Aug 20, 2010

Scots-Irish Ancestors

In my last post I provided a link to an article I wrote several years ago on the Scots-Irish. I'm quoting from that article.

They've been called a people without a name. Their roots go back to Scotland, but don't think tartans and bagpipes. They were Lowlanders, mostly coming from the border regions of Galloway, Dumfries, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Argyllshire and Lanarkshire in the west and Edinburgh, the Lothians and Berwichshire in the east. They spoke English and were Protestant, specifically Presbyterian.

They were different from their Highland cousins. They didn't wear kilts, didn't belong to clans, or speak Gaelic. But they weren't English either. They didn't support the Anglican Church. They held onto the memory of bloody massacres that their ancestors suffered at the hands of English conquerors centuries earlier.

Their history in Scotland was not pleasant. These people were caught, both geographically and politically, between the English to the south and the Highlanders to the north.

In the seventeenth century, when Scottish and English land-grant owners sought tenants to populate the northern region of Ireland and drive out the Catholics, the Lowland Scots fit the bill. They were not Catholic and they spoke English. To the English monarchy, the Lowland Scots were preferable to the Irish Catholics. The downtrodden Lowlanders had suffered endless cattle raids, had themselves resorted to such raids because of their poverty, and had lived on infertile, over-farmed land for centuries. The prospect of large, bountiful tenant farms in Ireland, a short jaunt across the Irish Sea, was more than appealing.

But as the decades passed, the transplanted Scots became known as dissenters. They did not vow allegiance to the Church of England, detesting tithing to a church they didn't support, and were governed by the Penal Laws. Those laws prevented dissenters from voting, bearing arms or serving in the military. Dissenters could not be married, baptized or buried with the assistance of any minister who was not ordained by the church of the state.

When I learned this, it helped answer why my specific ancestor, Thomas Little, who was born in Dumfries, Scotland, came to Ireland (my direct ancestor, his daughter Nancy Little, was born in Co. Down, Downpatrick, Ireland.) And then doing more historical study I learned why they probably left Ireland and came to America. Thomas Little's name shows up in lists of Dissenters. About the time they left leases were coming due on land that had been renting for decades, and the leases were doubled. Families like the Littles had little choice but to immigrate, and land in America was cheap and plentiful. We are often told that these people immigrated for religious reasons, and while that might be true, it was a small part of the picture. They came with the hope of providing a better life for their families.

Do you have a story like this about your family? I'd love to hear it!

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