Americans of Scots-Irish descent

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Scots-Irish is a term used to describe inhabitants of the United States and, by some, of Canada who are of Ulster Scottish descent. The term is typically qualified with American (or Canadian) as in "Scots-Irish American" or "American of Scots-Irish ancestry". Immigrants from Northern Ireland however typically refer to themselves as "Northern Irish (American)", and to a lesser extent "Ulster-Scottish (American)" as the Province of Ulster reference required, split by the 1921 partition that sees six of its counties in N.I. and three in the Republic of Ireland, no longer has any legal status as a functioning political unit of nine counties.

Immigrants to the United States before the large influx of Irish Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century, attributed to the Great Irish Famine and tenant clearances, were predominantly Protestant, Calvinistic, usually Presbyterian or Congregationalist, and they formed distinct communities in the U.S. Most of these early migrants had an historical opposition to both the "state church" (Church of Ireland) due to issues of suppressed religious freedoms and institutionalized discrimination by the established church, and to Roman Catholicism.

While 5.2 million Americans claimed Scots-Irish ancestry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, estimates suggest that the true number of Scots-Irish in the United States is more like 27 million.[1][2][3]



The Scots-Irish are descendants of the Ulster Scots immigrants who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries traveled predominantly from Ulster Province in the north of Ireland to North America. Many of their ancestors had lived in Scotland within the two centuries prior, usually in the Lowlands and Scottish Border country as well as northern England, and first migrated to Ulster in large numbers with the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement of East Ulster beginning in May, 1606 (see Plantation of Ulster). By the 18th century Ulster Scots out-populated the native Irish in Ulster, though both were politically inferior to the Protestant Ascendancy consisting of members of the State Church.

The first major influx of Scots into Ulster came during the settlement of east Down. This started in May 1606 and was followed in 1610 by the arrival of many more Scots as part of the Plantation of Ulster. During the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Irish Catholics attempted to expel the settlers, resulting in inter-communal violence and ultimately leading to the death of somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 settlers and an undetermined number of Irish people over 10 years of war. The memory of this traumatic episode and the savage repression which followed, poisoned the relationship between the Scottish and English settlers and native Irish almost irreparably.

The Scots-Irish population in Ulster was further augmented during the subsequent Irish Confederate Wars, when a Scottish Covenanter army was landed in the province to protect the settlers from Irish Catholic forces. After the war was over, many of the soldiers settled permanently in Ulster. Another major influx of Scots into northern Ireland happened in the 1690s, when tens of thousands of people fled a famine in Scotland to come to Ulster.

The settlers and their descendants, most of whom were Presbyterian or Episcopalian, became the majority in the province of Ulster. However, along with Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and others who were not members of the established church were legally disadvantaged by the Penal Laws, which gave full rights only to members of the Church of England/Church of Ireland, who were mainly absentee landlords and the descendants of English settlers. For this reason, up until the 19th century, and despite their common fear of the dispossessed Catholic native Irish, there was considerable disharmony between the Presbyterian and the Protestant Ascendancy in Ulster. As one result of this animosity with the Protestant Ascendency, many Ulster-Scots along with Catholic native Irish ignored religious differences to join the United Irishmen and participate in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, in support of egalitarian and republican goals.


Though settled as the dominant group in this section of Ireland, the Ulster-Scots suffered under the Penal Laws. While these laws based on religious affiliation were detrimental to the indigenous Catholics, they also discriminated against the Ulster Scots because of their dissenting forms of Protestantism (usually Presbyterian). This served to aggravate their historical grievances against their political masters in England. The alleged anti-English sentiment among those Ulster-Scots who emigrated to the Thirteen Colonies may have encouraged some to join the patriotic cause during the American Revolution (Matthew Thornton, George Taylor, and James Smith were all signers of the United States Declaration of Independence), though many in the Carolinas were loyalists. Some historiansreference required suggest that their experience in Ulster as a colonial minority surrounded by a resistant, indigenous, population prepared them for life on America's frontier in conflict with American Indians.

