AmeriCeltic provides accurate information on Celtic Culture and History.

Support our work!


Click Here to subscribe to our weekly Email Newsletter, and get updates every Friday.

Table of Contents

Who are the Scots-Irish?
Scots-Irish Yesterday & Today
Am I Scots-Irish?

Who are the Scots-Irish?


Many Americans of Celtic descent also mistakenly believe they are Irish when in fact they are Scots-Irish. Scots-Irish Americans are descendants of Scots who lived in Northern Ireland for two or three generations but retained their Scottish character and Protestant religion. But because their descendants are mostly unaware of how northern Ireland came to be settled by Scots and know only perhaps that grandpa’s or grandma’s family Bible shows they came to America from Ireland, they believe they are Irish.

Briefly, in the 1500’s, England had just turned Protestant under Elizabeth I’s parents: Welsh Henry VIII and English Anne Boleyn. Meanwhile Scotland had become mostly Protestant while its Queen, Queen Mary, spent most of her life either in France or as a prisoner of Queen Elizabeth I in England. In about 1600, the two Irish earls who had been allied with Queen Elizabeth I of England, turned on her and made alliances with her Catholic enemies and stayed Catholic. Bad idea, since England had just defeated the Spanish Armada a few years before, and despite the incompetence of a few of its army leaders, still had a large, well equipped army, and was a unified double nation (England and Wales).

Ireland on the other hand was almost never unified. There were at various times 4 or 5 kingdoms and a couple of strong independent earldoms all about the size of Rhode Island or smaller, fighting for the high kingship of all Ireland. In over 1,000 years of history, the few who made it to that throne never held it securely enough to actually rule Ireland in any modern sense of the term, nor were able to pass it on to a son.

Needless to say, the two Irish Earls in the north were defeated and as was the custom of those days, they forfeited their lands as well as their freedom. The Earls went off to live in comparative luxury in Europe, but for their family and feudally semi-loyal Irish peasants tied to the lands the future was anything but luxurious if they had a future at all.

Scots-Irish Fieldwork 1

Elizabeth I then brought a few Scots across the North Channel from Scotland to Ulster in the North East of Ireland. Elizabeth I thought they would be more loyal to her authority because they were Protestant. Elizabeth I was the first to use the term ‘Scotch-Irish’, in a letter she wrote discussing who she could trust to take charge of the forfeited lands in Ireland. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I died while her government was deciding what to do with them. The question was resolved by her cousin, James Charles Stuart, then James VI of Scotland.

About this time Scotland, which had poor agricultural lands generally except in the south, was undergoing a population boom. Some chicanery practiced by James and one of his friends had all but ruined a number of Scottish nobles in southwestern Scotland as they were preparing to ease these population pressures by sending the excess people to new lands in North America.

James VI himself had also noticed how many Scotsmen he was losing to the wars of Continental Europe, in whose nations’ armies they were serving and then never returned. He realized, that they would never start families in his realms, and the population of Scotland would decline.

James’ initial solution was to try to turn Ulster Scottish using the tradition of land forfeiture by rebels. The problem was that these Scottish Plantations in Ireland would be patented and governed by England. The Scots were not comfortable with this, and wanted their own colony in North America. Had they gone to ‘New Francia’ or ‘New England’, they would have still been under a foreign government; so James created a Scottish owned colony in the east of Canada, and named it ‘Nova Scotia‘.

Scots-Irish Fieldwork 2

Unfortunately for the Irish, Nova Scotia was slow to get going as a colony, and the Scots were coming to Ireland instead of having their own colony in North America. Moreover, James was crowned James I of England on March 24th, 1603, and as the newly crowned king of England and Ireland, as well as Scotland, James was now King of all three realms, and slow to grant a charter for a purely Scottish colony in North America. He didn’t issue the Nova Scotia charter until 1621, 13 years after the Scots plantations had been set up among hostile Catholic Irish, and under English laws and institutions.

