How to Find your English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh Ancestors

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How to get the most out of your DNA results

Location DNA can be a game changer. See an example Deep Past DNA Report here.

By Mark Connolly

About 99.9% of our DNA is shared with our fellow human beings wherever they live. Our DNA is effectively an instruction manual on how to build us; each is filled with billions of bits of information.

So what makes you and I different?

The section that counts involves something called chromosomes. When you take a DNA test these are the bits that match to your parents, siblings, cousins and descendants of shared grandparents going back centuries. Every one of us is the result of a lottery that takes place when a new life is created. It is why our siblings can look very different from ourselves. Roughly 50 percent of the lottery balls come from our father, the other half are inside the winning egg of our mother. But there are limits to the number of balls! As a result we share some of our winning numbers with relatives going back centuries.

Our DNA hard drives

Scientists believe we can each store a random selection of 250 or so ancestors at most. As a result the likelihood of DNA matches is as follows:

Siblings 100% Share a parent

Your Cousins 100% Share a grandparent

2nd Cousins 100% Share a great grandparent

3rd Cousins 98% Share a great great grandparent

4th Cousins 71% Share a great great great grandparent

5th cousins 32% Share a great great great great grandparent

By the 6th generation, some ancestors no longer show up in our DNA; our siblings could have them but the odds are less than 5 percent. You could even have a detectable block of DNA from an ancestor 10 generations back, but even if you do it will represent only about 1 in 10 of your ancestors from that time. That’s why it’s important to test your parents and grandparents if they are still alive; their DNA includes hundreds of ancestors you missed in life’s lottery.

Autosomal DNA

There are three types of DNA that testing companies focus on. This article is about the most popular, autosomal DNA. Almost everyone who tests for it will be able to find at least some genetic legacy from all their great, great, great grandparents. That’s 32 people who have effectively left their postcode – or zip for our American friends – inside your body! Of course most people do not know the names of all 32 great, great, great grandparents. But services which combine your known family tree with DNA tests allow you to match your DNA to others and through that you can sometimes discover the missing links. If you are lucky – and an honest detective – you can reverse engineer back to your known family using DNA and parish records as path finders. To be sure it can be a long, frustrating and expensive process but it’s one that would have been largely impossible a few short years ago.In theory then, everyone with known parents and grandparents should be able to find relatives or confirm ancestors up to a century-and-a-half before their own birth. If your parents or their siblings are still alive and were born before the 1960s you can do even better – their DNA is very likely to get you back before the era of mass migration. Why is that important? Because the generations alive today contain the last fading genetic memory of ancestors who likely lived in the same place for centuries.Genetically most of us hold reliable autosomal DNA data for about 500 years, with each passing generation we lose information further back. Soon this type of DNA will no longer be able to trace back to our individual tribal origins in Britain or Ireland.

Our personal Dark Age

Recent scientific papers have shown that most people indigenous to Britain and Ireland (those with a majority of ancestors who arrived at least a thousand years ago) are either still living within the boundaries of 6th century kingdoms or can be genetically traced back to them. The reason is simple: Britain and Ireland are islands and until very recently the populations hadn’t changed much for a very long time. Long enough in fact for unique regional genetic signatures to develop. And despite multiple early invasions, DNA shows that the majority of Britons outside of England are still genetically related to the island’s indigenous inhabitants.

In 2015, a project from Oxford University produced the world’s first ever detailed genetic map inside a country, in this case the United Kingdom. It initially broke the data down to 21 regions. That’s since been followed up by similar projects in Scotland and Ireland. The resulting map is a guide to British and Irish local ancestry going back thousands of years.

These facts provide all of us who share this family history a unique opportunity – a chance to glimpse into a known past that had been stable for a thousand years. By comparison I would take much of the DNA conclusions for continental Europe with a pinch of salt – with some exceptions there’s simply been too much back and forth there to reach definitive conclusions on regional or sub regional origins. Britain’s lack of invasions since 1066 and Ireland’s ancient genetic kingdoms make both islands uniquely useful in tracing humanity’s early story and our individual families part in it.

https://myorigins.co.uk/contact/

How to find parish records for Scottish, English, Irish & Welsh ancestors

Birth, marriage & death Parish & Civil Records: England & Wales from 1538, Scotland by an Act 1616, Republic & Northern Ireland late 1700s at best.

Summary

By Mark Connolly

In Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the ‘100 year rule‘ protects anyone potentially still alive from having their private information made public. The rule also applies to all censuses after the 1920 Census Act in the United Kingdom. The best way therefore to find British relatives going back centuries is to have accurate birth, marriage or death information for people alive a century ago.

As for the Republic of Ireland, the civil war after independence delayed the census until 1926. It will be released in 2026 but will have many gaps. There are two excellent censuses in 1901 and 1911; luck, knowledge and extreme patience are key to finding anything before then.

Expanding a family tree based on known relatives who married, took part in a census or died up to 200 years ago should be possible for almost everyone in Britain and, in many cases, Ireland. Births, marriages and deaths before then depend on the information recorded in individual parishes. Maiden names and locations are key to genealogical or ancestry research before the early 19th century, otherwise it’s a guessing game. DNA can often help confirm records which are not 100% verifiable.

The very different histories of the peoples who make up Britain and Ireland are critically important before 1800. Scotland and England were separate Nation States before 1707 and have their own documents going back as far as records exist. Other parts of Britain and Ireland overwhelmingly use elements of the English system due to their occupation or administration by the English. Northern Ireland since the 1600s is different again and the quality of records often depend on whether your ancestors were Protestant or Catholic; almost nothing has survived there before the mid 1800s, but what does exist is often very good.

Scottish and English records can be impressive as far back as the early 1600s but most people will do well to trace ancestors accurately back to the late 1700s. In Scotland, the quality of parish documents before modern records in the early 19th century is largely down to information recorded by individual record keepers. England is much more centralised and therefore standardised; the quality of its records can be dependent on class and status, maiden names can also be harder to find if there is no potential inheritance involved.

Wales and Ireland were under various degrees of English control from the late 12th century. Tracing ancestors in the Republic of Ireland before the mid 1800s is almost impossible but with knowledge can produce results. Northern Ireland is largely untraceable before the mid 1800s due to a fire destroying most records during the Irish Civil War after independence. Records in Wales can be good, but naming conventions and a relatively small group of surnames can make accurate research a challenge. Scotland is difficult before the late 1600s, England is similar but a lack of maiden names, class and religious tolerance can have a big impact there.

