Becoming Scots-Irish | History Imagined

As the war went on and they faced the British at Cowpens, Kings Mountain and a generation later in New Orleans, these mountain men with their precision rifles gave fearful account of their fighting prowess. They made up a good part of the Pennsylvania Line on whom Washington could rely more than on any other regiments in the Continental Army.  For Americans whose roots are deep in Appalachian soil, having “Scotch-Irish” (more correctly, Scots-Irish) heritage is a given. Many of us were raised on stories of ancestors migrating into the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama from Tidewater Virginia and Pennsylvania, seeking space to breathe and land of their own. It has been said that they chose the mountains because the lush green peaks and hollows of the Blue Ridge and Great Smokes reminded them of home.

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The Great Smoky Mountains.

Whether it was a former home in Ireland or in Scotland was never made completely clear for understanding our heritage can get rather confusing. Are we transplanted Highlanders, Lowlanders, or plain Irish with a funny name?

For anyone claiming Scots-Irish ancestry, the answer is often found originally in Lowlands Scotland with the Irish bit added somewhere after 1610. To know how this came to be, one must look much farther back to the time of the Norman Conquest. A little over 100 years after firmly planting themselves in England, Henry II (1139-1189) and his Norman noblemen turned their gaze westward.

As a side note this writer has deep roots in the Scots-Irish community dating as far back as the late 1600’s when two families came together as one and I becoming a Scots-Irish. Now you will understand that I am laying the ground work leading up to my own story or should I say my honorable family history so shall we continue on…..

Tomb of Henry II of England & Eleanor of Aquitane (Illustration ...
Effigies of Henry II of England (r. 1154 – 1189 CE) and his wife Eleanor of Aquitane (r. 1137 – 1204 CE) from their tombs in Fontevraud Abbey, France where they were buried.

In 1171, Henry’s Norman knights invaded Ireland for the first time, beginning a 500 year struggle to dominant the Irish whom they deemed an inferior race. Over the centuries, it became customary for English kings to reward Anglo-Norman families with conquered Irish lands in the hope they would help subdue the native Irish. Most of these plans failed. Through intermarriage and other associations, many of the Anglo-Normans became as Irish as the natives. They turned on their benefactors and joined in the Irish struggle to resist English domination. By the reign of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603), trying to keep the Irish in check had become a serious drain on the royal exchequer.

Elizabeth I Armanda Portrait, 1588
Elizabeth I Armanda Portrait, 1588

Tired of her countrymen becoming Irish to the core, Elizabeth fell upon a new scheme for ensuring her transplanted subjects remained British in heart, mind, and soul. Instead of a few noblemen who would soon turn into Anglo-Irishmen and join the resistance, she would send hundreds of her subjects to form a colony. The plan involved awarding lands to English noblemen who could guarantee bringing enough Englishmen with them to form a “planation.”


English colonies in 17th-century North America
English colonies in 17th-century North America English colonies in 17th-century North America. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The plan involved awarding lands to English noblemen who could guarantee bringing enough Englishmen with them to form a “planation.” The native Irish would be driven from their lands and the English would move in. Elizabeth’s colonization attempts failed due to the English being outnumbered by the usurped Irish, who unsurprisingly, raided, burned property, and generally harassed these unwelcome interlopers. In addition, the number of English induced to migrate was not sufficient to provide a strong military presence while trying to make a go of their farms. In the 17th century the principal component of the population in the colonies was of English origin, and the second largest group was of African heritage. German and Scotch-Irish immigrants arrived in large numbers during the 18th century. Other important contributions to the colonial ethnic mix were made by the NetherlandsScotland, and FranceNew England was almost entirely English, in the southern colonies the English were the most numerous of the settlers of European origin, and in the middle colonies the population was much mixed, but even Pennsylvania had more English than German settlers.

James I of England & VI of Scotland
James I of England & VI of Scotland

With James I of England (James VI of Scotland), the English plantation scheme was revised once more. In 1603, as Elizabeth lay on her deathbed, the English under the leadership of Lord Mountjoy instituted an Irish policy so harsh that the Ulster region was all but depopulated through starvation. The door was now open for a permanent English presence in Ireland. Emptying the Ulster region of its native Irish coupled with the burgeoning private enterprise of English lords and Scottish lairds sealed its fate leading to the Irish coming to the U. S. Colonies.

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Scots-Irish Colonies

In large part the Ulsterites came to Pennsylvania. They had an inherent aversion to large centers of population, and so found homes to the west of the Susquehanna. This was Indian frontier and full of dangers. Accustomed as they soon became to stealthy sharpshooting and bloody scalping,  the implacable nature of the war the Scotch-Irish waged against the Red Man is understandable if not always excusable.


Initially, Scotsmen were not considered for participation in the plantation scheme, but in 1609, a letter to the Scottish Privy Council changed that. James’s English advisors recognized that those living in southwestern Scotland were a mere thirty miles across the sea from Ulster and had far greater inducements to emigrate than their countrymen to the south in England’s gentler climate.

South West (Scotland) - Wikitravel
Southwestern Scotland

In the years 1610 through 1697, a steady stream of Lowlands Scots, as many as 200,000, flowed into the Ulster region to the counties of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Donegal, Cavan, Fermanagh, and Derry. Unlike earlier transplants, they did not give up and go home nor did they become fully Irish. Staunch Presbyterians, they retained their Protestant faith and remained loyal British subjects. They stayed in Ireland until the call of the New World had many of them packing up for another chance at land and freedom.

The 1800’s would see a second wave of Scottish migration into Ireland because of the Highland Clearances. Whether of Highland or Lowland origin, these transplanted Scots poured into Pennsylvania and Tidewater Virginia before spreading inland to the mountains and beyond. 





Published by Clan Carruthers Society - USA

We are all passionate about where we came from and where we're going. We set this website/blog up so we can all share our family stories along with the history for future generations.

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