Why leave Scotland?

In 2018, my wife and I spent nearly a week in the old Scottish counties of Wigtownshire (“The Shire”) and Kirkcudbrightshire (Ke-koo-bre-sher). These old counties in southwest Scotland are now part of the council area “Dumfries and Galloway,” and are the ancestral home of the McCullochs. The pastoral landscape with rolling hills, farms, and small villages reminded me of western Pennsylvania where I grew up.  The landscape was enchanting, the people friendly, and the farms looked prosperous, so why would our McCollough ancestor and so many others leave this beautiful area for Ireland and later America?

I recently resumed reading the book The Scotch Irish. A Social History by James G. Leyburn (1962) that Dad gave me many years ago. Although many authors, including Teddy Roosevelt, praised the Scotch-Irish for their many contributions in exploring and settling the wilderness of America, few have documented the history of these people and explain why they left Scotland in the first place. Leyburn’s work still stands as the definitive history of the Scotch-Irish and provided answers to my questions.

Recent genetic yDNA testing pinpoints our family origins in southwest Scotland.  But like so many Scots from this region, it is very likely that our McCulloch ancestors spent five or six generations in Northern Ireland (Ulster) before coming to America.

Leyden describes Scotland in the late-1500s and early 1600s as one of the poorest, backward countries of Europe. The Renaissance that swept Europe in the 1500s had not reached Scotland. Our ancestors living in southwest Scotland still lived under a medieval, feudal system that had prevailed in Scotland for the previous 500 years. Wealthy noblemen and lairds (including some McCullochs) owned the land and rented to the destitute tenant farmer class. 

The situation in Scotland was desperate. Poverty was widespread. In 1600, Scotland had not achieved an orderly government or established a rule of law. Society was lawless. Local lairds were constantly engaged in violent feuds, and corrupt sheriffs appointed by the lairds took the local law into their own hands. Agricultural methods were primitive compared to other parts of Europe. Artistic pursuits (other than music) were unknown. Peasants were regularly conscripted by their lairds to fight in frequent wars with England. The landscape long ago was denuded of trees. Cattle stealing was a favorite pastime (some McCullochs were notorious reivers). Humble farmers paid large fees to renew their leases of a few acres. There was barely enough food to carry families through the winter. Peasants lived in clusters of windowless hovels made from stone or banked turf with heather stuffed in the gaps to keep out the worst winter blasts. The roofs were thatch or turf. They lived with their livestock to keep warm in the winter. Peat fires burned in an open pit in the center of smoke-filled hovel. People slept and ate on the dirt floor (where they could see through the peat smoke). Infectious disease, including smallpox, plague, and malaria, regularly ravaged the countryside.

Most tenant farmers were resigned to their place in life, but also found emotional security in being part of a community. There was little desire for change or to transform their traditional, feudal life. They knew no other alternative, and were blindly ignorant of the radical advances in science and society that were happening in Europe. In 1560, the fiery preacher John Knox brought the Scots news of the Protestant Reformation – a movement that quickly swept Scotland and introduced the concepts of democracy.  Protestantism was immediately popular with the Lowlanders and brought a new sense of moral decency to a decrepit society.

Despite the harsh conditions, the Lowlanders had a few reasons to be cheerful. Many communities gathered to enjoy their local singers, pipers, and harpists. The people shared rich folk tales. Yule (Christmas), Pasch (Easter), and the various saint’s days were enjoyed with local celebrations.  Superstition was widespread with common belief in sorcery, magic, witchcraft, and tales abound of ghosts, demons, and spirits haunting the moors.

Tenant farmers in Scotland lived in houses like this one. Windows were rare. A peat fire smoldered in the hearth located in the center of the hovel, and smoke filled the single room. Livestock shared the house in winter.

Leyburn paints a dour picture of the conditions in the Scottish Lowlands in the early 1600s. In fact, he wrote that “dourness” and stubbornness best described the mind and spirit of the Scottish Lowlander at this time. Men and women who survived centuries of living in a harsh environment, physical and social, learned how to endure the worst that life could send them – famine, plague, raiding bands of English, crop failures, and cattle stolen. They learned to endure these hard and violent times

There was every reason why an ambitious Scottish man or woman should look elsewhere to improve his family’s condition. By 1600, the Lowland Scots were a people ready to be released from their poor condition. They found hope in the new Protestant religion and an opportunity arose to cross the Irish Sea begin anew in Ireland.

2 thoughts on “Why leave Scotland?