More detailed information

England & Wales Pre-1837 Civil Birth, Death and Marriage Records

Registration in England and Wales began with an Act in 1538, requiring the clergy to record every wedding, christening and burial. Documents before this time are extremely hit and miss, especially for regular people without significant status. Wales was legally absorbed into England by Henry VIII, but – language and culture aside – has been administratively English since being fully conquering in 1283.

The Church of England, or Anglican Church, was the state religion of England and Wales from 1536. The vast majority of the population adhered to it. New religious, governmental and societal ideas began to challenge the Church of England’s authority in the 17th century. Various ‘non-conformist’ groups, such as the Puritans and later Methodists and Quakers had their earliest records deliberately destroyed, there’s a dramatic improvement after discrimination laws were lifted in the late 1700s, early 1800s. Unlike Scotland – outside the Highlands – a significant Roman Catholic presence remained in England after the Reformation. Many early English and Welsh migrants to the New World were Catholic or ‘non-conformists’.

Scotland Pre-1855 Civil Birth, Death and Marriage Records

The Church of Scotland had responsibility for registration before 1 January 1855. The earliest surviving Scottish parish records date to 1513. In 1616, an Act by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ordered a register be kept in every parish of persons married, baptised or deceased. Previous efforts were haphazard to say the least and were down to the individual zeal – or otherwise- of parish ministers and schoolmasters, the two people generally responsible for gathering and protecting the records. Major gaps exist before the sporadic origin of modern documentation in the late 1600s-early 1700s.

The majority of the Scottish population is hard to trace before the late 1600s. If you can get back that far, you have done well; most should be able to get back to the late 1700s, anything before that depends on the quality of information (the all important maiden names). If you have provable ‘nobility’ in your family, it can often be traced by parish and civil records to the 1700s and backed up by DNA, the last generations with traceable DNA to medieval times will begin to pass in coming decades. It is possible to get back to the 12th century or earlier if you records and DNA linking you to some of the more famous clans.

The Highlands is often much more difficult due to the Scottish State’s relative lack of administrative power there; after the 1707 union with England, the gradual destruction of the Highland way of life became a torrent after the 1745 defeat at Culloden. Of the many Highlanders who escaped or were forced to the colonies before American independence, it can be hard to trace their ancestors. Those who remained became the vanguard of the British Army and are much more traceable as a result, many of them were given land in various parts of the world as a reward. Knowing where to look and the role of history is key to finding surviving records during this period.

Ireland Pre-1864 Civil Birth, Death and Marriage Records

To be blunt research in Ireland before the mid to late 1800s is a nightmare. Your best hope comes down to this: knowledge on religion, and location, location, location. Catholic naming conventions in Ireland mean clusters of families with the same names in the same areas are more common than not. Catholic registers – when good- can provide all the information you need as early as the late 1700. If you don’t know the maiden name – or if it is not included – then it is largely a frustrating guessing game before the civil registry.

DNA tests are an absolute game changer in Ireland and help fill in the blanks or clear confusion over similarly named individuals. Even without names, they will provide regional histories of where your ancestors lived, filling in many of the blanks in your family story.

If your ancestors moved abroad before the Potato Famine (1840s) then the likelihood of tracing them back without family knowledge to Ireland via records is minimal. Family bibles and DNA can make all the difference here and give the best chance of success. An additional major complication is records often in Latin, add to that unique abbreviations and poor hand writing and Irish research is not for the faint of heart.

The 1926 census (delayed due to Irish civil war) will be released in 2026 but expect major gaps due to events at that time.

The 1901 and 1911 census are excellent so coupled with civil records tracing details on Irish ancestors from this time is similar to Britain.

Historical Context: Why Scotland and Ireland are so different from each other and England & Wales

Interference in the Roman Catholic Church in England was a strong characteristic of English kings from early times. In the 1600s the Protestant Reformation provided the perfect excuse for Henry VIII to place himself above the Pope as head of a reformed Church. The Church of England maintained the hierarchy and power structures of Catholicism but cut off the influence of Europe in English affairs. Ireland – as an early centre of European Christianity – had been invaded by England on the orders of Rome. It’s perhaps ironic – if completely understandable- that the Irish chose to resist English rule by throwing themselves full heartedly into a Roman Catholicism that banished their older and more democratic native church.

Forty years after the Pope sanctioned Henry II’s invasion of Ireland “for the advancement of the Christian religion”, another Pope, Clement III issued a papal bull describing the Scottish church and its nine diocese as a ‘special daughter of Rome’. Another Papal Bull – from Pope Honorius in 1216- asserted Scotland’s independence from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York. Two hundred years later a sword and sceptre were gifted to the Scottish King, James IV, as a mark of papal respect; they remain part of The Honours of Scotland- the oldest royal regalia in the British Isles.

Scotland received support for its independence from Rome and other European power centres perhaps because its Church- which had its spiritual origins in its earlier Irish counterpart- reformed to meet Rome’s definition of Christianity.

However the bonds with the Catholic faith began to fracture in the 1400s. A movement known as ‘the Lollards of Kyle’ embraced radical ideas such as priests being allowed to marry and the right of people to read the Bible and worship in their own language. The 1496 Education Act ensured that literacy and schooling was more widespread both geographically and socially than in most other European countries. As a result the Protestant Reformation had a more profound impact than south of the border where reform was largely political in nature and top down. Within a matter of decades Scotland converted from Catholicism to Calvinism and their ancient alliance with Catholic France was over. As a result English were looked at in a more pragmatic light. The vast majority of Scots were Protestant by the mid 1600s. If you are Catholic, your Scottish ancestors likely emigrated to Scotland from Ireland in the 19th century or they are Highlanders whose loyalty to the Catholic Faith lasted far beyond the 1745 defeat at Culloden; the last pitched battle on British soil.

Canadians and Americans

If you are Irish and from an old American or Canadian family you are much more likely to be Protestant and the descendant of Scots who moved to Ireland for a few generations at most. Often you can trace very far back in the United States or Canada but hit a dead end when trying to get back to the old country for the reasons explained above. Scots arriving directly from Scotland are much easier to trace.If you are an Irish Catholic American your ancestors likely arrived after 1840 and started out in dire straits in the port cities of the East Coast. Scottish Highlanders not loyal to the British crown fused with Irish Catholics in America to create the unique hybrid culture that exists today. These Scottish Highlanders often arrived much earlier that their Irish counterparts. Later Highlanders were loyal to Britain and more often than not headed to Canada where they were given land. If you are English or Welsh and an early American you are likely the descendant of religious non conformists beginning in the 16th century. Often they can be traced directly to England. Any English loyalist and their later British descendants headed home or to Canada after the revolution; they can often be traced from Canada back to America and then England.