Due to the close proximity of the islands of Britain and Ireland, migrations in both directions had been occurring since Ireland was first settled after the retreat of the ice sheets. There had been a special link between the Celtic kingdoms of what became Ulster in Ireland and the Celtic kingdoms founded from it by the Dál Riata, first as a colony, in what became Scotland. The Kingdom of Scotland eventually became unified with England, forming the United Kingdom. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see History of Scotland), with the enforcement of Queen Anne's 1703 Test Act, a systematic plantation of mostly Lowland Scots settlers to Ireland (by then culturally and religiously distinct from the Irish still in residence) was instigated by the British nearly a millennium after the Irish colonized Scotland. It was seen as a way to eradicate Scotland of the hordes of Lowland and Border Scots, many of whom in their desperate poverty felt compelled to turn to a life of marauding and horse thievery, which had become an occupation in itself in the Scottish countryside. Many were hardscrabble, subsistence farmers barely able to support their families. Hence in the early years of the Plantation, the majority of the settlers were Lowland and Border Scots seeking a better life.

Just a few generations after arriving in Ulster, considerable numbers of Ulster-Scots migrated to the North American colonies throughout the 18th century (between 1717 and 1770 alone, 250,000 settled in what would become the United States). According to Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (1988), Protestants were one-third the population of Ireland, but three-quarters of all emigrants from 1700 to 1776; 70% of these Protestants were Presbyterians. Other factors contributing to the mass exodus of Ulster Scots to America during the 18th century were a series of droughts and rising rents imposed by often absentee English and/or Anglo-Irish landlords.

Scots-Irish Americans

Roughly a quarter of a million Ulster Scots migrated to the Americas between 1717 and 1776. From the beginning, they were treated in the American colonies by the British colonials and their governments as poorly as they had been in Ulster, so they quickly left for the hill country where they could avoid these influences. Here they lived on the frontiers of America, carving their own world out of the wilderness, and fighting with the Iroquois. [4]. Early frontier life was extremely challenging, but poverty and hardship were familiar to them. The word "hillbilly" has often been applied disparagingly to them, this word having its origins in Ireland itself, always in reference to the Ulster Scots.

By the 1730s, they were established in southeast Pennsylvania, especially Lancaster County. For the next thirty or so years, they radiated westward across the Alleghenies, as well as southwestward into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee (Crozier 1984; Montgomery 1989, 2001).

The Scots-Irish soon became the dominant culture of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Author (and U.S. Senator) Jim Webb puts forth a thesis in his book Born Fighting to suggest that the character traits he ascribes to the Scots-Irish such as loyalty to kin, mistrust of governmental authority, and a propensity to bear arms, helped shape the American identity.

In the 1790s, the new American government assumed the debts the individual states had amassed during the American Revolutionary War, and the Congress placed a tax on whiskey (among other things) to help repay those debts. Large producers were assessed a tax of six cents a gallon. Smaller producers, many of whom were Scottish (often Ulster-Scots) descent and located in the more remote areas, were taxed at a higher rate of nine cents a gallon. These rural settlers were short of cash to begin with, and lacked any practical means to get their grain to market, other than fermenting and distilling it into relatively portable spirits. From Pennsylvania to Georgia, the western counties engaged in a campaign of harassment of the federal tax collectors. "Whiskey Boys" also conducted violent protests in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. This civil disobedience eventually culminated in armed conflict in the Whiskey Rebellion. President George Washington marched at the head of 13,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion.

According to James Leyburn's The Scotch Irish: A Social History (1962), the Scots-Irish at first usually referred to themselves simply as Irish, without the qualifier "Scotch" or "Scots", and were called Irish by others. It was not until the mass immigration of Irish in the 1840s due to the Great Irish Famine (most of whom were Catholic, indigenous, Irish) that the earlier Irish Americans began to call themselves Scotch-Irish to distinguish themselves from these new arrivals. This newer wave of Irish typically settled in the coastal urban centers. Thus, the Catholic Irish of Boston, New York City, etc., who descended from the 1840s wave, did not often mingle in early years with the Scots-Irish, who by contrast had become well-established in the American interior, especially the hill country of the Appalachians and Ozarks.

