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The Scotch-Irish in Ireland and America

By Phil Norfleet


The Scottish Migration to Northern Ireland

Although there had always been some movement of peoples back and forth across the twelve mile North Channel between Scotland and the northeastern Irish coast, the principal movement of people from the Lowlands of Scotland to the Northern Ireland Province of Ulster did not occur until the seventeenth century. This migration, estimated to include well over 100,000 Scottish Protestants, mainly took place during the 90-year period from 1607-1697.

Link to Map of Old Irish Provinces and Counties

The migration had been planned and encouraged by the first man to rule over both Scotland and England; he was James I of England and James VI of Scotland. King James, a wily and pragmatic monarch, brought the Protestants to "His Majesty’s Plantation of Ulster" to form a buffer zone and strengthen royal control of the North of Ireland from the generally hostile (to English rule!), native Irish Roman Catholic population.

The pretext or opportunity for the planting of a Protestant colony in Ireland came in September 1607, when the Roman Catholic Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, in fear of King James, fled the country and took refuge in Catholic France. This event, known in Irish history as the "Flight of the Earls," resulted in the lands of these noblemen being forfeited (escheated) to the English Crown. These "escheated" lands amounted to approximately six of the nine counties of Ulster, i. e., the counties of Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Coleraine (later renamed Londonderry) and Donegal.

At first, King James attempted to bring over large numbers of English Protestants as well as Scots; however, few English could be persuaded to migrate. Conversely, due to the poor economic conditions in Scotland at the time, many Lowland Scots were eager to make the relatively short distance move.

I wish to emphasize that it was the Lowland Scots who migrated, not the Highlanders! Migration of the Highlanders was deemed unwise by both King James and his principal minister of the time, Sir Francis Bacon. This was because the Highlanders were considered too wild and unruly, possibly even more wild and unruly than the native Catholic Irish! Historian James G. Leyburn, of Washington and Lee University, writes:

"King James had been explicit, by his limitation of grants to Scots from ‘the inward parts of Scotland’ (that is, the Lowlands), to exclude all Highlanders from the Plantation. The records show clearly the parts of the Lowlands from which most of the early settlers in Ulster derived. Galloway, that region of the southwest which included the shires of Ayre, Dumfries, Renfrew, Dumbarton, and Lanark, provided the greatest number, for the obvious reason that it was closest to Ulster. The counties around Edinburgh (the Lothians and Berwick) came next in order, while a much smaller contingent came from the district lying between Aberdeen and Inverness in the northeast." [1]

The Plantation of Ulster proved to be a real economic success. Prior to the Protestant migration, Ireland had been a very poor, primitive country. Professor Leyburn writes the following, concerning that part of Ireland which lay beyond the English Pale [2] in the late sixteenth century:

" … Beyond the Pale lay most of Ireland, whose peasants spoke no English and lived a wretchedly poor agricultural life under their chieftains. Their culture, like their background and poverty, made them resemble the Highlanders of Scotland, and civilized Englishmen regarded them, as they did the Highlanders, as little better than savages."

However, after a century of Protestant ascendancy, much of Ireland, particularly Ulster, had become economically prosperous. Indeed, the success was so great that the English became concerned. Professor Leyburn writes:

"The English Parliament began to grow alarmed by the competition of Irish goods with English ones and to impose restrictive measures that caused great distress in Ulster." [3]

Accordingly laws were passed to protect English trade at Irish expense. Compounding the plight of the Ulster Protestants, in addition to economic pressures, the High Church Tories came to power with the succession of Queen Ann (1703) to the Throne. The so-called "Test Act" was passed which, although stated to be directed at Roman Catholics, also adversely affected the adherents of the Presbyterian Faith as well. As most of the Scotch-Irish were Presbyterians, they felt that they were being severely persecuted by the English from both the economic and religious standpoints. By about the year 1717, conditions had reached such a point that many Ulster Protestants began a new migration; this time to the American Colonies. It is estimated that more than a quarter of a million Scotch-Irish emigrated to America between the years 1717 and 1775! [4]

British Migration Groups to the American Colonies

In recent years, historians of Colonial America have recognized that the settlement of the thirteen colonies in British North America before the Revolution was not a uniform process but rather was accomplished by many highly differentiated immigrant groups. These historians (such as Bernard Bailyn, [5] T. H. Breen [6] and David Hackett Fischer) have further contended that even the English-speaking groups were culturally very different, even though they were all came from Britain and/or Ireland. According to Fischer, [7] the four principal British migration groups were:

1.  Puritans, mostly of the middle class, from the eastern counties of England to Massachusetts Colony during the years 1629-1640.