Australians and New Zealanders

Very different circumstances based on time of arrival; similar groups did head to both countries but the early Australians were convicts (many were transported for political, social or religious reasons) or a relatively small group of soldiers. Tracing Australians is often relatively easy after 1800. As for New Zealand, the majority of the North Island is English. Most are Anglican or variations, though a strong Catholic migration took place to central parts of the North Island. The majority on the South Island are Scots protestants, many of them are descended from strict Presbyterians who worshiped in the break-away Free Church of Scotland. They were better educated than just about anyone including their fellow Scots, but could also be very intolerant of those who didn’t share their convictions.

I hope that helps

Good luck

Save money while discovering generations of family history

By Mark Connolly

Until recently, researching verifiable family history could take years of painstaking and frustrating research – not to mention barrel loads of money. Modern technology has changed all that. Online research skills can now deliver a quality of verifiable family information previously limited to those with very deep pockets and massive amounts of time on their hands.

So where do you start? The best chance of success comes from knowing key moments in the lives of your grandparents and/or great grandparents – birthdays, marriages, and death. You no longer need to visit some stuffy archive far from home or overseas to begin your research, an internet connection will do. It certainly isn’t easy – few things worth doing are. Here are the two basic things you can do today that were impossible a decade ago:

  • Almost everyone in the English speaking world with accurate information on their grandparents can trace back to the early 19th century online using their ancestors official records.
  • DNA tests can verify those records and find others across the globe who genetically share ancestors up to 500 years ago.

These two facts – online research and the explosion in DNA tests- have revolutionised family research within the last few years. You can learn how to make the most of that information yourself or you can hire a professional to do it for you. But the big players cost serious money.

Ancestry’s professional genealogists start at $2,500 for 20 hours
‘Basic’ Genealogy from MyHeritage’s LegacyTree is $2,500 for 1-4 generations on 1 family line

It gets even worse if you want a family heirloom – a book – so you can pass the information on for generations.

Ancestry’s Family History Book starts at $20,000

Ancestry employs Alexander’s MyCanvas to provide their books.

You can build your own 120 page version for $220

If you have the time and skills to properly research your ancestors, build a family tree, design and write your family book’s content, then go for it! If you don’t and can’t afford the type of services listed above then a standard A4/Letter typed genealogical report from the majority of reputable genealogists will cost a minimum of between $300 and $600.

These expenses are why do-it-yourself services like Ancestry, MyHeritage and FindmyPast have become so popular. These companies charge fees that add up individually to the same kind of price range as a typed genealogical report but they host your information on modern online websites. You do have to keep paying an ongoing subscription if you want to maintain access to records on theses services, so the cost does rack up. You can however store documents and your family tree for free.

If you can do your own tree accurately, there’s nothing more rewarding. But expect to spend many a day-and-night learning how to do it before you get down to the relentless thrills and heartaches of actual research.

This is where I can help. myorigins.co.uk uses all access world memberships to Ancestry, MyHeritage and FindmyPast to build and verify family trees as far back as they can be legitimately traced. I can also find records not on these sites in official archives in Britain and Ireland. When the research is done, you’ll know everything there is to know about your ancestors, the times they lived and their living descendants worldwide.

What I do is state-of-the-art, I won’t be giving you typed sheets. You’ll get services every bit equal to the top dollar ones listed above but at a much more reasonable price because I do all the work myself.

Why are my rates so reasonable?

I’m still a full-time working journalist with 3 decades experience in world news. BBC trained I’ve lived and worked worldwide, including years spent in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is about-me-picture.png

My years of genealogical research and global reporting, documentary making, writing and investigative journalism will combine to track your ancestors down and tell their stories. If you want to learn more click here. You can also contact me directly for a free initial consultation.

How DNA helped me and what it can do for you

Age 2 with the Ochils in the background

I grew up just outside of Stirling, the longtime home of Scotland’s royal family before they shut-up-shop and took up a more lucrative gig in London. Its castle stands in the shadow of the Ochil Hills and the more distant Highland peaks. Bannockburn, Stirling Bridge, the Wallace monument and many other pivotal Scottish moments happened within earshot; even the early Scottish colony of Nova Scotia was ‘founded’ by the 1st Earl at the castle across the road from my elementary school.

Bannockburn an’ a that

My mother’s mother in the 1930s

As a child, my grandmother told me that Robert the Bruce was our ancestor- a story I utterly dismissed. It would be decades before DNA and a full check of parish records confirmed it. Unfortunately Granny Yardley died when I was 10, but I did verify the family story in time for an aunt dying of cancer. To be clear – should anyone think I have delusions of grandeur- I’m a firm believer in the thinking of Robert Burns.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,He’s but a coof for a’ that:For a’ that, an’ a’ that, His ribband, star, an’ a’ that: The man o’ independent mind, He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A Man’s a Man for A’ That Robert Burns, 1795 

There’s much controversy over whether DNA can be used against us. I decided to take the tests because I wanted to get something personally meaningful out of it before a likely future where it’s primarily a transactional security and health function of a privacy free life.

The beauty of DNA is that when it’s matched with parish records it shows how our ancestors climbed up, fell down and repeatedly crawled back onto life’s ladder. In short it’s a beautiful reminder of the human spirit; like Robert the Bruce’s spider we refuse to give up even if our individual lot in life is to suffer so our children do not. People are people and DNA proves opportunity, not birth-right, should govern us all.

In 2015, The People of the British Isles (PoBI) project from Oxford University published the world’s first subregional breakdown of ancestry based on genetic clusters of rural populations tested because all 4 of their great-grandparents were from the same area. This was followed up by the Irish DNA Atlas in 2017. The results are a snapshot of British and Irish genetics before the 19th Century and modern mass migration.

Source:  PLOS Genetics

The vast majority of people on the islands of Britain and Ireland did not move around until at least 200 years ago, therefore your localised DNA is basically a map to where your ancestors lived before then.

Anyone with deep ancestry in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales can probably learn where their ancestors lived in the ancient kingdoms that existed in the 6th century. These Kingdoms were the legacy of the collapse of the Roman Empire.

For centuries after the Roman occupation (43 to 410 AD) Hadrian’s Wall separated Britain’s indigenous tribes. After Rome’s collapse, much of what became England was invaded by Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Normans. The northern tribes in what became Scotland united sufficiently to repeat their early success against Rome to remain unconquered.

