© June 2016 Robin Rankin Willis
This article is a non-academic description of Scots-Irish (or Scotch-Irish) history from about 1600 to roughly the mid-eighteenth century, with emphasis on the factors influencing Scots-Irish migration. I wrote it for family history researchers who want an overview regarding where their Scots-Irish ancestors came from, and when and why they migrated.
When I started doing family history research, I had no idea what “Scots-Irish” meant. I had a vague idea (I must blush) that it meant one had mixed Irish and Scottish ancestry. Turns out that I am an awful student of history. The Scots-Irish were Protestant Scots who settled in northernmost Ireland – specifically, in the province of Ulster – and later migrated from Ireland to the colonies.
First, a bit of Irish political history and geography.
Ireland was traditionally divided four provinces: Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster. Ulster, the focus of interest in this article, was located in the northernmost part of Ireland. Nine counties made up Ulster: (1) Antrim, (2) Down, (3) Armagh, (4) Derry, (5) Fermanagh and (6) Tyrone, plus (7) Cavan, (8) Monaghan, and (9) Donegal.
Here is a map showing the four traditional Irish provinces and the counties which comprise them.
The history of the relationship among Ireland, Scotland and England is way beyond my expertise. Suffice it to say that, in 1603, the Kingdom of England – including England, Wales and those parts of Ireland controlled by the English – was united with the Kingdom of Scotland. King James VI of Scotland became James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
King James is a big star in this narrative.
Fast forward in time two centuries. In 1800, the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” came into being, composed of all of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. In 1922, the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom. Oversimplifying the matter considerably, a vocal Protestant minority concentrated in Ulster – whose existence can be traced back to James I (more on that shortly) – wanted no part of a predominantly Catholic Ireland. To prevent civil insurrection, the British allowed the nine Ulster counties to decide by vote whether they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The very northeasternmost part of Ulster (the first six Ulster counties in the list above) voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The British partitioned those six counties to form Northern Ireland. The remaining three counties which had been part of the province of Ulster – Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal – became a part of the Republic of Ireland. After the partition and Ireland’s independence, the U.K. was composed of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Perhaps you have an ancestor with a classic Scots-Irish name – Alexander, Rankin, Gillespie, Ewing, Steele, Kerr, Caldwell, McQuiston, Denny, or Wallace – who was born, say, in Letterkenny, County Donegal in the 1600s. In light of Irish history, it would be correct to say he or she was born in Ulster (the province), or (more colorfully) the “Ulster Plantation,” or (geographically) the northern part of Ireland. It would not be correct to say he or she was born in Northern Ireland, a country that didn’t come into existence for another three centuries. I am still trying to correct all the instances in which I have made that error.
It would, however, almost certainly be correct to say that your ancestor was Presbyterian. Solid fact #1: it is redundant to describe someone as a Scots-Irish Presbyterian.
The factors that drove the migration of the Scots-Irish from Scotland to Ulster and then to the colonies are more complicated. What ultimately became known as the “Irish Troubles” is a cautionary tale, I suppose, about unintended consequences.
Original settlement of the Ulster Plantation
As noted above, James I of Great Britain, aka James VI of Scotland, became the first king of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1603. James was a Protestant rather than a Catholic or an Anglican (the official church of England after Henry VIII’s dispute with the Pope over his divorce).
Also in 1603, the leading Irish Catholic families of Ulster surrendered to end the Nine Years War, which had been waged in an effort to stop the expansion of English power in Ireland. Large Irish landowners fled the country, leaving behind estates of roughly 500,000 acres. James appropriated those estates for the crown. In 1607, James claimed almost six counties of additional land. Not surprisingly, many of those who lost their land had been the leading opponents of English control of Ireland. They were native Irish and Catholic.
While he was at it, James ordered thousands of remaining Irish Catholic tenants to move from Ulster to other parts of Ireland. James thus created the opportunity to repopulate land taken from rebellious Irish landowners with more reliably loyal Protestants from England and Scotland. The crown made liberal offers of land and other inducements to accomplish that end. People heard; they came.
James predicted, correctly, that more Scots than English would relocate to Ulster, a fairly barren place (then), too rough for what James perceived as the more delicate English temperament. A sizeable population – notable primarily for their Presbyterianism – made the short trip across the channel from Scotland into the northern part of Ireland. During 1610 through 1612, an estimated ten thousand Scots, mostly from the Scottish Lowlands, settled in Ulster. As many as 50,000 Lowland Scots had settled in Ulster by 1620.
Needless to say, the remaining native Irish Catholics thoroughly detested the Protestant Scots settlers, and vice versa. By 1922, when Ireland was partitioned, nothing much had changed in that regard. Wow.
