The Ulster-Scots Language Society, formed to promote the Ulster-Scots language, our own hamely tongue

Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish: What's in a Name?

An Essay by Michael Montgomery, University of South Carolina

[Originally published in Tennessee Ancestors, vol. 20, 143-50 (2004).]

When in Northern Ireland some years ago I had the opportunity to participate in the launch of The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee, a new book by local journalist Billy Kennedy, at the office of his newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter.1 Because I was a native of Knoxville, Kennedy had asked me to say a few words about connections between my part of the world and the one I was visiting, and I gladly obliged, pointing out several historical links (such as David Crockett) and commonalities. At the reception following the program, a local man approached to chide me and my countrymen for using the term Scotch-Irish for Americans whose ancestors came from Ulster (in this article "Ulster" refers to the historic province, consisting of the six counties of Northern Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone) and three counties now in the Republic of Ireland (Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan). "Scots-Irish is the correct term," my accoster insisted. "Remember, Scotch is the drink, Scots are the people." In Tennessee having grown up with and being acquainted with only Scotch-Irish, I was puzzled. Scotch-Irish had no negative connotations anywhere in the United States I knew of and was a respectable term that never suggested an alcoholic beverage or gave offense. It was the exclusive term employed by my family of abstainers, my relatives, and many others I was aware of, whether they claimed ancestry from Ulster or not. Perhaps it did little but account for our being Presbyterians in an ocean of Tennessee Baptists, but our Scotch-Irish-ness was an uncontroversial fact of life and our family history.

After the title of Kennedy's book and the admonition at his launch prompted me to pay attention, I began noticing Scots-Irish. I observed that academics and genealogists used it to some extent, apparently not because they were teetotalers so much as out of fashion or to conform to usage in the British Isles, where today people from Scotland are called Scots rather than Scotch (an issue to which I return below). By almost any criterion, however, Scotch-Irish has been more widely used in the United States for the last three hundred years, and it remains so today. Two recent books have promoted Scots-Irish (i.e., The People with No Name: Ireland's Ulster Scots, America's Scots Irish and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764 and Born Fighting: How the Scots Irish Shaped America), but titles with Scotch-Irish have always been far more numerous.2 This can be shown by the holdings in any American library. For example, the on-line catalog of the Library of Congress has sixty-four books with Scotch-Irish in their main title, but only four with Scots-Irish, while at the Calvin McClung Library in Knoxville, Tennessee, the ratio is forty-eight to seven (six with Scots-Irish are by Mr. Kennedy). In many other ways the dominance of Scotch-Irish in the United States can be demonstrated.3

In the United States Scotch-Irish has been used for Ulster immigrants (mainly of Presbyterian heritage) for more than three centuries and well over one hundred years for their descendants.4 Why Scotch-Irish rather than Scots-Irish? Simply because, as we will see, people of Scottish beckground were known as Scotch in the eighteenth century, so that term was brought to America, where it took root and flourished. In the nineteenth century Scotch-Irish widened to encompass other Protestants (Anglicans, Quakers, etc.) and eventually some writers applied it to Ulster immigrants collectively because they were presumed all to have absorbed the Scottish-influenced culture of Presbyterians who had come to Ulster from Scotland in the seventeenth century.5 (In Ulster, the parallel term Ulster Scots encompasses those of Scoitish heritage and often Protestants more widely.) As opposed to settlers from Scotland or from other parts of Ireland, how distinctive were people from Ulster, in perception or in reality, when they came to America? This is by no means a simple question, but labels applied to Ulster immigrants in the colonial period such as those beng considered here can throw interesting and perhaps instructive light on it.6 In this paper I document that terminology and consider whether Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish is more appropriate, historically or otherwise, by analyzing early examples and objections to both terms. Can we say that one or the other is "correct"?