Does Locational DNA match the historical record? The answer is an emphatic yes

According to LivingDNA roughly 30% of my father’s DNA has its origins in Cornwall and 30% in Highland Scotland, outside Britain about 2% is from north Italy. Most of my mother’s DNA is from the ancient heartlands of Lowland Scotland; a little over 5% is from France.

British company LivingDNA is the first to use the new data to provide a regional breakdown of local ancestry in 21 regions of the UK. They have still to include the newer information from the Irish DNA Atlas. Experience has taught me that Ancestry and 23andMe are currently the best places for locational data in Ireland.

So let’s see how the locational data compares to the records and ancient kingdoms and regions.

X marks the spot. My mother’s lot were very much North Lanarkshire & Ayrshire Stewarts and Douglases.
DNA shows my father is 29% Highlander, less than 2% Lowlander. Records show his family came from Perthshire and Moray. Jacobites- they lost much; ending up in Northern Ireland, Glasgow & the U.S.
My mother’s DNA from England (23%) compared to the map of Mercia at the height of its influence
My father’s DNA from England & Wales (55%) compared to Wessex and its client states at the height of the Danelaw
One of my son’s inherited his mother’s overwhelmingly North Munster DNA; he got Donegal, Fermanagh, Cornwall, Devon and Lowland Scotland from me

As you can see DNA can be a game changer, particularly for people who don’t know their ancestry or can’t trace records. Our internal DNA hard-drives can carry around 120 ancestors – 60 from each parent – so with each passing generation our earliest genetically traceable ancestors fade away. As a result the generations alive today are the last who will be able to confidentially use autosomal DNA to trace relatives before the age of discovery and the huge amount of global migration that followed.

Currently DNA is useless for tracing most – but not all – individual ancestors without known family trees; for instance my 5-to-7 percent Irish DNA can’t help me trace Irish ancestors before the late 1700s because records were destroyed during the Irish civil war.

The one thing all of us can trace even without records is our ancient DNA, long before surnames were even a thing. In recent years DNA extracted from hundreds of remains- thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of years old- proved modern people still carry the signatures of our most ancient ancestors. Only recently (2018) were the bones of a first generation Neanderthal/human child found in a cave in Europe. Until the early 21st century no-one knew the two populations bred let alone that most people indigineous to Europe or Asia had the proof in their DNA. Unlike humans and almost all other Homines, Neanderthals didn’t evolve in Africa; they evolved in Europe and settled much later in the Middle East, and parts of Western Asia.

“Neanderthals are not totally extinct. In some of us they live on, a little bit.”

Svante Pääbo, Director, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Neanderthals thrived in Europe for several hundred thousand years before modern humans arrived. The evidence so far suggests a relatively small wave of early Homo sapiens arrived around 70,000 years ago. Current evidence suggests Neanderthals died out about 40 thousand years after the earliest Homo sapiens arrived. The descendants of the two groups are the Early Hunter Gatherers (formerly known as Cro-Magnon). They were followed about 9 thousands years ago by the Early Farmers from Anatolia in present-day Turkey and about 6 thousand years after that the Metal Age horsemen from the vast grasslands of the Eurasian steppes.

My results from FamilyTreeDNA’s ‘Ancient Origins’

All of the above can be achieved with a standard autosomal dna test. But if you want to get into the weeds of DNA research you’ll need to get a male in your family to have a Y-DNA test.

What can Y-DNA tell me?

I’m not going to get into the details of what a Y-DNA test is other than to say it traces back your fatherline thousands of years.

The orange dots are my confirmed ancestors in Northern Ireland. The M222 heat map from a Trinity College, Dublin project.

If you want to do serious Y-DNA research, FamilyTreeDNA is the best place for trustworthy groups based on that.

Another interesting thing that can be achieved with DNA involves something called SNPs (pronounced “snips”); we have millions of them. Occasionally they mutate creating unique genetic markers which are the biological postcode or zip code for male descendants. Thousands of males have these mutations but not everyone’s ancient ancestors have their DNA extracted by scientists!

So to the story that my family are related to The Bruce – and his early Stewart king descendants – DNA appears to confirm it via a known mutation in the Stewart Y-DNA.

The lesson from all the above is that DNA can tell you a lot even if you don’t know much. And if you do have family stories like me, then they can be confirmed by DNA. The moral of the story is do not dismiss your elders, they are living family history books. Listen and record everything they say; in our historically disconnected times they often know way more than we do. As for the Bruce and all those who seek to lead, I think the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 set the right tone.

If this prince [Robert the Bruce] shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties. 

Indeed. A man’s a man for a that. An’ a woman.


Swapping Frontiers: The story of the Scotch Irish/Ulster Scots

By Mark Connolly

The ‘Scotch’ Irish are the descendants of Lowland Scots who colonized the north of Ireland from the early 1600s. After a few generations, they left Ireland with a deep sense of betrayal towards the new British State and its king. An estimated 200,000 of them arrived in colonial America in the fifty years leading up to 1776. They provided the military strength that made the political ideas of the American Revolution achievable. If you are Protestant and one of over 30 million Americans who have Irish ancestry, you likely descend from them.

The term pops up for the first time in recorded history in 1573. That’s when Elizabeth I of England used it in reference to Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlanders who crossed the Irish Sea and intermarried Irish Catholic natives of Ireland. These two groups had family and cultural links that regularly crisscrossed the Irish Sea way back into the mists of time. In later years their descendants would merge in the United States as Irish Catholic Americans.

Before the American Revolution many Protestants arriving from Ireland may have called themselves Irish on account of their place of birth, but that changed as Irish Catholics began to arrive in numbers in hope of a better life free of discrimination, poverty and starvation.

The Ulster Scots or Scotch Irish are descendants of Scottish Lowland families primarily from the south of Scotland. Like the Highlanders, they were famed for their blood ties and tight-knit clans. In Scotland and England families on both sides of the border were known as Border Reivers.  They were expert light cavalrymen who manned the frontier between Scotland and England for countless centuries. When they weren’t fighting each other off, they were fighting neighboring clans or even rival kin.    When peace finally arrived after close to 8 centuries of near constant war, they were sent to Ireland to protect protestant colonists against native Irish attacks. There they rapidly proved their worth and became known as the Ulster Scots or later Loyalists. Their descendants are the reason Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. Many left for America from the late 1600s to the mid 1700s with a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment. The British government failed to protect them from a massive increase in tenant farmer rents or provide adequate military support against an increasingly violent native rebellion that targeted their families.  Their traditional role followed them to the American colonies where they were the primary military strength of the patriot army. In future years they were the main reason the West was won- manning the U.S. cavalry when in uniform and strong enough to withstand native attacks when not.  Some of their descendants live in the Appalachians, but the greatest numbers are spread out across the West.

