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 Smokies reminded them of home. 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.
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.
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.” 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. Unhappy colonists usually returned home to England.
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.
James I’s plan was simple and economical. He would reward with Irish lands English and Scottish gentry and nobility, veterans of the Irish wars, the London Companies, the Established Church of Ireland (Anglican Church), and Trinity College in Dublin (founded 1592). 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.
By 1611, 81,000 Ulster acres had been granted to fifty-nine Scotsmen, five of whom were lords and the rest were gentry. An English or Scots “undertaker”, as the recipients of Irish land were called at the time, was bound by agreement with the crown to bring “forty-eight able men of an age eighteen and upwards, being born in England or the inward parts of Scotland” (i.e., the Lowlands), to grant farms to his tenants, and to maintain muskets and hand weapons sufficient to arm himself and his tenants. Life in Scotland at the time was difficult, some might say brutal. The subsistence farmers of the Lowlands could barely feed their families. Horse thieving and marauding filled in the gaps created by desperation. Emigration to a land of rich soil and better growing conditions must have seemed a Godsend.
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. Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists who have studied the Appalachian people say their strong Scots-Irish heritage can be traced through speech patterns, word usage, music, and traditions. That, however, will be the subject of a later post.
For me, the answer to the question of Lowlands or Highlands Scots heritage isn’t an either/or proposition, but rather the answer is probably both. Either way, my people are counted among those who were born fighting, as long ago Scots-Irish were said to have been.
 Leyburn, James G, The Scotch-Irish: a Social History (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 83-87.
 Leyburn, 87.
 Leyburn, 88-94.
 http://www.ulsterscotssociety.com/about.html, accessed July 6, 2015.
 Webb, Jim, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. (New York: Broadway Books, 2005).