The Scots-Irish in the Southern United States: An Overview

by Katharine Garstka | Oct 16, 2009

Katharine Garstka

The Southern United States today is home to people of many different cultural backgrounds, so that genealogical research in the area may lead one to ancestors of various nationalities. One of the principal groups of settlers, however, was the Scots-Irish, a group of people whose influence is still widely felt in the south. While many people have heard the term, perhaps in relation to their own heritage, not everyone knows precisely what it means.

Who were the Scots-Irish?
The term Scots-Irish is generally used to refer to people whose ancestors originated in Scotland, but who lived in Ireland, sometimes for several generations, before emigrating to America.  They are also called Scotch-Irish or Ulster Scots.  

Considering the impact this group of people made on the new world, a better term might be the one coined by historian David Hackett Fischer, writing in Albion's Seed, who called them borderers.  Borderers encompassed a number of other settlers who shared many of the traits of those Scots who first settled in northern Ireland and then migrated to North America. These closely related peoples were from the borderlands of northern England, southern Scotland, and the north of Ireland.

Once in America, they formed a more-or-less cohesive unit, if that can be said of a people who nurtured a proud and sometimes argumentative spirit, and a distain for authority. They tended to settle in large kinship groups, and often shared the same surname, a fact that made record-keeping confusing and has continued to pose problems for genealogists.  The beginning genealogist should not worry if he finds a woman marrying a man of the same surname -- they were not necessarily first cousins, but were likely from the same large kinship group that had settled together in the new world, just as they had lived in neighboring areas of the old.

The Scottish Migration to Ulster
Why did these Scots go to Ireland in the first place?   First of all, Scotland was a very poor country in the years prior to the 1600s--most of its inhabitants lived at subsistence level, working small farms and keeping a few sheep or cows. An expanding population wanted more and better land, and was prepared to go wherever it could be found. Starting around 1600, Scots began to migrate to northern part of Ireland, where there was fertile land that was only sparsely settled.  It is a short journey of just a few miles across the sea from the lowlands of Scotland, and thus an easy trip to make.

This unofficial migration was only the beginning. After the first few years, the British government instituted the Plantation of Ulster in 1609. The Plantation was the organized colonization of land that had been confiscated from the O'Neills and O' Donnells as part of the pacification of Ireland. The English authorities intended to solve the problem of the rebellious Irish by encouraging English and Scottish settlers to move into the troubled area, and therefore colonists were required to be English-speaking and protestant.  From 1690 to 1700, an estimated 50,000 Scots migrated to Ulster, an area that includes all the counties that are currently in Northern Ireland today.

The Scots-Irish Migration to America
So why did they leave Ireland a few years, or in some cases, a few generations, later? The answer lies in the changes that took place in Ulster starting around the turn of the century. The 1704 Test Act required that all crown officials be of the Anglican faith; this regulation eventually included all those in the military, or employed by civil service, municipal corporations, and educational institutions.  The Scots-Irish, devoutly Presbyterian, were not only excluded from any sort of power, even their clergy was stripped of its authority to perform marriages. (Thus the genealogist seeking information may need to look at Anglican marriage records.)

Other factors were at work, too. Repressive trade laws favored England at the expense of the Irish exporters. Rack-renting, a system whereby land rents were raised exorbitantly whenever a lease expired, began to bankrupt farmers.  Although the early settlers had leased their land for 31 years, these leases began to expire starting about 1718. In the years from 1714 to 1718, drought, sheep diseases, and smallpox took their tolls on the population; by 1718 they had had enough. That year 1,000 Scots-Irish emigrated to Boston, and from then on, ships took thousands to a new life in the new world. In fact, James Leyburn, writing in The Scotch-Irish, estimates that about 250,000 emigrants sailed to America between 1717 and 1775. The flood stopped briefly during the Revolution, but afterwards, even more left the northern counties of Ireland.

Migration within the American Colonies
Most of these early immigrants arrived in New England, making their way to Pennsylvania, largely because the Quaker-run colony was tolerant of different religious beliefs, whereas the Puritans of nearby areas were not so welcoming to the newcomers.  As more settlers arrived, they eventually filled in much of the backcountry, and began to make their way south to Virginia and the Carolina Piedmont.  

The Scots-Irish, as well as large numbers of German settlers, followed the Great Wagon Road that traversed the 600 miles from Pennsylvania to Georgia, many settling along that path.  While the Germans and the Scots-Irish were not openly hostile to each other, they were separated by culture and religion and thus tended not to intermarry. Gradually the Scots-Irish moved south to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which became a launching point for further migration to the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Eventually, with so many Scots-Irish settling in the south, Charleston became the second most important arrival port (after New York) for ships from Ireland.

It's perhaps not surprising that the Scots-Irish would gravitate to the frontiers of American settlement, and that later, many of them were to be found on the rolls of Revolutionary War patriots. After carving out a new life in Ireland, their rewards were short-lived.  Then, when faced with governmental oppression and untenable living conditions, they opted for a new start in America. Once here, they weren't about to start over a third time.

Irish or Scots-Irish? 

If you have ancestors who came from Ireland, they may be Irish, or they may be Scots-Irish. There are a number of questions you can ask yourself. Was your ancestor Protestant (especially Presbyterian)?  Did she depart from Ireland, but have a Scottish surname, like Campbell, McDonald, or Galloway?  Did he have a Scottish first name, like Angus or Duncan? Did she come from the Ulster region, for example, County Antrim, or County Down? Answers to these questions can yield important clues to guide you in your search.

One of the customs the Scots-Irish brought with them concerns the names they bestowed upon their children. An eldest son was frequently given the name of his paternal grandfather, while a daughter would carry the name of her grandmother. Thus it is common to find a John with a son Andrew, and a grandson John, followed in turn with another Andrew, etc.  The choice of first names can also provide clues for the genealogist. The Scots-Irish often named their children from the Bible. They also used some Teutonic names like Robert and Richard, and were fond of border saints like Andrew, Patrick, and David. (St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland.) Other favorites, like Archibald and Ronald, are not often found elsewhere. And of course Scottish heroes, like Wallace, Bruce, Percy, and Howard, lent their names to many Scots-Irish boys. Girls' names might also be taken from the Bible or a saint; common names for girls included Mary, Elizabeth, Anne, Catherine, Margaret, Janet, and Marion.

Another thing to consider is the path taken by your ancestors as a whole. Did they leave from ports in Northern Ireland, especially in Counties Antrim, Down, and Londonderry (Derry)? Upon arrival, did they live in Pennsylvania, with subsequent moves to Virginia, or the Carolinas? Did some of their descendants move farther south, or to the west into Tennessee, Alabama, or Texas? These are the paths that the majority of Scots-Irish traveled.  

The Scots-Irish played a large role in the settlement of America, particularly in the southern United States. Their experiences in settling new lands in Ireland, and then again in the American colonies, helped to develop a hard-working, fearless, and sometimes brash, spirit. Occasionally lawless and violent, the Scots-Irish nevertheless had a big influence on the history of the United States; their descendants populated many frontier areas, and aspects of their culture, customs, and speech are still visible in parts of the south today.

Some of the best resources for Scotch-Irish research are:

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 1989)

The Scotch-Irish, a Social History, by James G. Leyburn (University of North Carolina Press, 1962)

The Scotch-Irish, from the North of Ireland to the Making of America, by Ron Chepesiuk (McFarland & Company, 2000)

Online Resources:
GENUKI ( This large, free site for genealogical information focuses on the United Kingdom and Ireland.

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