The origin of American nicknames

In Ireland the Scotch-Irish were supporters of the Dutch protestant William of Orange- King Billy as he was known by his supporters. William and his largely protestant Scottish and Ulster Scot army defeated the Catholic dominated army of the deposed King James made up largely of native Irish and Highland Scots. Their rural dwelling descendants in America are dubbed ‘hillbillies’ because of this connection. 

In Scotland the Presbyterian Covenanters who moved en mass to America after their defeat, often wore red kerchiefs around their necks, hence the term redneck. And the English nickname for the Scots were ‘Jocks’, derived from the Scottish version of John, hence the ubiquitous description of their American descendants.

Read up further on Scottish Americans to discover the fascinating differences between the Scots Irish and the Lowland and Highland Scots who emigrated directly to America from Scotland. You’ll also discover the crucial role these groups played on both sides of the American Revolution.

What kind of Scottish American are you? Highland Outlander? East or West Coast Lowlander? Midwest Jock, Redneck or Hillbilly?

Yankees, Southerners & everything in between

By Mark Connolly

For the descendants of Scottish Americans it can be difficult to identify exact origins because there are three primary groups of Scots in America’s formative years who spread far and wide. Their political and religious beliefs, cultures and life experiences very often differed from one another. But their common glue lay in freedom of thought and action, as well as contempt for corruption and power undeserved or abused. Your family background will give you wonderful clues to which group/s your ancestors came from and why they ended up in America. 

Stac Pollaidh, west Highlands

Take a look at the descriptions below and decide whether they feel familiar in your family.

Highlanders: These are the people of ‘Outlander’. Ancient clans that lived in Scotland’s most mountainous and inaccessible region. Descended from a group of tribes known as the Caledonian Confederacy that fought off the Romans. They formed the first Scottish State in the 9th century after uniting with settlers known as Scotti who brought Christianity from the north of Ireland.  By 1038 their kingdom included all of mainland Scotland. Over time, power moved further south to lowland Scotland but highland society and culture remained distinct from the rest of the country. Most highlanders remained Catholic and Gaelic speaking long after the rest of Scotland became Protestant and spoke Scots- a form of English similar to the difference between Dutch and German. After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in the late 18th century, highland society collapsed and its people scattered worldwide. Most emigrated from the late 1700s to late 1800s by force or necessity. The area around Cape Fear had their largest pre-revolution settlement and those who stayed likely joined the patriot army. Many – but not all – of the next major group of highlanders arrived with the British Army. They overwhelmingly moved to Canada from places like Georgia, The Carolinas and New Jersey after the revolution. A century or so later another group of highlanders would arrive in the biggest numbers yet. They were the first to arrive defeated. They had much more in common with the Irish than their fellow Scots from the Lowlands, most of whom had joined forces with the English to defeat them at Culloden. They settled in established Irish communities in places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and then fanned out across the West. They were Catholic, had been dispossessed of their land and shared legitimate personal grievances with the rest of Britain.

St Patrick’s Day, Chicago

In North America – particularly in the United States – Highland Scot and Catholic Irish fused into a hybrid culture that is often seen as one and the same despite huge differences in historical experience.

Stirling Castle, former home of the Scottish Royal Family, marks the boundary between Highland and Lowland

Lowlanders: Occupants of a fertile rift valley with the Highland mountains to the north and the Southern Uplands bordering England to the south. They focused on continental Europe for trade, setting up significant free trade colonies from Flanders to Poland, but their economy repeatedly suffered due to English blockades and the relentless cost of repelling invasions. Their centuries long military alliance with France helped, but in truth the French gained more; the Scots prevented the English focusing on their wars in France, while French support often failed to arrive for Scotland when most needed. From the earliest times they were defended by fortresses built on three volcanic plateaus spread from west to east across the middle of the country. These became the centers of the Scottish State from the 11th to 18th centuries, particularly the castles of Stirling and Edinburgh. They had four universities by the late 1400s and Europe’s first public education system from the 15th century onward. Poorer lowlanders, including many women, were literate unlike many of their counterparts in England, Ireland and continental Europe. Scottish emigrants brought their education system to America and helped the United States displace Scotland as the most literate country in the world by the mid 1800s.  The earliest lowland settlers were Presbyterian prisoners or indentured servants sent to the English colony of Virginia after defeat in the civil wars of the mid 1600s. They were Scottish Covenanters who often identified each other by wearing red kerchiefs around their necks, hence the term ‘redneck’. Their American descendants would very likely have been patriots, unlike many lowland Scots who arrived after the creation of the British State in 1707. Lowlanders from the major trading centers in the middle of the country (central Scotland) brought their industry and free trade ideas to many a northern state in the late 18th century. They settled largely from Maine to New York, and from New Jersey and Maryland to Pennsylvania.   The largest concentrations of central lowland Scots surnames today are in the northeast, northwest and California. A century later Scots from the more conservative and religious southern portion of the country began to arrive after land prices in southwest Scotland skyrocketed.  The region’s surnames are still well represented from Idaho down to Texas. Many of their descendants are Baptists or Methodists. Florida is another place with strong Scottish connections. Highlanders who protected Georgia moved south after helping defeat the Spanish. The long used – and not always derogatory – nickname given by English soldiers to their Scottish counterparts is ‘Jocks’ – Jock being the diminutive form of the name ‘John’ in Scotland.  The name stuck in its American form as the Scots moved out West.

Ulster Scots – Scotch Irish  Descendants of Scottish Lowland families primarily from the south of the country. Like the Highlanders, they were famed for their blood ties and tight-knit clans. In Scotland and England families on both sides of the border were known as Border Reivers.  They were expert light cavalrymen who manned the frontier between Scotland and England for countless centuries. When they weren’t fighting each other off, they were fighting neighboring clans or even rival kin.    When peace finally arrived after close to 8 centuries of near constant war, they were sent across the water to Ireland to protect protestant colonists against native Irish attacks.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland the Border Reivers rapidly proved their worth; those who stayed became part of a group known as the Ulster Scots. Their descendants are the reason Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. Many left for America from the late 1600s to the mid 1700s with a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment. The British government failed to protect them from a massive increase in tenant farmer rents or provide adequate military support against an increasingly violent native rebellion that targeted their families.  Their traditional role followed them to the American colonies where they became the primary military strength of the patriot army. In future years they were the main reason the West was won- manning the U.S. cavalry when in uniform and strong enough to withstand native attacks when not.  Some of their descendants live in the Appalachians, but the greatest numbers are spread out across the West. In Ireland they were supporters of the Dutch protestant William of Orange- King Billy as he was known by his supporters. William and his largely protestant Scottish and Ulster Scot army defeated the Catholic dominated army of the deposed King James made up of largely Irish and Highland Scots. Their rural dwelling descendants in America are dubbed ‘hillbillies’ because of this connection. 