Ulster-Scottish Canadians

After the creation of British North America in 1763, Protestant Irish, both Irish Anglicans and Ulster-Scottish Presbyterians, migrated over the decades to Upper Canada, some as United Empire Loyalists or directly from Ulster.

The first significant number of Canadian settlers to arrive from Ireland were Protestants from predominantly Ulster and largely of Scottish descent who settled in the mainly central Nova Scotia in the 1760s. Many came through the efforts of colonizer Alexander McNutt. Some came directly from Ulster whilst others arrived after via New England.

Ulster-Scottish migration to Western Canada has two distinct components, those who came via eastern Canada or the US, and those who came directly from Ireland. Many who came West from were fairly well assimilated, in that they spoke English and understood British customs and law, and tended to be regarded as just a part of English Canada. However, this picture was complicated by the religious division. Many of the original "English" Canadian settlers in the Red River Colony were fervent Irish Loyalist Protestants, and members of the Orange Order.

In 1806, The Benevolent Irish Society (BIS) was founded as a philanthropic organization in St. John's, Newfoundland. Membership was open to adult residents of Newfoundland who were of Irish birth or ancestry, regardless of religious persuasion. The BIS was founded as a charitable, fraternal, middle-class social organization, on the principles of "benevolence and philanthropy", and had as its original objective to provide the necessary skills which would enable the poor to better themselves. Today the society is still active in Newfoundland and is the oldest philanthropic organization in North America.

In 1877, a breakthrough in Irish Canadian Protestant-Catholic relations occurred in London, Ontario. This was the founding of the Irish Benevolent Society, a brotherhood of Irishmen and women of both Catholic and Protestant faiths. The society promoted Irish Canadian culture, but it was forbidden for members to speak of Irish politics when meeting. This companionship of Irish people of all faiths quickly tore down the walls of sectarianism in Ontario. Today, the Society is still operating.

For years, Prince Edward Island had been divided between Irish Catholics and British Protestants. In the latter half of the twentieth century, this sectarianism diminished and was ultimately destroyed recently after two events occurred. Firstly, the Catholic and Protestant school boards were merged into one secular institution, and secondly, the practice of electing two MLAs for each provincial riding (one Catholic and one Protestant) was ended.

Scots-Irish as a general term

The usage "Scots-Irish" is relatively recent and regarded by some as an incorrect though well-intended effort to accommodate Scottish preferences. The term has usually been Scotch-Irish in America, as evident in Merriam-Webster dictionaries, where the term Scots-Irish is not listed in any edition. While modern Scots generally prefer the term "Scots" to "Scotch," in such situations as "Scotch whisky," "Scotch-Irish", "Scotch Baptist," "Scotch egg," "Scotch Terrier," and others, the term "Scotch" is preferred. Also, there are many place names in the United States with the latter spelling, such as Scotch Plains, NJ, and several others, yet there are relatively few place names where the first word is Scots.

In the seminal Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history) historian David Hackett Fischer asserts:

Some historians describe these immigrants as "Ulster Irish" or "Northern Irish." It is true that many sailed from the province of Ulster... part of much larger flow which drew from the lowlands of Scotland, the north of England, and every side of the Irish Sea. Many scholars call these people "Scotch-Irish." That expression is an Americanism, rarely used in Britain and much resented by the people to whom it was attached. ..."

Fischer prefers to speak of "borderers" (referring to the historically war-torn England-Scotland border) as the population ancestral to the "backcountry" "cultural stream" (one of the four major and persistent cultural streams he identifies in American history) and notes the borderers were not purely Celtic but also had substantial Anglo-Saxon and Viking or Scandinavian roots, and were quite different from Celtic-speaking groups like the Scottish Highlanders or Irish (that is, Gaelic-speaking and Roman Catholic).

An example of the use of the term is found in The History of Ulster:

Ulster Presbyterians – known as the 'Scotch Irish' – were already accustomed to being on the move, and clearing and defending their land.[5]

Other terms used to describe the descendants of Protestants from the border country of England and Scotland that first migrated to Ulster and later re-migrated to North America include "Northern Irish" or "Irish Presbyterians."

