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The People of the Borderlands: A History of the People of the Anglo-Scottish Border Region and Beyond in Ulster and America


Source: Stewart-Mac


It has been estimated that some 27 million Americans are of Anglo-Scottish descent by way of Ireland’s Ulster Province, a people known as the Ulster-Scots in the United Kingdom, and the Scots-Irish, or Scotch-Irish, in the United States, making it one of the largest ethnic groups in the country.

In addition to the US, people of Ulster-Scots descent are to be found in all other parts of the Anglosphere, including Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, and of course Britain. Indeed, the people whence they directly emerged are still to be found in Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom, with as many as 47% of the people of Northern Ireland identifying as British as of 2018.

Their origins as a distinct group lie in the so-called Ulster Plantations, which were initiated in 1609 by King James I in the wake of the Nine Years War of 1593-1603, fought largely in the province of Ulster between the forces of Gaelic Irish chieftains led by Hugh O’Neill and their allies on one hand, and the Kingdoms of England and Ireland on the other, the latter’s decisive victory leading to the end of the Gaelic Clan system, and the colonization of Ulster by English and Scottish Protestants, known collectively as the ‘British’.

Many of the original planters had been Borderers, which is to say, inhabitants of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, and so, hailing from Northern English counties such as Cumberland, Westmoreland, Northumberland, Yorkshire, and Lancashire, and counties of the Scottish Lowlands, such as Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire, Roxburghshire, Berwickshire and Wigtownshire. Lowlanders are historically distinct from their Highland counterparts, not least by dint of a significant Anglo-Saxon strain arising from the settling of the ancient kingdom of Bernicia in southeastern Scotland, formerly part of the Kingdom of Northumbria, by Angles, the Germanic people hailing from what is now Angeln in Southern Schleswig.

From ca. 430AD to 600AD, tribes of Saxons and Jutes had colonised the southernmost portions of Britain, while the Angles had done the same for the north, forever changing the demographic landscape of an island that had hitherto been peopled by the Christianised Romano-British Celts, and various indigenous Celtic peoples who had avoided assimilation, Britain has been part of the Roman Empire for around four centuries. In addition to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who came ultimately to be known – collectively – as the Anglo-Saxons, Batavians, Frisians, and Franks may have been among the pagan Germanic invaders of Romano-Celtic Brittania, and the same is true of Flemings and Swabians.

The Ulster-Scots had emigrated to the New World in modest quantities in the latter part of the 17th Century, with some 50,000 Ulster men and women have made the crossing in its final decade. However, from 1717 to the start of the American Revolutionary War, successive waves of immigration from Ireland helped to modify the demographics of what was still a predominantly English nation, with between 200,000 and 300,000 undertaking the crossing to British North America.

Initially, they settled in the New England regions of Massachusetts, where their roughness of manner and appearance offended Puritan sensibilities, despite their shared Calvinism, and adherence to the Protestant work ethic, and so they were driven out of Massachusetts, to become religious refugees in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

However, it was Pennsylvania, to which Scots-Irish immigration took place in three waves between 1717 and 1776, that proved to be their first major spiritual homeland, even while, from the outset, tense relations existed between the Scots-Irish and the Quakers. Pennsylvania had been granted by King Charles II on the 2cnd of March 1681 to William Penn, a former Cavalier who had joined the Religious Society of Friends at 22, as a means of settling a large debt owed by the king to his father Admiral William Penn, and named Pennsylvania in the latter’s honour. Penn the younger had gone on to sign a treaty with various Indian tribes in the region, thereby securing a long period of peace between Quakers and Native Americans. However, the Scots-Irish had a tendency to settle land without first paying for it, behaviour which stood in marked contrast to that of the Quakers, who took pains to pay them for any land they acquired from the Indians, while Penn himself had always treated them as friends and equals.