As you can see Scotland, like the United States, was forged by many peoples who shared a strong sense of community while accommodating widely diverse beliefs.

The great ‘Scottish’ idea is that freedom is only freedom if it applies to all.

cum non sit Pondus nec distinccio Judei et Greci, Scoti aut Anglici
(“there is neither bias nor difference between Jew or Greek, Scot or English”)

Declaration of Arbroath to Pope John XXII, 6 April 1320

Of course this freedom of thought and action can court disaster based on over confidence; individually and collectively.  The United States, like Scotland, can be something of a Jekyll and Hyde but obviously on a far greater scale.  Robert Louis Stevenson took his inspiration from the split personality of his native Edinburgh; its forward-thinking creative genius only matched by the horrors of its dark underbelly.  Light after all cannot exist without darkness.

In exploring your Scottish ancestors, you take a journey down one of humanity’s longest and most enigmatic roads. In the process you might just understand yourself that little bit more.  

Good Hunting

Scottish Canadians: From the Plains of Abraham to the first two prime ministers and universal health care

Canadian from the start

By Mark Connolly

The earliest Scots in Canada were among the first Europeans to arrive. The Kingdom of Scotland established the colony of Nova Scotia in 1621 and among the colonists of New France were Scots traders, merchants, soldiers and farmers- including Abraham Martin dit l’Ecossais, whose name lives on in the famed Plains of Abraham.

These early Scots were in some ways very different from the far greater numbers who would arrive later on. If you are one of their descendants, you are much more likely to be of the Roman Catholic faith and have a strong French and native background.

The Scots played both a leading role in defeating French power in Canada and in protecting the culture of their former allies from extinction in North America.

The French defeat on the Plains of Abraham came on the 13th of September 1759. Scots Brigadier-General James Murray accepted the capitulation of French forces five days after the battlefield death of English General James Wolfe. After the defeat, Murray – who became the first British governor of Quebec – refused English attempts to wipe French culture from the North American map.

His defeated French counterpart, Major Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Roch de Ramezay (Ramsay), was of Scottish descent. Ramezay’s family emigrated from Scotland to France in the late 15th or early 16th century and settled in Burgundy. At this point all Scots were French citizens; a law that wasn’t repealed until 1903. It was a legacy of an earlier Scottish military intervention when the French army was close to total defeat by the English. Henry V’s victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 was one of England’s greatest military achievements, but for the French it was a disaster that led to near collapse.  The Dauphin turned to the Scots under the mutual defence pact known as the Auld Alliance (1259-1560). A Scots Expeditionary Force of 12 thousand men soon boarded ships bound for France. The French appointed the Earl of Douglas as Lieutenant General of the combined Franco-Scottish army; within a few years they had turned the tide. At the Battle of Bauge they defeated the English, while the Garde Écossaise helped Joan of Arc liberate Orleans.

As a result, citizenship and titles were bestowed on the victorious Scots and their descendants. This is how the Bank of France came to be founded by a Scotsman, and how people like the Ramezays gained French titles and lands.

Brigadier-General James Murray no doubt knew this long history. When French defeat came, the Scots didn’t seek to put the boot in, instead their commanders and soldiers helped lay the foundations of Canada and its French/English duality.

Later Scottish arrivals were staunchly protestant but as in the past even the poorest among them shared an educational level that made the Scots the world’s most literate people well into the 19th century. Despite their relatively small numbers, their ability to read, write, endure and adapt, propelled them through the ranks wherever they went. The Kingdom of Scotland however was a fading memory; the English – rather than the French – were their allies and the Scots were now front-and-centre in an emerging British Empire rather than a supporting cast to a fading French one.

Long famed as plucky underdogs, the Scots who consistently refused to bend the knee (most famously to the Roman and Norman conquerors of the rest of Britain) were now junior partners in Britain Inc. They made up just 10 percent of the British population, but effectively ran an empire within an empire, from Canada’s Hudson Bay to Bengal and the East India Company. Half their entire population left home in the 19th century, fanning out across the nascent empire, staffing and administering every branch office, while remaining strangely happy to leave England’s name prominent on the office door. Perhaps the clichéd imperial cry of ‘Make the World England’ provided a cover of plausible deniability while Scots made huge fortunes excelling in something they had always fought so hard to prevent from happening to themselves.

In their education system at least, they exported via the Empire to Canada and the globe something of a saving grace- the idea of education for all and success through meritocracy rather than birth right. It’s an idea, unfortunately, which is still a long way off from being applied remotely equally to the native populations of Canada, America and Australia.

While Canada’s issues with its First Nations are still a great distance from resolution, the country as a whole remains the most socially mobile member of the English speaking world. Outside of Quebec, distinctive Scottish values dominate Canadian education, politics and social outlook. By contrast the greatest contribution of the Scots to neighbouring America were the ideas and manpower for the American Revolution; in both countries though philanthropy by the rich was championed by Scottish Americans and Canadians.

Canadian author, Ken Mcgoogan,  believes five ‘Scottish’ values form the foundation of modern Canada – audacity, independence, perseverance, democracy and pluralism. Mcgoogan explains their “leaders included John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, and George Brown, who established Canada’s first national newspaper before becoming a father of Confederation. Mcgoogan adds: “No matter where you enter the history of Canada – through exploration, politics, business, education, or literature – you find Scots and their descendants playing a leading role.” In more recent times, Tommy Douglas from Falkirk was crowned the “Greatest Canadian” for his key role in creating public health care in Canada.

The Scots remain the third largest ethnic group in Canada. However the term ethnic would be abhorrent to most of them. Scottish values are a state of mind- it is why their natural successors are to be found in the New World where the disgraceful concept of ethnic purity is a blatant oxymoron. As the late Scots author and poet William McIlveney once said to a cheering crowd, the Scots see themselves as a ‘mongrel nation’. In the most simple of terms, they may be mainly white, but from their earliest history to the current day they have provided sanctuary and refugee status to countless people escaping persecution elsewhere. That is about as Canadian a concept as you can get; in a world at risk of descending back into tribalism, now is not the time to forget the road map the Scots gave us, least we take a backwards detour.

