The terms Scots-Irish / Ulster-Scots refer to those Scots (mainly of Presbyterian stock) who settled in Ulster (the location of modern-day Northern Ireland) from the early seventeenth century. From these 200,000 original settlers, many are still in Ulster but over 2 million of their descendants eventually reached America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand & South Africa amongst others. Today in the USA alone there are estimated to be up to 27 million people of Scots-Irish descent.
Around 7,000 B.C. settlers crossed the narrow channel from what is now Scotland to Ulster to become Ireland's first inhabitants. Thirty centuries later they were peaceably joined by new settlers from northern Britain, who brought agriculture and commerce.
By 700 B.C. the Celts were established in Central Europe north of the Alps. From there they spread to Italy, Spain, France and eventually their culture reached the "Islands of the Pretani" (Britian & Ireland).
Various 'Celtic' peoples (actually insular tribes that adopted celtic languages) became the dominant caste in different parts of the British Isles, however the majority of the population in Scotland and Ireland remained the pre-celtic Pretani (known as 'Picts' in Scotland and 'Cruthin' in Ireland). In Ulster the Celtic speaking Ulaid, from whom Ulster got it's name, (Ulster is a Norse word meaning 'place of the Ulaid') became a powerful force. However, Ulster was sometimes still ruled by a Cruthinic king although Generally, the two peoples united as Ulidians when faced with their common enemy, the southern Gael kingdoms.
The oldest story in Western European literature tells of an attack on Ulster by the combined armies of the other kingdoms on the island. From the court of the King of Ulster at Navan Fort came the Red Branch Knights. The most fearsome of these Ulster Knights was the mighty Cúchulainn (Setanta). His exploits in fighting the other tribes of Ireland are certainly at least exaggerated, but Ulster did fight wars to preserve her independence from Southern aggressors. There are great ancient 'Walls' such as the 'Black Pig's Dyke' which runs across much of lower Ulster, consisting of great linear earthworks, a series of massive defenses, guarding the routeways into Ulster identified by archaeologists as fortifications against such attacks.
Ulster was continually under pressure from rival irish kingdoms. The Cruthin and Ulaid forces were eventually driven from Donegal, and the citadel at Navan was destroyed around 450 A.D. South and west of the River Bann a tribe called the Airgialla took control as the Ulstermen retreated eastwards into Antrim and Down and ultimately many left for Scotland, particularly in the sixth century.
Scotland & Ulster have been been forever linked throughout history. The first 'Scots' were a Celtic speaking people who originated in northern Ulster and landed on the west of ‘Scotland’ during the fifth century AD, establishing the kingdom of Dalriada. The Romans named these people the "Scotti", hence this is where the name Scotland came from.
The constant migrations between the north of Ireland & Scotland over many centuries has given Ulster its own unique culture distinct from the rest of the island!
Many Ulster-Scots (Scots-Irish) are descended from Border Reivers, the lawless clans of the border between Scotland & England, where a lifestyle of raiding and marauding was the only way to survive. Owing to their geographical position they were frequently harassed by passing armies who, at the very least, would require provisioning, often without payment, but who were more often hell bent on destroying everything before them and causing as much damage and misery as they could. Crops were destroyed, homesteads burnt and the people murdered or dispersed.
It is no coincidence that these people, having their crops regularly destroyed and their livestock stolen, looked for other means of sustaining themselves and their families... They took to reiving.
For over 400 years between the 13th & 17th centuries, warring families from both sides of the lawless border valleys would carry out deadly raids on each other. These skilled warrior horsemen would live a life of looting, arson, murder & rustling. The life of the Border Reiver was not necessarily ruled by his allegiance to the English or Scottish Crowns, but more likely by his allegiance to a family surname. The history of the Border Reivers has many similarities to that of the American Wild West. It produced its share of outlaws and broken men, corrupt officials, greed, misery and struggle for survival.
In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England. He immediately set about unifying the two countries and started by bringing the Reivers under control. Many Reiver families were faced with the choice of hanging or accept exile across the Irish sea to the wild badlands of Ulster as part of James' Plantation project to bring the Irish natives under control.
Some well know Reiver names are Armstrong, Irving, Murray, Kerr & Burns. Are you descended from the Border Reivers? Check a list Reiver names here.
