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Tartan Ferret


Scots . . . Irish or Scotch-Irish?

by Dr. Philip D. Smith Jnr.

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 American colonies.

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 ago.

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 Meal.

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 explanation.

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 Compilations.


















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