Irish Canadian Ancestors: From Newfoundland to Île de Grâce

Irish Canadian Ancestors: From Newfoundland to Île de Grâce

Were your Irish ancestors among the fishermen arriving in Newfoundland in the late 1600s? Or were they one of the hundreds of thousands at Île de Grâce or Quarantine Island who made up 60% of all migrants to Canada between 1825-1845?

Building a life away from strife

By Mark Connolly

Some of the earliest native Irish to arrive in the land that would become Canada were fishermen in Newfoundland at the close of the 17th century.

By the late 1600s, the Irish had long been supplying food and other provisions to thousands of European fishermen who had been making Newfoundland a seasonal home for generations. Hundreds of fishing boats were regularly patrolling the Grand Banks as early as the opening decades of the 16th century; most were French, Basque, Spanish and Portugese.

The English, however, were the first Europeans to lay down permanent roots in numbers big enough to take control of this transatlantic fish trade. Newfoundland would become their first official colony in North America in 1583. Like the later Jamestown in Virginia it would take a few false starts and disasters before their domination took off, but the arrival of skilled fishermen and merchants from the West Country – particularly ports like Poole in Dorset- ensured their eventual success.

So where do the Irish fit into all this? Well Ireland had been colonised by the English centuries earlier and at this stage was a wealthy country largely ruled in the interests of an Anglo-Irish elite. The Anglo-Irish – but also native Irish merchants – grew rich supplying England’s much larger population with food and other provisions. Newfoundland – much like it did for people from places like Cornwall, Devon and Dorset – offered Irishmen an opportunity to escape and make more money elsewhere; all be it under much harsher weather conditions.

Map by Tina Riche.
©2001 Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

By the late-17th century, merchants in southern Ireland were regularly exporting pork, beef, butter, and other provisions to help supply English workers engaged in the transatlantic fishery. Ships from the English West Country travelled to ports along Ireland’s south coast to collect food – and increasingly servants and seasonal labourers- for Newfoundland.

This seasonal migration peaked in the late 1700s when more than a hundred ships and 5,000 men left Ireland’s ports for the fishery. The trade remained overwhelmingly English in control, but it was very much Irish in labour.

The vast majority of Catholic Irish in Newfoundland will be able to trace their DNA origins back to county’s closest to the ports in southern Ireland; Kerry, Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Carlow and Wexford.

As technology and trade improved, Newfoundland became an all-season colony. Irish women increasing arrived and married; by 1836 the census records that half of Newfoundland’s population is Irish in origin. Close to three-quarters of them live in St. John’s and the surrounding areas still known as the Irish Shore.

Newfoundland aside, the Scots and Scots-Irish protestants often arrived before most Catholic Irish in other parts of Atlantic Canada.

The same southern Irish populations that had been calling Newfoundland a second home for centuries did start to arrive in numbers in the Maritimes from the mid to late 19th century. But the new arrivals were not exclusively fisherman, servants and labourers. The reason is a change in circumstances back home.

In 1801, Ireland – on paper- ceased to be a conquered land occupied by England; instead it joined the Union with their neighbours in Britain. In theory this should have made life a lot easier for the Irish but in reality the experience was disastrous for the country as a whole as it just enshrined in law Britain’s ownership of Ireland’s economy. For example an earlier potato blight was successfully managed pre-Union in Ireland decades before a similar post-Union crisis led to starvation; parliament actually increased food exports to Britain at the height of the famine.

For centuries the Irish had served in foreign armies where they often achieved high rank; in the many centuries of being press ganged into England’s army they were largely cannon fodder. But the British Army – with Ireland’s new Union status – gave Irishmen and their families a way out.

British Army barracks in Ireland became safe spaces for Irish Catholic women and children while their husbands and fathers helped Britain win their emerging empire. After the French were defeated in the Napoleonic Wars, many of those soldiers were given free land in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Southern Ontario just like their Scottish, English and Welsh counterparts.

This helped the Irish climb above the discrimination that kept them at the bottom of the European heap for centuries, and it meant there were some Irishmen with enough wealth and influence in the colonies to help their impoverished brethren gain a foothold when famine brought them across the Atlantic.

As for the rest of Canada, there had always been Irish soldiers from the earliest times in the French armies in the Americas. Many Irish soldiers hid their identity from British forces by changing their names to French-sounding ones.  It’s one of the main reasons a significant number of ‘French’ names in Quebec are not found in France. By the end of the 1600s, it is believed that over a hundred of the 2,500 families in New France were Irish. But nothing could compare to over half a million Irish immigrants who arrived in the famine years.

In 1847 at the height of the Irish famine, as estimated 17,000 Irish emigrants died on ships before they reached Île de Grâce or Grosse Island quarantine station,  46 km downstream from Quebec City. Of these over 38 hundred are buried at Grosse Ile, while approximately another 5,000 are buried at the Pointe Saint-Charles sheds in Montreal.

The second major point of entry was Partridge Island quarantine station outside Saint John, New Brunswick. A small number also arrived in Halifax and other eastern ports.

Many hundreds of orphans of Irish parents or grandparents who didn’t survive the trip were placed with Francophone Catholics in Canada East, and with English-speaking Protestants in New Brunswick. In many cases they keep their Irish surnames.

During this period Irish Catholics made up 60% of all migrants to Canada. Initially most faced major discrimination, hardship and a worse situation than back home. But it is instructive that almost none wanted to return to Ireland. Once they found their way, they would have a major role in how their emerging new country would be built.

Irish Catholic Americans: From outcasts to All-American

More than most the story of the native Irish, mainly from the counties that make up the modern Republic of Ireland, is a rags to riches tale of a nightmare start turned American dream.

The Irish set the template for mass migration to the United States for others arriving without money and status.

The first thing to do when talking about the native Irish in America is to leave your assumptions at the door. Irish – at least in the American experience- is only Catholic about a third of the time; most Americans who say they’re of Irish ancestry on census forms are Protestant and the majority of their ancestors spent 2-3 generations in Ireland at most.

Why is that? Well it’s a fascinating tale, largely unknown to Americans in general and even many Irish-American families. The short version is that the vast majority of people arriving from Ireland before the revolution were Scots-Irish. Most of their ancestors had lived in Ireland for no more than a century or two; their origins were overwhelmingly southwest Scotland. This group, vastly outnumbered the 10 to 20 thousand Irish Catholics in America at the time of the revolutionary war.

