The Scotch-Irish


They were Presbyterians to a man, and Scottish Presbyterianism was unique in its intensity, even in those religious days. The Reformation in Scotland, led by John Knox, had achieved immediate and almost universal success among Lowlanders. Their Calvinist “kirk” became the Church of Scotland, a nationalist symbol for the people, who supported it all the more loyally because of the initial struggle against “popery” and the subsequent resistance against royal efforts to make it Anglican. A notable aspect of the Reformation in Scotland was the enthusiastic commitment of the people to education, not only for ministers but also for laymen. It was as if a dormant ideal had suddenly and permanently come to flower. The highest aspiration of a Lowland family was that a son might attend a university and become a minister or dominie. The passion for education carried over to northern Ireland and to America, with far-reaching results in the colonies.


It is likely that the quality of the Lowlanders that made the king most hopeful of their success in the Ulster Plantation was their well-known stubbornness and dourness (“dour” and “durable” are linguistically related). He counted on these traits to hold them in Ulster even when things went badly, and to make them keep the “wild Irish” in tow, and his confidence proved justified. Had not an elder of the kirk besought the Lord that he might always be right, “for Thou knowest, Lord, that I am unco’ hard to turn”?

In the century between 1610 and 1717 perhaps as many as one hundred thousand Lowlanders came across from Scotland, and by the latter date there were some five Scots to every three Irishmen and one Englishman in Ulster. The English planters represented the Establishment: high civil officials, Anglican churchmen, businessmen, and the Army; but the preponderant Scots set the tone of the new culture of northern Ireland. It is a culture that, as the recent troubles there have painfully shown, is still self-consciously different from that of the rest of the island.

The Ulster experience was a fitting preparation for pioneering in America. The farmers had constantly to be on guard against native Irish uprisings. Agricultural methods decidedly improved under English example. Feudalism, which still existed in Scotland, simply disappeared in Ulster, for farmers were no longer subject to an overlord or attached to one locality. The Presbyterian Church, with its members “straitly” watched over and disciplined by the session of each parish kirk, stiffened the moral fiber of the people, and with its own presbyteries, not subject to the Scottish Kirk, gave the members experience in self-government.

In one respect, however, the Scotch-Irish seemed to be deficient. The Renaissance did not reach Scotland until the eighteenth century, many years after the Lowlanders had left. From the moment of their arrival in northern Ireland comment was made by Englishmen on the apparently complete lack of aesthetic sensibility on the part of these Scots. As one observer remarked, if a Scotsman in Ulster “builds a cottage, it is a prison in miniature; if he has a lawn, it is only grass; the fence of his grounds is a stone wall, seldom a hedge. He has a sluggish imagination: it may be awakened by the gloomy or terrific, but seldom revels in the beautiful.” The same limitations apparently characterized the Scotch-Irish in America.

In the very decades when at last the Ulster Plantation seemed to be achieving its purpose, with the Irish subdued, Protestantism dominant, English rule secured, and prosperity imminent, the great migration to America got under way. As usually happens when thousands of people undertake so hazardous an enterprise as crossing an ocean to find a new home, there was both a push from the old country and a pull from the new.

Paradoxically, Ulster’s growing prosperity was one cause of the first wave of migration. A lucrative woolen and linen industry, developing since the logo’s, alarmed the English Parliament and led to the passage of a series of crippling protective acts whose results were resentment on the part of Ulstermen, economic depression, and recurrent unemployment. A second cause touched men personally and turned many thoughts to migration: this was the hated practice of rack-renting. The term referred to a landlord’s raising rent when a long lease on his land expired—and in the decade after 1710 hundreds of leases came up for renewal. To us, such a practice seems normal; but Ulster farmers felt it to be a violation of tradition, a moral injury, because a tenant was treated impersonally. If the farmer could not or would not pay the higher rent, he had only two practical alternatives: a return to the poverty of Scotland, or migration to the New World.