The next King, Charles I, happily living in London, England, where he had lived since he was three years old, was reluctant to support and maintain the Nova Scotia colony. Charles I finally gave Nova Scotia to the French as a sort of a belated bride price for Charles’ French wife, Henrietta. Between 1629-33 a census and addiitional investigations were made to identify plantation patentees who had not fulfilled the terms of their patents, which would allow them to be forfeit to new owners that could include Scots who were disposessed when Nova Scotia was ceded to France. King Charles I began to redistribute the newly forfeited Irish lands as plantations for these loyal Scots, with some ownership and otherwise long term leases and very low rents. The new forfeitures and redistributions were not enough to accommodate the over 150 Scots families who had been removed from Nova Scotia and resettled in Ulster, adding to the growing Scottish, as well as English dissatisfaction with Charles I, and the Stewart kings more generally.

Most of these Scots-Irish were located in the six northern Irish counties of what is now Ulster and Donegal. Many of the first new Scottish land owners in Ireland allowed Irish families to retain their small holdings by simply swearing an oath of loyalty to the English Crown. So, of the first 100 allotments, 60 were to the Irish families who had long lived upon them. During Oliver Cromwell’s time in the 1650’s, however, the English were less generous and fewer Irish were allowed to keep their lands. The Irish had continued to back Charles I even when he was ruining England and making life miserable in the American colonies for his subjects, and causing serious confusion among the Scots.

Cromwell had had enough. As a result, a lot more of Ireland, principally in the east all the way to Wexford and a sizeable part of the center of Ireland became forfeit also. Many inhabitants were not just dispossessed but killed, and a mixture of Scottish, Welsh, and English were brought into these areas instead. After Cromwell died, some lands were restored to Irish families by Charles II, and new settlers in some of these regions intermarried with older families, but it was never the same as before Cromwell. The dominant religion in these conquered territories, which gave political as well as economic opportunities, was Protestant.

Then, as the original leases came up for renewal, the English landlords raised the rents, and in many cases more than doubled the rent. This was too much for the thrifty Scottish Protestant tenants. They had had enough, and with plenty of land available in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia, land they could own outright and pay no rent, they did as their fathers and grandfathers had done, pulled up stakes, and emigrated again, this time to America. Scholars estimate that between 1700 and 1750 more than 450,000 of these Scots-Irish immigrants resettled in America, a time when the total population was only about 1.5 million. They were self-reliant and industrious, their farms were very successful, and they had large healthy families.

All this aristocratic chicanery was well remembered and resented by succeeding generations of Scots-Irish. One to two generations later, in 1776, their Scots-Irish sons and grandsons were ready to rid themselves of any connection with Britain and joined the American Revolution in droves. History shows that they comprised half the signers of the Declaration of Independence, almost two-thirds of George Washington’s army and about half of Washington’s officers.


Scots-Irish Yesterday & Today

There are actually two groups of Scots Irish. Most recent emigrants from the UK to the United States are only familiar with one group, and are unaware of the origins and nature of the other. It was the group that they do not know who, along with their very real, known Scottish, and some Irish cousins by that time, founded the United States Our culture here in the U.S., including desire for personal freedoms, and an independent nation began, with the first group of Scots Irish.

Between roughly 1675 and 1745, over 250,000 families of Scots-Irish, each family often representing 3 or more individuals emigrated to the U.S. at a time when its total population, including German emigrants, French Huguenots and the descendants of Dutch emigrants to New Amsterdam and slaves and others was only about 2 million by the end of this period. The Scots and Scots Irish adults of pre-1746 Ulster and the North American colonies, were all persons who were born before the Act of Union, which unjustly subordinated previously independent Scotland to England, as the junior member country of the new ‘United Kingdom’. Those who were born in Scotland were born free and Independent and at best had only spent a few years in Ireland. They were still Scots in culture and often had education and business interests, and certainly cousins in Scotland and even if they were born on the plantations of Ulster, they were all Scots and used to thinking of themselves as Scots.

In the 1707 Act of Union, the conditions for the plantations, established by and for Scots in Ulster, also changed under the Act of Union. Trade became much more restricted and the rack rent limitations were ended and rents greatly increased. Then there were four famines of varying degrees between 1707 and 1745, and no modern safety nets. Additionally, with the raising of the limits on rents and ending limitations on numbers of land tenancies as had been stipulated in the original plantation patents, it became more and more profitable for landowners to lease–and sublease, in essentially a pyramid scheme in which each lower sub lessee paid for all above, to not sell lands unless some disaster forced a sale. There were also the laws of primogeniture and the laws in Ireland were the stricter English variant as Ireland was an English colony, despite the Scottish plantations with patents that had for a time maintained greater independence for the Scots settlers. With no land to buy, it was better for all but the oldest son, or maybe two sons, to leave Ireland, and after 1707, Scotland also. The penal laws of 1707, took away rights to land ownership, limited education and more for Scots Presbyterians, as well as Catholics of any ethnic origin. Presbyterians had far more rights and opportunities if they emigrated to North America.

