The Scots-Irish have been back
in the news recently as researchers and scholars continue discovering
things about this remarkable culture that settled much of America
and came to dominate Southern Appalachian culture.
While other regions gave way to new influences over the centuries
and the pioneering culture virtually vanished, the Scots-Irish
who lived in the remoteness of Southern Appalachia held fast
to their traditions and preserved their life-style well into
the 21st century. What scholars are just now beginning to find
out through their studies and excursions into the mountain backwoods,
where the remnants of old homesteads can still be found, is
the fact that the culture was not cut off from society as originally
thought. Items discovered recently, such as toys, magazines,
and furniture, show that they were as up-to-date on current
affairs as anyone else in America. Why they chose to remain
in the region long after progress supposedly seemed to pass
them by is the question that many still ponder.
Scholars say the answer to that question can be found only in
the origins of the Scots-Irish themselves and the matrimonial
love they had for real estate and individual liberty. Those
were the two things, the hybrid Celts valued above all else
and the reason their story inevitably brought them to the American
Following the death of Englands Queen Elizabeth in 1603,
the age of the Stuarts was ushered into Britain. Scottish King
James I, who was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and a direct
descendant of King Henry VIII, took the throne on March 24,
1603. The intrigue and politics of the day were such that James
found himself presented with three immediate problems. There
was a growing Puritan movement in the country that was wanting
to completely destroy the Catholic Church, War was still raging
with Spain, and the Parliament was seeking to play a larger
role in British government. In addition to all of that, Northern
Ireland was still a thorn in the side of Britain and posing
problems to English rule in the nation.
While of unusual character, James I was an efficient leader
and negotiated well in foreign policy. He ended the Spanish
War, ordered a new translation of the Bible, and, when he discovered
the Catholic "Gunpowder Plot of 1605", which intended
to blow up the House of Commons, James I reinstated the penalties
against practicing Catholics who refused to attend the English
Church. The act gained him much respect from Puritan Leaders
and Parliamentary members. James I did, however, have an irritating
way of exaggerating his powers as monarch, which caused him
numerous problems with the nations other leaders, who
didnt accept a "lowly" Scottish King as a supreme
ruler. In an effort to overcome the image problem, he turned
his attention to the problems in Northern Ireland.
Prior to Queen Elizabeths death, a treaty had been brokered
to end the war in the Island Nation, but Elizabeth died before
signing it. James immediately invoked a sedition act against
Irelands largest landholders and confiscated their property.
Ulster, Ireland Chiefs ONeil and ODonnell were officially
charged with treason and ordered to report to London to face
the charges. They knew what awaited them and France, under direction
from the Catholic Church, dispatched a ship, which took the
two leaders into exile.
James I began to import Scottish lowlanders to the new lands
of Northern Ireland, which he proposed would become its own
nation. In many cases, they were people who had migrated to
Scotland from Ireland generations earlier and had been "Anglicized"
into the British culture. Many had sympathies for the Irish
as most Scotsmen identified with wanting to preserve their Celtic
nationality. From 1609 to 1625, 81,000 Scottish lowlanders and
some English migrated to Ulster for the opportunities of reestablishing
themselves and their families in a new land.
This gave the new settlers a "colonial stature", which
meant they could own a gun, own land without feudal arrangements,
and make the Celtic drink Uisgebaugh later Anglicized
to the present name of whiskey. Although it was an ancient brew
to the island, the new Scottish settlers had been forbidden
to make it in their country because control of it had been placed
in the hands of recognized Scottish Lords, who demanded taxes
on it for the Crown. In addition, the new colonists could worship
when and where they please, which was usually in a Presbyterian
"Kirk". They werent considered "proper"
Englishmen, however, and soon began to make trouble for the
British Crown. Although it was forbidden, the Scottish lowlanders
intermarried with their Catholic Irish cousins and soon became
a driving force in the Ulster Counties.
In 1625, King James I died and power fell on his second son
Charles I. The settlements he seeded in Ulster started to flourish,
but soon English authority began making itself felt in the region.
The Ulstermen had become a hybrid in a manner of speaking. They
were fully aware of the stature in English eyes, who thought
of them as a lower class of citizen and resented any success
they gained. They were described by English society as belligerent,
rollicking, whiskey-making rogues, who lacked in the civilized
The British government could not administer the region without
force. There were no police informants among them and, if one
was wronged or committed a crime, they handled it themselves
and based their judgments upon the Bible. In the early 1700s,
life suddenly became complicated when the crown exerted its
rule over Ulster and placed an excise tax on Whiskey that banned
production of it in Ireland. It further decreed that the only
legal whiskey would be that which carried the English seal and
anyone caught making or in possession of the illegal whiskey
would be subject to charges.
The Ulstermen were immediately angered by the law and smuggling
soon became a first-rate profession among them. A lot of them
were treated as rogue royalty and the troubles began brewing
in Ireland as the Crown became aware of their continued rebellion
against English law. Then the English slapped religious limits
on who could serve in office in an attempt to bring the region
into the English Church. Many of the Ulstermen knew what trouble
lay ahead for them and began casting their eyes towards the
new lands of the Americas.