The Irish Rebellion of 1641
It didn’t take long for the simmering Ulster caldron to boil over. Beginning in October 1641, a bloody episode called the “Irish Rebellion” began. It first erupted in Ulster, when native Catholic Irish surprised Protestant settlers and killed them in large numbers. The Irish were apparently afraid that the English Parliament was going to gin out some new repressive anti-Catholic legislation. The attacks may have been preemptive action to “disarm” the Ulster Protestants, who would have been charged with enforcing any such laws. Considering the “legacy of hatred built into the Ulster Plantation,” the violence – says The Oxford History of Britain, in a masterful case of British understatement – “inevitably got out of hand.” A Covenanter army arrived from Scotland to help protect the Ulster Scots, to little avail. “Massacre” is the appropriate term. Although estimates vary wildly, a BBC website suggests that thirty percent of the Protestant population in Ulster died.
The Irish Rebellion lasted for almost ten years, spreading to other areas of Ireland during the English Civil Wars. It ended when the armies of Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland and slaughtered the inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford, Irish Catholic towns on the east coast. Cromwell, apparently an Old Testament kind of guy, evidently still believed in the “eye for an eye” theory.
Not long thereafter, across the channel in Scotland, other religious persecution blossomed. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II and James II set about trying to force Episcopacy down the throats of the Scottish, leading to conflicts between Presbyterians and the Bishops of the Anglican establishment. This culminated in an intense phase of persecution in the 1680s, a period appropriately referred to as “the killing times.” The victims were Presbyterian Scots.
The killing times gave rise to the second large migration of Protestants from their homeland in Scotland to the relatively safe Ulster. Imagine thinking of Ulster as safe, after that 1641 massacre! This second migratory wave took place from about 1663 to 1689, when William and Mary (Protestants) assumed the throne.
It wasn’t just religious persecution that drove these migrations. Economic issues also played a major role, of course. Government – both the English and Irish Parliaments – got in the act, as did Mother Nature.
Beef and beef products were the first legislative target. After the Cromwellian civil wars of the 1640s, the export of cattle from Ireland to England increased substantially, as did exports of beef, cheese and butter. This adversely impacted English cattle raisers, who persuaded the Parliament of Charles II (after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660) to pass an act prohibiting the shipping of cattle, beef, cheese and butter from Ireland to England or to any of the English colonies. I imagine that cut into the profitability of raising Irish cattle, although I haven’t found any relevant data.
The next legislative blow was to the Ulster wool industry, which had grown rapidly in northern Ireland in the late 1600s. Irish wool and wool product exports hurt sheep raisers in England, so Parliament swung into action. In 1698, under pressure from the English government, the Irish parliament placed heavy duties on Irish export of manufactured wool. In 1699, the English parliament passed an act forbidding (among other things) the export from Ireland of all goods made or mixed with wool – except to England and Wales. This immediately crippled the wool industries in Ulster: woolen factories closed down virtually overnight. This started the first migration of the Scots-Irish to America, right at the turn of the century. Most of those early Scots-Irish immigrants settled in New England.
Meanwhile, taxes on the Ulster Scots were going up, as were rents. “Rack renting” became the practice, i.e., raising the rent on land and evicting tenants who couldn’t pay, then renting to the highest bidder. By the early 1700s, most of the leases granted to settlers in the 1680s migration from Scotland to Ulster were expiring, making this practice widespread. Annual “rack rents” were sometimes equal to the total value of the land.
1717: the “Great Migration” to the colonies begins
Religious persecution reared its ugly head again, with Anglicans back in charge in England. In 1704, the English Parliament passed the Test Act, which required all government officials, and all town, county and army officers, and all lawyers, to take communion according to the forms and rites of the Church of England. This effectively wiped out most of the civil service in northern Ireland. Then, in 1714, the Schism Act required all school teachers to secure a license from a bishop of the Anglican Church. A bishop could grant a license only to those who conformed to the Test Act. Goodbye, teaching jobs.
Nature piled on. There was a serious drought in Ireland caused by six years of insufficient rainfall during 1714 through 1719, and that was undoubtedly the final straw. The first wave of the “Great Migration” began in earnest during 1717-1718. During 1717, more than 5,000 Ulster residents left for the colonies. During the next three years, nearly a hundred ships sailed from ports in the north of Ireland, carrying as many as 25,000 passengers – virtually all Presbyterian.
Most of these original migrants settled in the Delaware River Valley, primarily in Pennsylvania. It was attractive because of encouragement by that colony, whose Secretary invited settlement by the immigrants. The process of elimination probably also played a role. Virginia, where the Anglican Church of England was established, was not attractive. Neither was Maryland, which had an established Roman Catholic church. Land in the Hudson River Valley of New York was owned in great estates. By 1720, “go to America” from Ulster meant taking a ship to one of the Delaware River ports. For most of the Great Migration, the majority of Scots-Irish entered the colonies through Philadelphia, Chester, or New Castle. Most of the early immigrants settled in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester and Lancaster counties, Pennsylvania.