It is generally accepted that the first large-scale migration of Scots into Ulster in written history was the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement of May 1606. That saw the trickle become a flood, Tens of thousands of Lowland Scots poured into Ulster.
Scottish lairds Hamilton & Montgomery aquired lands in Counties Antrim & Down from An Irish chieftain, Con O’Neill who owned the lands of Lower Clandeboye, Upper Clandeboye and The Great Ardes. Around Christmas 1602, Con O’Neill was imprisoned in Carrickfergus Castle and was destined to be executed for “...levying war against the Queen...” . Con’s wife Ellis suggested a plan to Hugh Montgomery - if he could free Con from prison and gain him a Royal Pardon from the King, the O’Neills would give Montgomery half of their wasted lands as a reward. Montgomery hatched an elaborate plan to bust O'Neill from Carrickfergus Castle. A sucessful jailbreak led to Con escaping to Scotland. Soon after, lord Hamilton got in on the deal with Montgomery and in1606 Con O'Neill recieved a pardon and returned to Castle Reagh in Ulster.
Hamilton & Montgomery set about encouraging a re-population on their new lands, which had been described as “...all waste and desolate...” and depopulated due to the English/Gaelic wars of the late 1500s. The resulting large migration was not a plantation, not an invasion, nor a conquest but a settlement.
Hamilton & Montgomery did not wrest a fertile, cultivated and prosperous region from Gaelic proprietors. They came instead to a country devastated by war and famine... they created the bridgehead through which the Scots were to come into Ulster for the rest of the century.
"...The Scots who made the move to Ulster seem to have been a relatively balanced cross-section of the national population. At the upper end of the scale were small landowners and substantial tenants who saw the venture as an unprecedented opportunity for economic advancement... below this élite class was a broad social spread which included artisans and labourers as well as farm servants and cottars. Significantly for every four men, three women moved to Ulster... this was an important influence which helped to maintain the distinctive identity of the Ulster Scots..."
There had been many failed attempts to 'plant' English settlers all over Ireland during Elizabethan era. Having seen the succesful settlement of Scottish families in counties Antrim & Down by Hamilton & Montgomery a few years previous, King James I was inspired to attempt another. He hoped the 'planting' of loyal subjects would stop the threat of rebellion. The king was also worried that if a Spanish army invaded Ireland they would find support among the native Irish. With the Flight of the Earls in 1607 the king was now in possession of vast underpopulated territories in six counties. Scottish & English families were encouraged to re-locate to Ulster.
To Scots the North of Ireland was only a three hour boat ride away. Many had heard about the success of the Hamilton & Montgomery settlement and had hopes they would find new & better lives. Some saw the opportunity to aquire their own estates. Farmers hoped to build new & bigger farms & landless labourers hoped to aquire their own small piece of land for farming. They were ordinary Scottish families, seeking a new life. They were mainly Presbyterian in faith and outlook, and overwhelmingly Scots-speaking in language. As John Hewitt summarised so well:
“It was a transplantation of Scots from not very far away to a climate and an economy very like home, and to which the language, folk culture and lore had been carried without dilution…”
This was just the beginning - these first Ulster-Scots settlements were built upon over the following centuries, through constant fresh migrations which both increased the size of the Ulster-Scots community and enriched our heritage and traditions. In the 1690's a series of terrible harvest failures in Scotland caused by a volcanic eruption in Iceland resulted in hundreds of thousands of famine refugees fleeing their homeland. As the recent Williamite wars had secured Ireland's future for protestant settlers upto 70,000 of these refugees from all over Scotland migrated to Ulster. This was to be the biggest single influx of Scots into Ireland. The permanent Scots imprint on Ulster is crystal clear.
Within a few generations, and in response to troubled times, dramatically increasing rents & harsh penal laws in Ireland, the frontier hardened descendents of these Ulster Scots would again migrate, this time to the four corners of the world to such places as the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand & South Africa.
FOR MORE HISTORY SEE THE DOCUMENTARIES ON THE 'VIDEOS' PAGE.
Cúchulainn - Hound of Ulster
An early settler in Ulster
Black Pig's Dyke, devensive wall of ancient Ulster
Reivers clash on the Scottish-English border
Map of the 1606 settlements
Ulster Plantation of 1610