Many Scots-Irish men and women would remain in Pennsylvania, while others, as restless as they had been in the old country, drifted southwards, finding themselves at odds with what was largely English hegemony concentrated at the major economic centres along the coastal regions of not just Pennsylvania, but Virginia and the Carolinas. While this fostered the kind of discontent that would ultimately transition into out and out revolutionary zeal, the roots of the latter were multi-faceted, having been significantly inspired by an essentially Anglo-Saxon philosophy of liberty.

The Commonwealth of Virginia had been settled during the English Civil War and its aftermath by Royalist Cavaliers, who had arrived in the New World between 1640 and 1669, mostly from London and southern England, before going on to constitute the ruling elite of Cavalier Planters in the southern colonies. Thence, they founded what would ultimately be known as the first families of Virginia, bearing such surnames as Ball, Broadhurst, Carter, Chicheley, Corbin, Culpeper, Custis, Digges, Fairfax, Hammond, Harrison, Honywood, Isham, Landon, Madison, Mason, Page, Randolph, Skipwith, and of course Washington, whose family seat was Sulgrave Manor, just north of Oxford.

Yet, they constituted but a small portion of Virginian society in the late 17th Century, with the vast majority consisting of indigent settlers from England who served as indentured servants, as in the case of many of those of Scots-Irish origin, and in time these two groups would intermarry to create a distinctive, largely rural, Southern people.

Specifically, the Virginian Scots-Irish favoured the rural western region comprising the Shenandoah Valley and Appalachian southwest Virginia. Others moved into the Carolinas, which was under the sway – like Virginia – of the Plantation system and the Church of England, and Maryland, which had been established for the English Catholic nobility.

Moreover, in the 1780s and ’90s, they gravitated towards Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee; while ultimately Southern Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma and East Texas all became intensively Scots-Irish, as did those regions dominated by the Ozark Mountains.

A theory has existed at least since the mid 19th century that Northerners and Southerners were descendants of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans respectively. Yet, a census of surnames of the states of Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia taken in 1790 revealed that while 10.5% of the population was adjudged to have been Scots-Irish, 59.7% were of apparent English descent. Only in Pennsylvania, which was 38% German, did the English not predominate, Germans having first arrived in America as early as 1681, when William Penn brought thirteen German and Dutch Mennonite families into Pennsylvania; while they would soon be joined by thousands of German Protestants from the Palatine region fleeing persecution, the majority of which were indentured servants known as ‘redemptionists’. In time, Southeastern Pennsylvania became heavily Germanic, with Lutherans, Calvinists, Dunkers, Amish, and Mennonites from Germany and Switzerland forming a Germanic hearth in the region.

All throughout the 19th Century, white Southerners, many if not most of these being perforce of English and Scots-Irish ancestry, flowed westward, into Indiana and Illinois, as well as Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and California, where they joined the Gold Rush of 1848-1855.

In the Civil War, The Scots-Irish fought for the Union and the Confederacy alike. However, some 100,000 Southerners, Scots-Irish and otherwise, elected to fight for the Union as Southern Unionists, Union Loyalists, or Southern Yankees; while four so-called slave states, viz., Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, never seceded from the Union, and Washington D.C., while historically part of the Upper South, remained the nation’s capital throughout the conflict.

Many Union Loyalists hailed from Southern regions inclining to be sympathetic to the Union cause, this being especially true of Virginia (out of which the separate state of West Virginia arose on the 20th of June 1863 34), North Carolina and Tennessee. Despite being part of the greater Confederacy, East Tennessee, North Alabama, North Georgia, Western North Carolina, and the Texas Hill Country remained pro-Union regions par excellence throughout the duration of the Civil War.

Several of the conflict’s key figures were of partial Scots-Irish descent, including Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth, and for many the greatest, President in American history, among whose most momentous quotes were: ‘As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy’, who was of English ancestry, with an alleged Scots-Irish admixture, his opposite number, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865, and the only man in American history to serve as such, who was of Welsh paternal and Scots-Irish maternal ancestry, and Union Army leader, General Ulysses S. Grant, who was of Scots-Irish, Scottish, Irish, English, Welsh and distant French Huguenot and Belgian Walloon descent.