2.  A small Cavalier elite, a few of the middle class, and a large group of indentured servants from the western and southern English counties to the Virginia Tidewater area during the years 1642-1675.

3.  A group of mostly Quakers from the north midland counties of England and Wales to the Delaware Valley (mainly Pennsylvania Colony) during the period 1675-1725.

4.  English-speaking people from the northern counties of England, the Scottish lowlands and from the Province of Ulster in Northern Ireland (the Scotch-Irish), to the Appalachian backcountry of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas during the period 1718-1775.

The Scotch-Irish Migration Group

The Scotch-Irish immigrant families, such as the McJunkins, Brandons, Kennedys, etc., whose descendants are frequently discussed at this web site, probably arrived in Pennsylvania Colony in the first third of the 18th Century.  They soon thereafter moved down the "Great Wagon Road,"  first to the Virginia and subsequently to the Carolina Backcountry.  At the time of the Revolution, these Scotch-Irish families were scattered in a patchwork all over the South Carolina Backcountry.

Link to Map of the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road

The Scotch-Irish

The term "Scotch-Irish" apparently originated in mid-eighteenth century America to distinguish the Ulster Presbyterian emigrants of Scottish ancestry from other Irish settlers in the colonies. The greatest influx of these settlers occurred during the time period 1717-1775. It has been asserted that during that time frame approximately one-third of the Presbyterian population of Ireland migrated to British North America. [8]

Most of the Scotch-Irish entered the colonies through the port of Philadelphia and from thence settled in those Pennsylvania counties lying west of that city, Lancaster County having one of the largest populations of these people. From Pennsylvania, many of the immigrants took the "Great Wagon Road" south into the great Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (Augusta County). William Gooch, the Royal Governor of Virginia from 1728-1749, had encouraged them to settle in this valley hoping that they would make a valuable buffer between the Indian Tribes who lived west of the Allegheny Mountains and the English planters who resided in the Virginia Tidewater region. 

Subsequently, many Scotch-Irish families moved farther south along the great Wagon Road and settled in the North and South Carolina Backcountry.  By 1775, many Scotch-Irish families, such as the Brandons, McJunkins and Beattys, were settled along Tinker's Creek in that part of the South Carolina Backcountry which later became Union County,

Initially, the Scotch-Irish immigrants were not particularly admired by the other Virginia and Carolina colonists, particularly those of English descent. The great Virginia planter and man of letters, William Byrd II, compared this Scotch-Irish immigration as being like unto the fourth century invasion of the Goths and Vandals into the Roman Empire!  Back in Britain, Edmund Burke, the noted Protestant Irish political philosopher and essayist, wrote in 1757 that:

"The number of white people in Virginia is between sixty and seventy thousand; and they are growing every day more numerous, by the migration of the Irish, who not succeeding so well in Pennsylvania as the more frugal and industrious Germans, sell their lands in that province to the latter, and take up new ground in the remote counties in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. These are chiefly Presbyterians from the Northern part of Ireland, who in America are generally called Scotch-Irish." [9]

Before the Revolution South Carolina settlers of English descent, like Thomas Fletchall and John Mayfield, would have considered the Presbyterian Scotch-Irish of the Tinker's Creek area to be little more than savages and would have had little social contact with them.  However, during the Revolution, the most ardent supporters of Independence from Britain were the Scotch-Irish, many of whom assumed leadership roles in the War.  Accordingly, after the Revolution, many Scotch-Irish assumed dominant political and socio-economic leadership roles  that had previously belonged to the English settlers alone.  A good example of this is the replacement of Colonel Thomas Fletchall by Colonel Thomas Brandon as the leading citizen in the Union County area.


1.  James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish A Social History (1962), page 94.

2.  The "Pale" was that portion of Ireland around Dublin that had been under English direct control since the Middle Ages. The Irish outside the Pale were considered to be savage barbarians! From this belief we get the frequently used phrase "beyond the Pale."

3.  Leyburn, pages 157-158.

4.  Leyburn, page 157.

5.  See Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America (1986), pages 49-50.

6.  See T. H. Breen, Puritans and Adventurers (1980), pages xi-xviii.

7.  David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed (1989), pages 785-786.

8.  Carlton Jackson, A Social History of the Scotch-Irish (1993), pages 61-62.

9.  Edmund Burke, European Settlements in America, Vol. II, page 216.