Just to complicate matters, native Irish in this period often married Scots Highlanders who were also Catholic. ‘Scots-Irish’ originally applied to these people; a term first used by England’s Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500s. Two centuries later, the American experience turned this definition on its head. The Catholic Irish who began to arrive in their droves in the mid 1800s were escaping famine. But the discrimination they faced at home, arrived ahead of them and it would be a very long time before Irish would once again mean simply those with ancestors born in Ireland.

The story of the native Irish in America is one of remarkable achievements of a people who refused to stay down. They had to walk an ugly path – often over others equally mistreated – to find their leading role in America’s story.

Scottish American ancestry: Scotland’s American Revolution

By Mark Connolly

In the Fall of 1759, Benjamin Franklin – then Colonial Envoy to Great Britain for Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia – made his first reported trip north to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. He spent the next two months enjoying good friends and good company in the taverns and meeting houses of a city that played no small part in the new political, social and economic ideas that would dominate the American Revolution.  

The Scottish luminaries Franklin came here to meet, rejected hierarchy and monopolization of power and knowledge, and had an optimistic view of an informed society’s ability to effect change.

In Edinburgh the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume would have shared the Old Town’s alehouses with prince and pauper alike. The stifling snobbery and class distinctions of 18th century London and Paris were impossible here because its tightly packed streets and housing were the ultimate leveler.  

As Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe said in his ‘tour of Great Britain’:   

Tho’ many cities have more people in them, this may be said with truth, that in no city in the world so many people live in so little room as at Edinburgh. This is, perhaps, the largest, longest, and finest street {Royal Mile} for buildings and number of inhabitants, not in Britain only, but in the world.   

At the time of Franklin’s visit, about 36,000 people were crowded into the defensive walls and filthy streets of what would have looked much like a fish bone from the air.  The city is built along the ancient lava flows of an extinct volcano. Castle Rock is its head, the Royal Mile its 300 meters wide spine. Edinburgh’s cobbled lanes and steep staircases descend down its slopes to a flattened tail dominated today by the Scottish parliament and the much older Royal Palace of Holyrood. Many of the Royal Mile’s medieval skyscrapers were by necessity so closely packed that people on the upper floors could shake hands with their neighbors on the opposite side, while the smoke from its countless coal fires led to the nickname ‘Auld Reekie'(Old Smoky). These were the conditions in which the theories of the Scottish Enlightenment were largely formed; in multi-family homes where rich and poor lived on top of one another and the merchant’s son played with the cobbler’s daughter. 

Franklin, educated as he was in America by his Scottish mentor William Small, undoubtedly knew more than most about Scotland’s history. He likely visited the sights just like any modern tourist, including the palace of Holyrood; which probably looked shabbier than today after a century and a half of neglect.  It had been effectively abandoned after the last Scottish king, James VI, inherited the throne of England, taking much of the Scottish court to London with him. As a result, the Scots, largely left to their own devices, learned how to govern without a king.

In any case, power in Scotland- more so perhaps than anywhere else in Europe- had always derived from the consent of the people. As early as 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath stated:  

If this prince [Robert the Bruce] shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties. 

Centuries later the concept of power residing in the governed rather than the governing, slowly rubbed off on the new British State, but its fullest realization came in the constitution of the new United States.  

In recognition of the Scottish influence on early American life, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 155 in 1998. 

This resolution honors the major role that Scottish Americans played in the founding of this Nation, such as the fact that almost half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, the Governors in 9 of the original 13 States were of Scottish ancestry, Scottish Americans successfully helped shape this country in its formative years and guide this Nation through its most troubled times.

A decade later U.S. President George W. Bush signed Presidential Proclamation 8233 that recognized 

Many of our country’s most cherished customs and ideals first grew to maturity on Scotland’s soil. The Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of Independence signed in 1320, embodied the Scots’ strong dedication to liberty, and the Scots brought that tradition of freedom with them to the New World. 

So how did those Scottish sensibilities become so ingrained in American revolutionary thought?  

Well Franklin had already sent talent scouts to Scotland.

A few years before his arrival, he recruited Benjamin Rush, a young American student studying medicine at Edinburgh University.  He asked Rush to convey a letter to a Church of Scotland minister called John Witherspoon who was famed for his oratory skills. All three men would soon be Founding Fathers of the United States. 

Witherspoon immigrated at age 45 to New Jersey where as president of Princeton college he taught the ‘Scottish School of Common Sense’. Princeton University’s website describes his influence: 

John Witherspoon was the only clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon’s administration was a turning point in the life of the College. In addition to a president and vice president of the United States, he taught 9 cabinet officers, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, 3 justices of the Supreme Court, and 12 state governors. Largely because of him, Princeton became known as the seedbed of revolution. 

Scots migrants also played a leading role in the revolutionary army and navy. John Paul Jones, the father of the U.S. Navy and naval commander during the revolution, abandoned his family fortune in Scotland after killing a sailor in a dispute over wages. And during the dark early years of the revolution, George Washington is reported to have said:

If all else fails, I will retreat up the valley of Virginia, plant my flag on the Blue Ridge, rally around the Scotch-Irish of that region, and make my last stand for liberty amongst a people who will never submit to tyranny whilst there is a man left to draw a trigger. 

There are countless other famous and not so famous Scots who could be listed- people most often simply referred to as American.  The true success of the Scottish ideas that helped shape the modern world is that they simply belong to all of us and are considered Canadian, American, Australian etc. 

As you can see Scotland and its diaspora had a wide influence on early America and the rest of the ‘New World’. It’s a wanderer’s habit, long in the making – as this medieval French proverb beautifully demonstrates:

Que d’Escossois, de rats, de poux…
Ceux qui voyagent jusqu’au bout
Du monde, en rencontrent partout.

Pierre le Jolie, Description de la ville d’Amsterdam

Roughly translated that’s: “Rats, lice and Scotsmen – you find them the world over.” Perhaps the best backhanded compliment ever.

In 1992, Scottish author William McIlvanney famously told an adoring Scottish crowd that the Scots are a ‘mongrel nation’; one that has given refuge for countless centuries to the persecuted elsewhere.

America took that idea and ran with it. It has carried the baton so much further than those early Scottish Americans could have imagined.

Despite its great power – for the most part – the torch still burns brightly in the land of Lady Liberty; it is why America remains a beacon to the outside world. Long may that continue.