Many, perhaps the majority, of the more mythical figures of the Old West era of ca. 1865-1895 were of British Isles, including Scots-Irish, descents, such as Wild Bill Hickok, who was descended on the paternal side from Stratford-on-Avon native William Hickcox, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, whose ancestral name had originally been Lacaudey, and Annie Oakley, who was from a Pennsylvania Quaker family of English ancestry.

Among the more notorious outlaws, Jesse James was of Welsh ancestry through his father, while his mothers was a family of English origin traceable as far back as the late 10th Century, John Wesley Hardin descended from a Frenchman named Pierre Hardewyn, with English and Scots-Irish part of his ethnic makeup, Billy the Kid was of Irish, or possibly Scots-Irish, ancestry, Billy the Kid, of Irish, or possibly Scots-Irish ancestry, while Butch Cassidy, was ethnically English, despite a distinctly Irish pseudonym. As to the lawmen, Wyatt Earp, of the famous Earp family, was of Scottish paternal and English maternal ancestry, Pat Garrett was descended from one John Garrett II of Leicestershire, England, while Bat Masterson was an Irish Canadian from Henryville, Quebec.

Of all the regions of the United States, few have been more closely tied with the Scots-Irish than Appalachia, which in a cultural sense stretches all the way from New York’s Southern Tier to portions – in the Deep South – of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and also comprising the distinctly Appalachian territories of Southeast Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Western Maryland, Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

Yet, while Appalachia is undoubtedly the most Scots-Irish of regions, it is also intensively English, although historically, the Appalachian English were themselves allegedly a diverse group which included people of English, Welsh, Dutch and French origin; while Germans were among the earliest settlers. Moreover, Appalachia has always been home to small amounts of Native Americans, African-Americans, and Melungeons, a Southern Appalachian people of uncertain ethnicity, among other minorities.

The Appalachians are among the most mythologized of American peoples, not least by virtue of the fundamentalist Christian fervour that has long been an Appalachian feature, and while Presbyterianism was the original faith of the Scots-Irish, the first Methodist church was established in Maryland as early as 1764 by Robert Strawbridge, an Irish Anglican born in County Leitrim of English ancestry, and by 1850, it had become dominant all throughout the South, including Appalachia, while the Holiness movement – a major early manifestation of Pentecostalism – emerged in the region in 1886 via the ministry of Methodist preacher Richard G. Spurling, who sought to return to Wesley’s idea of Biblical holiness.

In addition to their intense spirituality, the English and Scots-Irish of the rural South established a culture of honour attributable to their traditional way of life in such precarious regions as the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, and which self-evidently possessed the potential to erupt into out and out violence, including blood feuds, such as that most notoriously existent between 1863 and 1891 between the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Eastern Kentucky.

During the 1890s, white Southern, and specifically Appalachian, culture represented an undiluted Anglo-Saxonism to certain Northerners at a time of national uncertainty, which helped to pave the way for a reconciliation between the North and the South in the wake of the Reconstruction era of 1863-1877. Yet, it is the Celtic element of the South that has latterly been emphasised by certain writers on Southern history, which could be said to have – to a certain extent – placed the Southerner, and this is especially true of the Scots-Irish, within the context of the traditionally romanticised, not to say oppressed, Celt; and given the region’s roots in Northern England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, there is some substance to their argument. However, in the final analysis, whether predominantly Scots-Irish or English, Celtic or Anglo-Saxon, the American South is, as it has always been, supremely reflective of the history of the British Isles as a whole, of those two tiny islands off the coast of northwestern Europe, which despite their relative geographical insignificance, have been the site of so much turbulence, yet so much genius, and so much influence for good and ill alike.


By Carl Halling



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59 Melissa Schrift, Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South(Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), p. 122
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Afterword: I have attempted in the above essay to write in a spirit, reflected by my intensive deployment of references, of absolute truth and accuracy, and I sincerely hope I have succeeded.

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