Phil. “The Campbells of Southwest Virginia. 12/11/02<Internet>.

Smith, Larry D. “The Ulster-Scots.” 12/11/02 <>.

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