In America, the historic name for these people is, "Scotch-Irish", and depending on the label used, can draw ire from one or more party:

". . . in this country [USA], where they have been called Scotch-Irish for over two hundred years, it would be absurd to give them a name by which they are not known here . . . Here their name is Scotch-Irish; let us call them by it." [6]

Term first used in 1744

The Oxford English Dictionary says the first use of the term "Scotch-Irish" came in Pennsylvania in 1744. Its citations are:

  • 1744 W. MARSHE Jrnl. 21 June in Collections of the Massachuseets Historical Society. (1801) 1st Ser. VII. 177 The inhabitants [of Lancaster, Pa.] are chiefly High-Dutch, Scotch-Irish, some few English families, and unbelieving Israelites.
  • 1789 J. MORSE Amer. Geogr. 313 [The Irish of Pennsylvania] have sometimes been called Scotch-Irish, to denote their double descent.
  • 1876 BANCROFT Hist. U.S. IV. iii. 333 But its convenient proximity to the border counties of Pennsylvania and Virginia had been observed by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and other bold and industrious men.
  • 1883 Harper's Mag. Feb. 421/2 The so-called Scotch-Irish are the descendants of the Englishmen and Lowland Scotch who began to move over to Ulster in 1611.

A false myth claims that Queen Elizabeth used the term. Another myth is that Shakespeare used the spelling 'Scotch' as a proper noun, but his only use of the word in any of his writings is as a verb, as in scotching a snake, being scotched, etc.

It was also used to differentiate from either Irish Anglicans, Irish Catholics, or immigrants who came directly from Scotland.

The word "Scotch" was the favoured adjective as a designation — it literally means "... of Scotland". People in Scotland refer to themselves as Scots, or adjectivally/collectively as Scots rather than Scotch or as being Scottish.

Geographical distribution

Finding the coast already heavily settled, most groups of settlers from the north of Ireland moved into the "western mountains", where they populated the Appalachian regions and the Ohio Valley. Others settled in northern New England, The Carolinas, Georgia and north-central Nova Scotia.

In the United States Census, 2000, 4.3 million Americans (1.5% of the U.S. population) claimed Scotch-Irish ancestry, though author James Webb suggests estimates that the true number of Scots-Irish in the U.S. is more in the region of 27 million.[1] Two possible reasons have been suggested for the disparity of the figures of the census and the estimation. The first is that Scots-Irish may quite often regard themselves as simply having either Irish ancestry (which 10.8% of Americans reported) or Scottish ancestry (reported by 4.9 million or 1.7% of the total population). The other is that most of the descendants of this group have integrated themselves, through intermarriage with other ethnicities of similar faiths, into an American society that had long been a rurally dispersed and Protestant majority. Therefore they, like many English Americans or German Americans, do not feel the need to identify with their ancestors as strongly as perhaps the more recent Catholic Irish Americans or Italian Americans, who had not traditionally married outside their faiths and often found partners in dense urban neighborhoods of their own ethnicity.

Interestingly, the areas where the most Americans reported themselves in the 2000 Census only as "American" with no further qualification (e.g. Kentucky, north-central Texas, and many other areas in the Southern United States; overall 7% of Americans reported "American") are largely the areas where many Scots-Irish settled, and are in complementary distribution with the areas which most heavily report Scotch-Irish ancestry, though still at a lower rate than "American" (e.g. western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, northern New England, south-central and far northern Texas, westernmost Florida Panhandle, many rural areas in the Northwest); see Maps of American ancestries.


  1. Why You Need To Know The Scotch-Irish
  2. Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America
  3. [ Scots-Irish By Alister McReynolds, writer and lecturer in Ulster-Scots studies]
  4. PBS documentary, 1/13/08, "Hillbillies"
  5. "A History of Ulster," Jonathan Bardon, The Blackstaff Press Limited, Northern Ireland, 1992. Emigration to United States and Scotch-Irish, ppgs. 208-210.
  6. "The Scotch-Irish of Colonial America," Wayland F. Dunaway, 1944, University of North Carolina Press
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