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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.

Queen Elizabeth I died while her government was deciding what to do with the forfeited lands in Ireland. Her cousin, James VI of Scotland became James I of England, made the decision. About this time Scotland, which had poor agricultural lands generally except in the south, was undergoing a population boom. Some chicanery practiced by one of James 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 Nova Scotia. Unfortunately for thie Irish, Nova Scotia was slow to get going as a colony, and then under the next King, Charles I, Nova Scotia was given to the French as a sort of a bride price for Charles’ French wife, Henrietta. So, King James began to redistribute the forfeited Irish lands as plantations for these loyal Scots, with long term leases and very low rents. Under Charles I, this distribution of Irish lands to Scots accelerated.

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 loyal to the English Crown. So, of the first 100 allotments, 60 were to the Irish families who had long lived upon them. During 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 them, 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.

One to two generations later, in 1776, their Scots-Irish sons and grandsons comprised half the signers of the Declaration of Independence, almost two-thirds of George Washington’s army and about half of Washington’s officers.

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.