During 1725 through 1729, the exodus from Ulster became so large that the English Parliament appointed a commission to investigate the cause, fearing a loss of the entire Protestant population in Ulster. The main problems were identified as rack rents and general poverty.
The largest wave of migration began in 1740-41, when an estimated 400,000 Irish died in the famine of those years. For the next decade, Scots-Irish arrived in the colonies in huge numbers. By then, the power elite in Pennsylvania had become alarmed at the prospect that the Scots-Irish would take over the government. Consequently, Pennsylvania landowners quit selling land to the immigrants. Lord Granville, however, was advertising cheap and abundant land for sale in North Carolina. Thus began a huge migration from Pennsylvania down the Great Wagon Road of the Shenandoah Valley, heading for the Piedmont Plateau of North Carolina. One landowner on the Great Wagon Road route estimated that 5,000 wagons crossed the James River in Virginia in 1755, bound for the huge area that was then Rowan County, North Carolina.
In 1771, a final large wave of immigration from Ulster began, again caused by rack rents. There was some violent and ultimately useless resistance to rent increases by Ulster residents, all Presbyterians, known as the “Hearts of Steel” or “Steelboys.” Landowners, with the law and the army on their side, won. In the few years left before the Revolution, an additional 30,000 Ulster residents reportedly left for the colonies.
Estimated numbers of Scots-Irish in the colonies vary wildly, and I have no basis for discriminating among them. One source estimates that, by 1776, 300,000 people — one-sixth of the (white) population of all the colonies — was Scots-Irish. Yet another source puts the number of Scots-Irish in the colonies at the start of the Revolution at 230,000. In any event, with a total white and black population of about 2.5 million in the mid-1770s, even the smaller of those estimates is a significant percentage of the total.
Those Ulster immigrants obviously had no love for the English. They became the heart of the American Revolution – not the intellectual heart, but the muscle. George Washington said that, if the Revolutionary cause was lost everywhere else, he would make a last stand among the Scots-Irish of Virginia. Captain Johann Henricks, a Hessian mercenary in the British army, wrote, “[c]all it not an American rebellion, it is nothing more than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion.”
Solid fact #2: “Scots-Irish” and “Tory” are mutually exclusive terms. If you have a male Scots-Irish ancestor who was in his twenties or thirties during roughly 1775-1785, you almost certainly have a Revolutionary War veteran on your family tree.
Rankins and Alexanders
My Alexander family was among those who left the Pennsylvania and Maryland area about 1740-ish, settled in Virginia during 1742-1749, and then arrived in Anson/Rowan County by 1752. See my article about them here.
My last known Rankin ancestor probably arrived in Rowan a bit later, but in any event by 1759. If you have Scots-Irish ancestors from south-central North Carolina, I would bet they also left Scotland for the Ulster Plantation in the 1600s, departed Northern Ireland for Pennsylvania between 1717 and 1750, and arrived in North Carolina about the middle of the eighteenth century. If you have a story along those lines, I would love to hear it.
Sources. As usual, I careened among websites looking for information, e.g., Googling “when was the Restoration,” without making good notes of my sources. This list undoubtedly omits dozens of other credible websites containing historical information which I used to help prepare this post, and I apologize for failing to list them.
- “Scotch-Irish.” Dictionary of American History. 2003. Retrieved June 19, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401803772.html
- “Henry the VIII and Ireland.” 2015. Retrieved June 24, 2016 from The History Learning Site.co.uk: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/tudor-england/henry-viii-and-ireland/
- Kenneth O. Morgan, The Oxford History of Britain (Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 1999, upated edition 2010).
- Online excerpts at various websites from James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish, A Social History (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962).
- “Wars and Conflict: the Plantation of Ulster.” Retrieved June 25, 2016: bbc.co.uk. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/plantation/planters/es10.shtml. This location has been archived and is no longer being maintained.
- Scottish Covenanters Memorial Association, retrieved June 24, 2016: http://www.covenanter.org.uk/WhoWere/
- Ulster Historical Foundation retrieved June 25, 2016: http://www.ancestryireland.com/history-of-the-irish-parliament/background-to-the-statutes/manufacturing-mining/
 Some people prefer the term “Scotch-Irish” rather than “Scots-Irish.” I’m agnostic on the issue, and either one works for me. I frankly don’t know which, if either, is considered correct.
 In 1707, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland merged. I don’t know the difference between the 1707 “merger” and the 1603 “union,” described in a couple of the articles I read as a “personal union” under the crown.
 After the disaster known as Brexit, Scotland may depart the U.K. to rejoin the European Union. Likewise, predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland – in what now seems like fine irony – may reunite with the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the European Union.
 The Nine Years War officially ended with the surrender of the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnel, chiefs of the O’Neills and the O’Donnells, the leading Irish Catholic families of Ulster.
 “Covenanters” were Scots who were opposed to interference by British royalty in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. See Scottish Covenanters Memorial Association, retrieved June 24, 2016: http://www.covenanter.org.uk/WhoWere/