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

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.