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What is an Ulster-Scot?

Ulster Scots is a term referring to those Scots who migrated to the northern province of Ireland (Ulster) beginning about 1605 during the ‘plantation scheme’.  The term is used primarily in the United Kingdom and Ireland although sometimes in North America they are referred to as “Scotch-Irish” or Ulster-Irish.  All of these terms refer to those Lowland and Border Scots who settled in the northern counties of Ireland in the 17th century.

To be sure, there were Scots in Ireland as early as the 1400’s, such as the McDonalds of County Antrim.  There was also a steady stream of highland Scots migrating to the north of Ireland in the early 1800s as a result of the “clearances” in Scotland.  But the bottom line, in modern times, is that anyone who migrated from Scotland to Ireland from about the 1400s onward, is usually referred to as an Ulster-Scot.

The Plantation Scheme.

For most of the 17th century (1605-1697) Scottish migration to Northern Ireland (Ulster) was part of a scheme organized by the British government.  During this period it is estimated that over 200,000 Lowland Scot crossed the North Channel to settle in Ulster.  Consisting predominantly of farmers (planters) this relocation of British subjects came to be called the “Plantation Scheme.”Irish Immigrats

The migration, termed the Plantation of Ulster, took part in two stages. The first stage was confined principally to the counties of Antrim and Down.  With the encouragement of the British Crown, this initiative was largely guided by Scottish fortune seekers and can be considered entirely a private, commercial venture, although the Crown’s support ensured cooperation and “encouragement.”  Lands of Irish rebels were seized and then subsequently settled by loyal subjects to the Crown.

The second stage was broader in scope.  It was a state venture fully conceived, planned and supervised by both the British and Irish governments.  This wave of the plantations included both Scot and English settlers, although Scots outnumbered the English 20:1.

The primary goal of this venture was to populate Northern Ireland with subjects loyal to the British Crown.  This goal was establish deliberately to counterbalance the native Irish population.  Here the plan for land confiscation changed.  Rather than settling the Planters in isolated pockets of land confiscated from convicted rebels, all of the land would be confiscated and then redistributed to create concentrations of British settlers around new towns and garrisons. What was more, the new landowners were explicitly banned from taking Irish tenants and had to import them from England and Scotland. The remaining Irish landowners were to be granted one quarter of the land in Ulster and the ordinary Irish population was relocated to live near garrisons and Protestant churches. Equally important, Planters were also barred from selling their lands to any Irishman.

It should be noted that officials in Scotland (Scotland had its own government until 1707) were highly supportive of this English/Irish scheme, as many Scots, especially in the Lowlands and Borders regions lived in desperate poverty.  The desperate, hardscrabble condition of their lives forced many of these Scots to live a life of marauding and thievery.  So common was the practice, that thievery became its own occupation (Reivers).  The Plantation Scheme was seen as means of reducing the population trying to support families off the Scottish land; reducing crime in Scotland and the Borders—especially cattle stealing and bolstering loyalty to the British Crown in Ireland.

It should be noted that in addition to being given land, the loyalty of migrating Scots (remember, Scotland was its own nation, with distinct laws, customs and manners) was further ensured by a requirement to take an oath of loyalty to the British Crown as “Denizens” of Ireland—foreigners with the rights of Irish citizenship.  If a Scot wanted to become an English citizen, he had to obtain letters of support from ranking Englishmen, pay a fine and then take an oath of allegiance.

The “Plantation Scheme” changed the demography of Ireland by creating large communities with a British and Protestant identity. These communities replaced the older Catholic ruling class, which shared with the general population a common Irish identity and set of political attitudes.  The physical and economic nature of Irish society was also changed, as new concepts of ownership, trade and credit were introduced. These changes led to the creation of a Protestant ruling class,  which in turn secured the authority of Crown government in Ireland during the 17th century.

The Great Migration from Ulster to America and Canada


The Great Migration from the north of Ireland (Ulster) began in 1717.  There had been some migration to the new World before this date but those instances were few and isolated.  Religious freedom was one reason people began fleeing but to a far greater degree economic hardship, resulting from unfavorable economic policies instituted from England and then fueled by drought led to the exodus.  Ultimately, approximately 250,000 Ulster-Scots/Irish sailed for America between 1717 and 1775.

So, what led to this?  The original rationale for the Plantation Scheme worked for most of the 1600s and Irish unrest was relatively low-key.  In fact, by the late 1690s, Northern Ireland was more prosperous than any other Irish province and many English counties, as well.  Conditions were fairly prosperous for most Ulster-Scots.  But the very success of the Ulster flax and wool industries was causing England to notice.  Ultimately, the English began to look at the economic success of Ulster as a threat and in 1698 English businessmen petitioned the King to “protect” their interests.

Pressured by the Crown, Irish parliament passed the Woolens act in 1698.  This act prohibited the exportation of Irish wool to anywhere but England and Wales.  The result for Ulster: an economic depression began to set in.

Soon, another hardship was imposed on the Ulster-Scots. In the early 1700’s a practice called “rack-renting” was made legal.  Rack-renting allowed a renter to raise the rents when leases expired.  Today, we consider this normal but in 17th and 18th century England/Ireland and Scotland this was a radical departure from tradition.  What had been common was to rent land for approximately 30 years and re-rent at the same rents, if the same farmers/family was in place. Under this practice, renters tended to keep the land well-maintained and often even made improvements—as they assumed they would continue to live there.  But the change demanded money and money—as a currency was scarce to come by.

The culminating event that led to the Great Migration was a severe, sustained drought that stretched from 1714-1719.  This obviously affected food crops but a greater impact was the harm done to wool and flax industries—the economic strength of Ulster. Insufficient grazing grass for sheep and a disease known as “the Rot” crippled farmers.  Additionally, religious restrictions imposed on the Presbyterian Ulster-Scots by the Church of England created further dissention.    Meanwhile, stories from the American colonies spoke to a better life.

Irish Potato Famine

In 1717 mass migration began and continued almost unabated for nearly 60 years.  Initially, large numbers of Ulster Scots immigrated into Pennsylvania but by the mid 18th century many headed for the Virginia and North Carolina colonies.  To this day, these states display a remarkably rich Scots-Irish heritage.  Ultimately, the impact of this migration can be seen in the many contributions of Scots-Irish immigrants towards the building of our nation and its subsequent expansion and growth.

Theirs was an impact that lasts to this day