Scots . . . Irish or Scotch-Irish?
by Dr. Philip D. Smith Jnr.
PhD, FSTS, GTS, FSA Scot.
Although the term "Scotch-Irish" can be traced to 1744, it
wasn't widely used until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Today, it is a term used by many North Americans in the mistaken
belief that they are descendants of blends of some Scots and some
Irish. In most cases this is not so!
Few outside Scotland realize just how close the islands of Britain
and Ireland are. At one point they're separated by just 12 miles
and at another 18. The land masses are clearly visible from each
other and in the early nineteenth century, a minister could leave
Scotland, travel to Ulster, preach a long sermon and return - all
in the same day and by sail. Today there are ferries crossing
several times a day.
Scottish immigration to North America was not encouraged prior to
the Act of Union in 1707 and most Scots who found their way to
America prior to the Act, went as either employees of English
firms, indentured servants, or as prisoners of war since the
American colonies were English, not Scottish. At a time when
the culture was "labour intensive", the thousands of Scots captured
at such battles as Worcester (speedy and sure execution was
reserved for only the top few on the losing side in each civil war)
posed a real opportunity for Cromwell who sent many prisoners to
the Americas as indentured servants. The majority of those that
went to the West Indies died; the fortunate minority sent to the
North American colonies from Massachusetts (then embracing Maine)
to Virginia survived to become citizens. Canada was closed to
British immigration until ceded by France in 1763.
While Scottish mercenaries were valued among the Protestant armies
on the Continent, Ireland - only 12 miles away - was the only
"foreign" field readily open to the migration of men with families.
Queen Elizabeth forfeited the titles of the earls of Ulster who
revolted against the Crown and gave their lands to loyal
Englishmen. A century before the Act of the Union, Elizabeth and
her heir, James VI and I, "planted" thousands of immigrants in the
north of Ireland - ninety-eight percent of whom were Protestant
Scots. After several generations in Ireland, these Scots considered
themselves to be "Irish" but maintained the close relationship with
Scotland which exists even today. Four or five generations later,
these "Ulster Scots" found the gates open to migrate to the
It is estimated that between 1720 and 1775 some three hundred
thousand Protestant Ulster Scots entered the American colonies,
largely through the ports of Newcastle, Delaware, and Annapolis,
Maryland. They called themselves "Irish." A century later the Roman
Catholic "real" Irish, fleeing the great potato famine, began to
arrive in America. In an effort to distance themselves from the
later arrivals, the descendants of the earlier influx from Ireland
began to call themselves "Scotch-Irish". The preferred term today
is "Ulster Scots."
Gaelic (pronounced 'gallic') was the language of the Scottish
Highlands and its pronunciation rules account for many surname
variations that seem inexplicable to the non-Gael. One example will
illustrate . A Gaelic n has the sound of n unless
it follows a k sound (written c in Gaelic).
Following a k sound it's pronounced like an r.
Thus Cnoc, "rounded hillock", is pronounced like the
English word crock. The name Nichol is pronounced
nickle UNTIL it is prefixed with Mac when it
becomes MacRickle and may have been written that way by
the local rent collector or immigration official two centuries
Non-Scots should remember that Scottish names are not always
pronounced the same way abroad or even from one part of Scotland to
another as many visitors find out when they try to pronounce local
place names. Hawick, for example is not pronounced Haw
- wick but Hoik and Strathaven is
STRAY-ven. Forbes is often two syllables and one
finds the variations Forbus and Forbush.
Menzies can be heard as MEEN-us, MING-us
and MEN-zees. Another interesting example is
McMeekle. A few years ago a family with this name was
advised that their name was a variation of MacMichael
which was a name of Clan Stewart but they were turned away by the
members of the clan society who didn't understand that in Gaelic,
Michael is pronounced Meekle or even
When using name lists such as my book Tartan For Me!, people
should be willing to accept equivalent or near spellings of their
names. There is no difference between -ie and -y at the end of a
name; -ie is the older Scottish spelling, -y is more common in
Ulster and North America. "Ogilvy" is "Ogilvie". Final -s can
disappear; "Figgins" and "Figgin" are the same surname and are
derived from "Higgins." Often when a name is written phonetically,
the original name will appear. One should not try to explain
spelling changes unless he is a philologist. Many defy
Writing is, after all, only a poor representation of what people
say - and what people say, slowly changes over the years and from
place to place. English speakers are keenly aware of the lack of
agreement between the spoken and written language. Until about 1800
people wrote English as they heard and spoke it. There was wide
variation in spelling even among educated men. Shakespeare wrote
his own name several different ways during his lifetime. One of his
own spellings of his surname is not more correct than
another. Early Nova Scotia records show phonetic spellings of many
well known Scottish names -- MacKenzee, Southerland, Munrow,
Gorden, Shey, and Richords. In the United States, an 1850 census
taker in the state of Indiana wrote McOlive for
MacAuliffe, McOnion for MacCunnion and
McDolnold for MacDonald.
Read more about surnames at Surname