When the Scots-Irish left Ireland between 1707 and 1745–the first big wave was about 1717–they began to be replaced, by persons who might have been born free and independent Scots, but were mostly raised under the Act of Union and no longer used to thinking of themselves as purely independent Scots, but British, part of a United Kingdom, where all the power and wealth was now in London, Liverpool, and generally England instead of any significant political or financial power or authority remaining in Edinburgh and anywhere else in Scotland. During the famines of the 1690’s many Scots from northeastern and eastern Scotland had already moved to England as well as Ireland. One generation later, the migration out of Scotland exploded. England was the first preferred location. The church registers of St. James in Westminster and court records exemplify what was happening.

The greatest amount of emigration from Ulster was between 1717 and 1746 and almost all their Scottish replacements were born and raised under a no longer independent Scotland. When the first group of Scots-Irish was being REPLACED, was when the ‘modern’ Scots Irish familiar to recent UK emigrants came into being, people used to being part of an English dominated, increasingly English cultured UK, an English empire. As Protestants, they had more opportunities for education, business land ownership, or primary leases, not the leases at the bottom and political power. They might be second class or lower citizens when they did business with, or visited, England but they were the top of their society in Ulster and their status was preserved by Protestant England.

Meanwhile, in the North American colonies that became the U.S. Scots, Scots-Irish and Irish were all learning that religious tolerance, especially as applied to business and local and colony government, was better than thirteen squabbling colonies with three or more significant religions. We also had a much greater threat than each other’s Christian religions: increasing conflicts with the French and their large numbers of native allies. This was besides having grown up, as Scots or Scots in Ireland, with more rights and opportunities than Englishmen, and having remnants of clan structures and associations.

Let us also make it very clear that the Scots in Ireland identified as Scots and one classic example of this is the petition of Charles Campbell, Esq. in Dublin for use of his family’s coat of arms, as Campbell of Skeldon, from Ayrshire, in Scotland. According to his surviving papers, in 1692 and 1693, Charles Campbell petitioned BOTH the Lord Lyon in Scotland, and the College of Arms for the English Crown with offices in Dublin Castle for recognition of his rights by BOTH crowns. Both the Scottish and English authorities granted him this right. The Hamilton Duke of Abercorn had been persuaded by his cousin, Sir James Hamilton of Clanboye, to pack up and move entirely to Ireland, even selling lands in Scotland but happily retained–and passed on to his heirs– his Scottish title, which they continued to enjoy.

The ministers among the Scots living on the plantations were almost all educated in Scotland, as were most of the professionals in these communities, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the same as for Scots communities in Scotland. Likewise many wealthy gentlemen were educated in Scotland, as their cousins still in Scotland were. The presbyteries, when not persecuted by the English crown, had the same authorities and influence they did in communities and shires in Scotland. The plantation grants were issued to second sons and heads of cadet houses who in the words of several researchers and historians as early as 180 years ago ‘brought in their extended families, in-laws and best former tenants, servants and others all long connected to their families,’ which were part of the clan system of Scotland. Clan chiefs and their titled nobles who lived in Scotland continued to have influence over their clan members in Ireland–even being able to call their Irish relatives up for warfare.

When the families emigrated to North America, the system began to change for the emigrants as the much greater distance between Scotland and North America that did not exist with Ireland, and the huge land mass where the clan members could spread out more, naturally had their effects. The clan leaders were in Scotland and no longer could exert the control and command they had when they could physically reach out and touch their members. The colonies were also established by the English crown and governed, ultimately, from England. The one exception to this, Nova Scotia, had been destroyed by Charles II.

