Friday, December 19, 2008

The Scotch-Irish: Who Are They?


Growing up in North Carolina, I always knew we had a huge group of Scotch-Irish settlers in the Piedmont of the Carolinas, but I didn't understand their ancestry. Were they from Scotland or Ireland? Many of them had been here for so many generations that they no longer knew where they came from--my family included. I was left to assume the Scotch had intermarried with the Irish and that is why they were called the Scotch-Irish. But as I've recently discovered, there is much more to the story.

This week I will finish reading The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn published by the North Carolina University Press. It begins with Scotland in the 16th century and lays out the lifestyle and condition of the Scottish families and Scotland as a country on the political front. What I have discovered is sad, but the spirit of these people was never broken. They have endured and sought new opportunities to better themselves, and many thrived when given the chance. They had strong convictions and they lived by them, even through oppression and persecution.

Most families were living in poverty and renting their farmland and homestead from an overlord, who considered it his responsibility to protect the tenants on his land. With so much lawlessness, families and neighboring villagers were dependent upon each other from other Scots raiders. Feuds often broke out among the overlords regarding land boundaries, while the number one cause was cattle stealing. It seemed that Scotland was in a constant state of undeclared civil war, while always fighting the English. These people had a hard life and to other countries seemed barbarious in the way they lived.

The borders between Scotland and England were very difficult to maintain under control, but in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England after Queen Elizabeth's death, both countries finally had a common ruler. He enforced military retaliation against border raiding, and appointed English and Scottish commissioners to catch criminals that tried to escape passed the borders. They were sent back to their own country to be tried by the court. By 1610, the borders were under control enough for safe travel and prosperous trade between the two countries. The lowland Scots adapted to this new way of life, but the Highlanders in the up country of Scotland continued to live in their barbaric ways. The Highlander prided himself on how well he could reive a Lowlander's cattle and almost thought of it as a sport. This developed a dislike between the Highlanders and the Lowlanders.

England decided to try and subdue the Irish who they saw as wild and untamed as the Highland Scot. While the Reformation achieved its purpose in Scotland and many were converted from Paganism and Catholism to Protestant, no such reformation had occurred in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth decided to colonize Ulster of Ireland, a province of the counties of Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Derry, Fermanagh, and Tyrone in northern Ireland. Her hope was to transport English families there to bring change, but many English had no desire to be transplanted. But the Scottish families were ripe for establishing the colony. They were Protestant (Presbyterian) and they were looking for an opportunity to leave their poverty stricken homes for the hope and promise of new lands, prosperity, and a chance to do better for themselves and their families. In 1609, England opened the Ulster Colony to Scotsmen.

Over the next century the colony prospered. The Irish were not happy losing their land and being forced to give up what was theirs, but over time they began to accept the Scottish. Some Irish families intermarried with the Scottish and new generations had begun to think of themselves as Irish even though their ancestors were Scottish. These were the Scotch-Irish.

In 1717, their landlords began raising rents higher than the common people could afford. The English colonies of America were sending representatives to Ulster hoping to hire indentured servants and find Ulsterman who would work on their plantations. They promised a land of opportunity, prosperity, and a chance to save enough money to purchase their own land. Many couldn't pay for their own passage, so they sold themselves as indentured servants for four to seven years. At the end of their indenture, some would receive an agreed upon sum of money and even a tract of land, and some basic farming tools. After the first wave of Ulsterman emigrated, they wrote back to their kinsmen of their success. Things in Ulster had grown worse and between 1720 - 1750's a mass emigration of Scotch-Irish arrived to the colonies. Many of them came to the Carolinas and settled.

4 comments:

Excellent article, Jennifer. In my family, I used to hear the old timers say we were Scot/Irish and English. But after reading through my cousin's findings on our family tree there is no reference to anyone moving to the island. Centuries ago, however, my Scottish ancestor married an Irish woman who was one of the daughters of the Kings of Ireland.

Rita, we probably have so many hidden secrets and stories within our own family lines to last a writer a lifetime of writing material. I have so many ideas for stories and so little time. Sometimes it's frustrating that I can't write faster.

It sounds like you have a fascinating history. Wouldn't that make a great story?

*sigh*

"Scotch" is a drink. "Scot" is a nationality.

Phil,

Well said! I do admit to wondering about the title.