In April, 1717, following a drought that destroyed many of the
crops in Northern Ireland, 5,000 people left Ulster bound for
Boston and began one of the worlds first mass immigrations.
British enforcement of taxes and confiscation of lands under
new laws were coupled with devastating crop losses due to environmental
From 1717 to the American Revolution of 1776, more than 250,000
Ulstermen sailed to the North American ports of Pennsylvania,
Delaware, South Carolina, and New York. The biggest wave of
migration occurred in the four year period of 1725 to 1729,
which made English rulers form a special investigative committee
to see why the Ulster Protestants were leaving en masse from
Northern Ireland. The Presbyterians, the Quakers, and others
settled quickly in America and started building their fortunes.
The majority could only afford to make the trip to America by
selling themselves as indentured servants. The practice was
a kind of alternative slavery that contracted an individual
for a period of four to seven years as a laborer in the colonies.
If the Ulstermen survived the journey and the brutal labor that
followed, they were then released from the contract and allowed
to settle in the new land. British rule, however, again began
trying to exert itself in the American colonies and land ownership,
which was a major issue with the Ulstermen, started becoming
difficult and leading to a new migration beyond the British
Proclamation line of 1758. The Proclamation restricted British
subjects to the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains and
gave Native Americans sovereignty on the western boundary.
With the prices of colonial real estate soaring along with British
taxes, the Ulstermen started moving into the frontier where
land was cheap or could be "squatted" a tradition
that lasted for over one hundred years in America. The Ulstermen
soon showed the colonists what kind of breed had originated
in the rugged lands of Northern Ireland. The Ulstermen adapted
quickly to the frontier and began to flourish. They became skilled
woodsmen who coexisted with some Native American tribes and
skillfully fought those who didnt want them there.
They were the textbook frontiersmen and set the standards of
the craft in America. It wasnt a trait completely admired,
even by their own Ulster brethren, who feared too many of the
independent settlers would upset the balance of power.
In Pennsylvania, James Logan, who was a Provincial Secretary
of the region, wrote: "A settlement of five families gave
me more trouble than 50 of any other people. It looks as if
Ireland is to send all her inhabitants hither, for last week
not less than six ships arrived, and every day two to three
arrive also. The common fear is that if they continue to come
they will make themselves proprietors of the province. Theyre
troublesome settler to the government and hard neighbors to
At first, the British welcomed the Ulstermens presence
in the backwoods as a buffer between the Native American tribes
and the colonies. When the American Revolution began in 1776,
many of the Ulstermen, who were now second and third generation
settlers had risen to prominence in colonial governments. Many
had signed the Declaration of Independence and, among the one
third of the colonists who actually took up arms and fought
the British, the biggest contribution came from the Ulster immigrants.
In addition, many congressional representatives of Ulster origins
would become major players in the establishment and signing
of the U.S. Constitution a document they believed would
preserve their unquenchable thirst for individual liberty and
freedom from government interference.
While they considered themselves Americans, the British and
other foreign colonists described them in a number of ways and
one of those words was the compound term Scots-Irish
indicating they were Irish immigrants from the Ulster region.
They brought with them the old hopes and dreams of owning land
and answering to no one.
One of the highest concentrations of Scots-Irish were in the
Carolinas and many, after fulfilling indentured service contracts,
had been forced to migrate over the Southern Appalachians for
new land. In 1772, it was Scots-Irish settlers who formed the
first independent government in America at Watauga in what would
become the state of Tennessee. They continued to settle in the
Appalachian valleys beyond colonial rule and, although their
loyalty was questioned by their adoptive country, the settlers
proved themselves vital in the American Revolutions victories
at Cowpens and Kings Mountain. In addition, they numbered many
in the Regular Colonial Army. When the war was going badly for
the American colonies, then-General George Washington expressed
uncompromising confidence in the Scots-Irish ranks of the American
"If defeated everywhere else," said Washington, "I
will make my stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish of my native
In fact, following the Revolution, a British Major-General testified
before a committee at the British House of Commons that "half
the Continental Army were from Ireland Scots-Irish."
The Ulster-filled ranks in the Colonial Army were also rewarded
with land contracts in lieu of pay for their service to the
American cause, of which they took immediate advantage. On such
an agreement did James White and three other men travel down
the Tennessee River at the present site of Knoxville. Robertson
traveled on to Nashville, and the Tennessee and Kentucky settlements
began to grow into thriving cities west of the Appalachian Mountain
From that point forward, the Scots-Irish Americans became the
quintessential "pioneer". While they were only 14
percent of the American population at that time, their presence
was felt at all levels of American society. The newly formed
American government almost caused a rebellion among them in
1794, when then-President George Washington, taking a page from
the British, decided to levy a tax on all whiskey made in the
colonies. The incident that followed would become known as the
"Whiskey Rebellion". It forced numerous Scots-Irish
distillers over the Appalachians and into the Kentucky frontier
away from Colonial rule and taxation laws they felt resembled
those of the British.
As the years passed, the frontier settlers had a chance to do
something their forefathers had only dreamt of in their native
land. They began to put down roots in America and owned land
that would remain in their families for generations to come.