Still, closely related clan members and allied families were acquiring land and moving from one area to another, together, and retaining old bonds that the English were gradually destroying in Scotland. Both shipping and trade had a number of Scots families heavily involved, such John Wallace and Brothers in Baltimore. There were two circuits of shipping that were themselves mingled. One circuit was the ports along both sides of the Irish sea delivering and picking up goods and passengers. The other end was a similar circuit involving the small ports and private landings along the Chesapeake bay and other major bays north and south of this area. Goods and people went back and forth across the Atlantic from both these smaller circuits, and the business was dominated by Scots and Scots-Irish providing goods and services to the Scots and Scots Irish at both ends. For instance, as shown by numerous 18th century county court records, the first 100 families on the Borden Grant in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley were all closely related to one another by blood and marriage. They had interbred for many, many centuries in Ayrshire, Scotland and a little in adjacent Scottish counties.

The Scots Irish who were first in Ulster and then in the U.S. were also predominantly from Ayrshire, and nearby southern and eastern counties and a secondary number were from eastern to northeastern Scotland, thanks to the famines of the 1690’s which hit that area of Scotland harder. They were not as much from the overall highlands and the western coast, including Argyllshire.

The second, ‘modern’ group of post-Act of Union Scots Irish also included those dispossessed by the Highland Clearances which effectively began with the ‘harrying of the highland Scots’ after Culloden by the Duke of Cumberland, and earlier, after Glenshiel, in which the McKenzies had played a key role. 1719 and later, there were more Scots from the highlands and west coast entering Ulster and replacing the first group of Scots-Irish, who largely had departed for North America. These highlanders and west coast families had also been defeated–badly–by the English, and had been lucky to remain alive, and knew this.

It may surprise people to realize this, but this split between the two groups of earlier Scots Irish and later ones appears in records of the 1798 rebellion and church records before and after this. There are long lists of persons who were imprisoned or forced to emigrate (Canada and the U.S., besides some being taken to Australia) after the 1798 rising of the United Irishmen, lead by WolfTone, who were Scots Irish, from families who had been in Ulster prior to the Act of Union, particularly from families who had lost rights while resident in Ulster, after 1707. There were far fewer persons involved in the rebellion whose families had arrived in Ulster after 1717, but particularly after 1746. Additionally, as restrictions began to ease related to religion, many of the older families had branches that had become Catholic and begun to intermarry with older Irish Catholic families. The port town of Newry, for example, became heavily Catholic before Queen Victoria took the throne.

Thus for one reason or another the post 1746 Scots Irish were a very different group than the first group which had largely LEFT for North America, and otherwise, some of whom had become Catholic, and the new group understood its future and security were firmly bound to England. The first group has been forgotten and it has long been in the best interests of the ruling authorities to have them stay forgotten. This is why it is hard for even many Scots in the UK, and Scots descended members of the union parties in Ulster today to understand why Americans are so different and why they often have greater sympathies for both reunification of Ulster with the rest of an independent Ireland AND a resurrection of Scottish independence.

The majority of Scots Irish today are NOT the Scots who established and lived on the Ulster plantations and developed the ports of eastern Ireland along the Irish sea between the late 1500’s and 1700. They are a separate group with a different background than the Scots Irish who mostly came to North America between 1675 and 1745. Once you understand this, then you can also understand why, in the last century or so, many Americans of Scots-Irish descent have flocked to the Scottish festivals and increasingly have been interested in joining Scottish societies such as the clan societies, the Caledonian Clubs, and the St. Andrew’s Societies.

You might also understand, then, why Americans descended from the first Scots-Irish, and contemporary Scots, also applaud the announcement of the new Scottish independence referendum set for October 19th, 2023, and can’t understand why the people of Ulster today just can’t all get along and reunify with the rest of Ireland, which in recent decades has appeared to jettison theocratic government better than parts of the U.S.  Certainly the Republic of Ireland is NOT the Catholic country that it was under Eamon de Valera. After all, if after 350 to 400 years, British descended persons are now ‘Americans’ surely after more than 400 years, Scots and others in Ireland are now all Irish, albeit with a lot of English culture, the better parts, we hope.


So, am I Irish or Scots-Irish?

Religion is the main difference between the Scots-Irish and the Irish, and it shows in the cultural traditions that the Irish and Scots-Irish brought over. With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, here is a run-down on some of the observations regarding what you know of just the last few generations in your Irish family that you can make to determine if you are probably Scots-Irish instead of true Irish.