Scotch-Irish is first documented in the British Isles, where it referred to Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and Islanders from western Scotland, people who had long moved back and forth to northeastern Ireland and who by the late 1500s threatened English rule in Ulster. Their sea-based territory spanning the North Channel of the Irish Sea formed a zone distinct from the rest of Ireland. In a letter of April 14, 1573, Elizabeth I stated, "We are given to understand that a nobleman named 'Sorley Boy' [MacDonnel] and others, who be of the Scotch-Irish race, and some of the wild Irish, at this time are content to acknowledge our true and mere right to the countrie of Ulster and the crowne of Ireland."7 This meaning of Scotch-Irish persisted for more than a century, as is evident from a statement c1700 found in Scottish court proceedings: "Thir [i.e., those] of Birkay, the Irische men and our Scottis Irishe, acknawledge the same for thair first and mother toung ... commounlie ... called ... the Gathelik toung."8

At the very same time as the second example above, Scotch-Irish appeared in North America referring to a completely different group, Presbyterian colonists from Ulster, who would have spoken not Gaelic, but English or Scots (the latter is a Germanic language closely related to English and having a common ancestor with it-Anglo-Saxon. It is most familiarly known as the tongue in which Robert Burns wrote.) The earliest known American instance, quoted in full here from a Maryland affidavit in 1689/90, shows Scotch-Irish being used as an insult:

I William Pattent was at worke at James Minders and one night as I was at worke Mr Matt: Scarbrough came into the house of sd Minders and sett down by me as I was at work, the sd Minder askt him if he came afoot, he made answer again and sd he did, saying that man, meaning me, calling me Rogue makes me goe afoot, also makes it his business to goe from house to house to ruinate me, my Wife and Children for ever. I made answer is it I Mr.Scarbrough[?] and he replyed and said ay you, you Rogue, for which doing ile whip you and make my Wife whipp to whipp you, and I answered if ever I have abused [you] at any time, or to any bodies hearing, I will give you full satisfaction to your own Content. [At which Scarbrough said] You Scotch Irish dogg it was you, with that he gave me a blow on the face saying it was no more sin to kill me then to kill a dogg, or any Scotch Irish dogg, giving me another blow in the face. now saying goe to yr god that Rogue and have a warrant for me and I will answer it. Wm.Patent[.] (from an affidavit recorded on 15 March 1689/90 in Somerset County, Maryland, in a hearing to bring charges against Matthew Scarbrough)9

Before looking at other American examples, it will be helpful to establish a broader context for the term Scotch-Irish. Who were these people from the northern part of Ireland, a large number of whom left for North America beginning around 1718? Exactly how many came has been debated for over a century. One early historian argued for more than a third of a million,10 while more recently economic historians have proposed lower figures (Dickson, for example, calculated 130,000 passengers from the tonnage of ships known to have left Ulster ports).11 The most recent estimate, perhaps the most authoritative one to date, is that at least 150,000 natives of Ulster arrived in American colonies prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 (this was the consensus of a team of scholars assembled by the Ulster American Folk Park to advise it on developing a new outdoor exhibit at its museum.)12 According to Griffin, "their migration represented the single largest movement of any group from the British Isles to British North America during the eighteenth century."13

The Scotch-Irish were not, contrary to frequent assumption, a people who resulted from the intermarriage of Scots and Irish in Ulster. Most, but by no means all, were of Lowland Scottish or northern English ancestry and perhaps two-thirds were of Presbyterian tradition (others being Anglican, Quaker, or Catholic), having forebears who crossed the Irish Channel following King James I's Ulster Plantation of the early 1600's and who settled primarily in four counties on Ireland's northeastern coast.14 After leaving Ulster for North America in the 1700s, the Scotch-Irish landed overwhelmingly in the Delaware Valley and moved westward. They and their descendants became the dominant group in much of the hinterland (or back country), populating the interior of Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia and positioning their descendants at the headwaters of the Ohio River and in the Carolina Piedmont, from which the lower Midwest and much of the interior South were settled in the early-nineteenth century. They were especially numerous in the Southeast, constituting one-half of the white population of South Carolina and Georgia by the end of the eighteenth century.15 Long-time Tennessee state historian Wilma Dykeman stated that in the early days "the dominant character of Tennesseans came to be identified with that of the Scotch-Irish."16 Surname research has estimated that Americans of Ulster extraction formed roughly one-sixth of the European-derived population by the first U.S. census of 1790.

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