Their numbers in America and particularly the Southeast continued
to grow and flourish. They served in every capacity of their
communities and, while they preserved their ancient Scots-Irish
traditions, considered themselves Americans. The Ten Amendments
to the Constitution were as sacred to them as the Ten Commandments
and Scots-Irish settlers were always among the first to volunteer
for military service to defend the liberties they represented.
When the War Between the States began, Scots-Irish soldiers
filled the ranks of both armies and battlefield heroics
a common practice earning the respect of Union and Southern
commanders. During the height of the war, General Robert E.
Lee was asked which nationality he believed made the best soldiers.
"The Scots who came to this country by way of Ireland,"
said Lee. "Because they have all the dash of the Irish
in taking up a position and all the stubbornness of the Scots
in holding it."
The Scots-Irish Americans continued to flourish after the war
and many kept the frontier tradition alive by migrating over
the Mississippi and into the reaches of the American West. Their
names became icons in the history of the nation. Among them
were names like Crockett and Houston. In fact, every President
from Tennessee was of Scots-Irish descent. The traditions remain
stronger in Tennessee than in any other state. They remained
isolated in the far reaches of the Southern Appalachians for
years until an age old battle over real estate began again during
the 1930s. As in Ireland and early America, they were given
colorful nicknames like mountaineers and "hillbillies"
often relegating them to a second-class status as citizens.
While their traditions have been both glamorized and stereotyped
by Hollywood in films, the Scots-Irish values and traditions
continue to influence America today.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the Scots-Irish
culture thrived and evolved in the isolated mountains of East
Tennessee and became something of an American curiosity around
the turn of the 19th Century, when President Theodore Roosevelt
wrote his book "The Winning of the West" and spoke
highly of Scots-Irish accomplishments in the settlement of America.
The region came into national view again in the early 1930s
through President Roosevelts New Deal Programs and again
in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson launched the "War
on Poverty" and created the Appalachian Regional
Commission to help with economic development of the region.
The federal programs were a cause of concern among many American
scholars, who began an all out effort to try and document the
culture. Preservation of the Scots-Irish traditions in Southern
Appalachia became a focus of numerous regional colleges and
universities, who now offer courses and sponsor studies of the
subject. Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City is among one
of those colleges offering studies in Southern Appalachian culture.
Their Appalachian Studies division was among one of the first
in Tennessee to begin offering classes on Southern Appalachian
traditions in an effort to preserve the culture.
Today about one in five Tennesseans can trace their roots to
the Scots-Irish. In the 1990 figures for selective social characteristics
for the State of Tennessee conducted by the U.S. Department
of Commerce, Bureau of Census, it established that 197,942 Tennesseans
were of Scots-Irish descent, 100,080 Scottish, and 875,771 Irish.
With all figures totalled and the fact that most who claim Irish
heritage were from the Ulster regions of Northern Ireland, it
is estimated that more than 1 million Tennesseans are descended
from Scots-Irish ancestry.
One of the most notable and accidental preservations of the
Scots-Irish traditions can be found in the native music of the
region. The traditional folk songs can still be heard in Bluegrass
music and eventually laid the groundwork for the growth of Country
Music in Nashville. In the 1990s, entertainer Dolly Parton released
an album titled "Heartsong" with the Northern Irish
group "Altan" that paid tribute to her Scots-Irish
heritage in the Smoky Mountains. Other artists have released
similar tributes through the years most notably in the
fields of Folk and Bluegrass music.
The ancient art of making whiskey also continued in the Southern
Appalachian region until after the War Between the States when
the federal government started registering and taxing distillery
operations. Kentucky and Tennessee evolved the art into distinct
American styles that are now prominent brands worldwide. In
true Scots-Irish fashion, it also gave birth to the underground
"moonshining" operations that pervaded throughout
the region for generations and was a thorn in the side of law
In addition to Tennessees three presidents, it is also
interesting to note that more than nine other men who would
serve as President of the United States could trace their ancestry
to the Ulster region of Northern Ireland.
The troubles in Northern Ireland that led most Scots-Irish to
immigrate to America continue to this day. Only recently have
serious peace initiatives started taking place in the region
and offering hope that a final peace can be established. Through
the years , the age old battles between Protestants and Catholics
as well as Britain and Irish citizens wanting independence have
been cause for much bloodshed.
In Ulster, a wealthy American Industrialist funded a museum
dedicated to the Scots-Irish who came to America. It showcases
the journeys and hardships suffered by those who immigrated
to America. In recent years, genealogical information on Scots-Irish
is becoming somewhat of a lucrative business. In 1996, Assistant
Editor of the Ulster and Belfast News Letter Billy Kennedy published
a book titled "The Scots-Irish in the hills of Tennessee",
which went on to become a best seller in Europe. It is still
available by special order from local bookstores. It is a well
researched book that features the latest information on the
people who first settled Tennessee and their rise to prominence
in American history.
In addition, the Ulster Historical Foundation was formed to
help those tracing their roots to the island nation. They have
an Internet site available for those who dont want to
deal with international long-distance charges. The site address
is www.uhf.org.uk and can point people towards sources that
could help them trace family ancestors.