If the 100 year old plus family Bible in which your Irish grandparents names and births are written is the King James version of the Bible, you are probably Scots-Irish. If your Irish grandparents and parents generations have no post Apostles-period Italian or French saints names in it, like Sebastian, Cecilia, Louis or Apollonia, and instead have a lot of Old Testament names like Ruth, Naomi, Sarah, Buelah, Samuel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Jordan, you’re probably Scots-Irish. If your family has the names William, George or Oliver in it, you are probably Scots-Irish. If your great-aunt learned to clog dance instead of step dance and waves her arms about and not just to keep her balance when she’s had a little too much to drink, you’re probably Scots-Irish. If, in generations past, your Irish family played the flute or whistle more than the harp, then you are probably Scots-Irish. If when you or your Irish parents or grandparents were sung to sleep with On the Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond, or Shenandoah, you are probably Scots-Irish.

If you’ve never run into a nun or priest in your parent’s home town who tells you what a little devil your father or mother was and can remember what old Sister Agatha or Sister Celestine used to say about your grandfather or grandmother, then you are probably Scots-Irish. Heck, if the town your Irish grandfather or grandmother was born in doesn’t have a Catholic Church at all and never did, you’re probably Scots-Irish. If your Irish ancestor family has no statues of saints around and never did, and no one ever owned a rosary, or had a prayer book approved by Pius XII or some other Pope and filled with holy cards which aren’t playing cards, you are probably Scots-Irish.

If your Irish family has a clan tartan, and wears a lot of plaid, generally, you’re probably Scots-Irish. If your Irish grandfather was a member of the KKK, you are probably Scots-Irish. If your Irish grandfather was a Freemason, you are probably Scots-Irish. The Irish were usually members of the Knights of Columbus or the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

If your Irish family liked kale and greens, and the farm was in the family a long time, you are probably Scots-Irish. If your family has always liked Jack Daniels or single malt Scotch that tastes a lot like caramel and peat (think burning old wood and leaves that are a little damp) or Listerine, or Jack Daniels or Kentucky bourbon, you’re probably Scots-Irish–if your family has always liked nearly black brews of stout like Guinness then you’re probably Irish. If your Irish family has more of a tradition of sweet potatoes and cornbread than white potatoes and soda bread, then you’re probably Scots-Irish. If your Irish family made chicken soup with leeks and barley, or beef stew with mace and herbs and maybe a couple of shots of bourbon in it, instead of chowder, potato soup with milk or beef stew with stout in it, you’re probably Scots-Irish.

If your family knows a lot about the ‘Molly Maguire’s or had a member in them, and doesn’t know much about John Lewis, then you’re probably Irish. If your Irish parents or grandparents voted for Richard Nixon and not Jack Kennedy (the Catholic) you are probably Scots-Irish. If your grandparents or great grandparents voted for Herbert Hoover and not Al Smith (the Catholic), you are probably Scots-Irish.

If the old Irish family pictures show more people frowning or looking stern and upright, you are probably Scots-Irish; the Irish smiled a lot more or looked like they regularly smiled at least. The Scots-Irish who smiled in pictures were usually outlaws in the midst of were having a good time after their latest caper. However the slap-happiest grin of all was on Billy the Kid who was really an Irish lad surnamed McCarty.

If the oldest records or memories in your Irish family are of great-great-grandpa or great-great-grandma coming from something or other shire and not County suchabit, you are probably Scots-Irish. If your Irish ancestors didn’t first settle in Maryland, Philadelphia, or New York City AND arrived before 1774, you are probably Scots-Irish. If they came over during the Highland Clearances and lost their homes to sheep, then you are probably Scots-Irish. Most Irish came over during and just after The Great Famine. Cromwell’s idea of clearances in Ireland was to cut them down and plant them under the sod of Ireland. The second wave of clearances in Ireland after 1798 was to send the Irish mostly to Australia (Canada wasn’t far enough and they didn’t want the Irish in Canada helping Canada to merge with the new U.S.) and replace them with Englishmen.

Finally if your grandma or grandpa says, “We’ve always been good Baptists or Presbyterians as far as anybody can remember and never had anything to do with those idol-worshipping Papists” and then spits you’re definitely Scots-Irish.

The only exception to all the above is a group of Irish Quakers who started out true Irish Catholics but just got tired of all the religious fighting as did a number of Scots, English, Welsh, French, and East and Central Europeans and all initially arrived at Philadelphia port of New Castle Delaware in the late 1600’s to mid 1700’s.