  1. The McCulloch’s were leaving Scotland to avoid religious persecution. James McCulloch left Scotland after Sir Godfrey, Baronet of Nova Scotia from Cardoness Castle was executed at Edinburg Castle on the Iron Maiden. James took his family and Sir Godfrey’s wife and children to Ireland in the late 1680’s. James arrived in the Americas in 1723 with 1 of his 2 children. James and 1 son changed their last name spelling to McCullough to match relatives currently living in Ireland. James 2nd son raised by Sir Godfrey’s widow kept the original spelling of McCulloch. He arrived in America after Sir Godfrey’s widow Agnes Kennedy passed away.
    Some McCulloch’s arrived in America in the 1650’s and later. These were Coventor’s who were captured and exiled to America, and other countries around the world. That’s another story, for another time.
    I’m a McCullough who is a direct descendant of Sir Godfrey b.1640 at Cardoness Castle. My earliest direct y DNA ancestor is Lord Patrick Mac Con Uladh Knight b.1260’s, Lord Patrick Del Counte de Wigton. Lords Patrick, father Thomas and Thomas’s brother William all signers of the Ragmon Rolls in 1296.
    Concerning Cardoness Castle, it was owned by the family long before the 15th century. See below, Anwoth were lands owned by the MacCulloch family, descendants of the early Kings of Scotland.

    We continually revise our Statements of Significance, so they may vary in length, format and level of detail. While every effort is made to keep them up to date, they should not be considered a definitive or final assessment of our properties.
    Historic Environment Scotland – Scottish Charity No. SC045925 Principal Office: Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH9 1SH

    © Historic Environment Scotland 2018
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    Where we have identified any third party copyright information you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holders concerned.
    Any enquiries regarding this document should be sent to us at: Historic Environment Scotland
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    Historic Environment Scotland – Scottish Charity No. SC045925 Principal Office: Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH9 1SH

    Cardoness Castle is prominently located on a rocky eminence overlooking the B796, 1 mile SW of Gatehouse of Fleet. The property comprises a complete but unroofed tower house and adjacent structures built for the McCullochs of Cardoness in the later 15th century. The tower itself is largely as built, and possesses fine architectural features. The adjacent structures, in contrast, were heavily restored in the 1930s and now defy proper interpretation.
    The castle is complemented by a pretty cottage at the foot of the rocky eminence, that now houses a small visitor centre.
    CHARACTER OF THE MONUMENT Historical Overview:
    • c.1170 – David fitz (son of) Teri, lord of Over Denton, Cumberland, is granted the estate of Anwoth by King Malcolm IV (1153-65). He builds a motte-and-bailey castle at Boreland of Anwoth, a little to the SW of the later Cardoness Castle.
    • 1220 – Nicholas de Kerdenes is in dispute with Dundrennan Abbey over his wife Cicely’s dowry. His appeal to the pope is successful.
    • 1277 – Bertram of Cardoness acts as witness to a charter by Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway, founder of Sweetheart Abbey and mother of King John Balliol (1292-96).
    • 1466 – Gilbert McCulloch, from the Machars of Wigtownshire, is the first of that surname to appear on record in connection with Cardoness. Legend tells that he acquires the property after the previous laird and eight of his nine daughters drown in a frozen loch near the castle whilst celebrating the birth of a new-born son, who also perishes. Gilbert marries the sole surviving daughter. Either Gilbert or his son, James, builds the present castle.
    • 1500 – James McCulloch dies, and is succeeded by his son, Ninian. Both men acquire reputations for being disputatious and prone to violence, particularly regarding neighbouring lairds such as the Gordons and mostly over land ownership. For example, in 1505 Ninian McCulloch steals 1500 ‘assorted beasts’ from his neighbour’s barn.
    • 1509 – Ninian dies, possibly executed for his crimes. His son and heir, Thomas, being a minor, the boy’s uncle, Sir Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCulloch, has wardship. A friend of James IV, he holds important posts at the royal court, including as keeper of Linlithgow Palace and keeper of the king’s falcons. He too has a nose for trouble and his two convictions against neighbours are repealed only after the king’s intervention.
    • 1513 – Sandy McCulloch is killed at Flodden beside his king.
    • 1516 – Thomas McCulloch dies and is succeeded by his brother


    • Thank you very much for the detailed McCulloch history! We do not know exactly when Captain John McCollough’s father or grandfather arrived in America (or from where; Scotland or Ireland). But it was probably in the mid-1700s. A family history written by Newton Clarke McCollough says that our immigrant ancestor arrived in about 1760. If so, this was John McCollough senior. His son, Captain John was born in 1770, most likely in Lancaster County, PA or Westmoreland County, PA as one of the first settlers into the wilderness of western Pennsylvania. I imagine that there were many McCullochs, McColloughs, and McCulloughs that immigrated to America in the 1700s originating from different family lines. Some came directly from Scotland, like Godfrey McCulloch’s family. Others settled in Ireland first (like the Covenanter McCullochs) – some briefly and others for several generations. Our McCollough yDNA indicates (r1b haplotype) that we cannot possibly be related to the Godfrey McCulloch line (r1a haplotype). In fact, we are most closely related to the McCracken family who lived in the same area as the McCullochs in southwest Scotland. Perhaps a McCracken boy was adopted or fostered by the wealthy McCullochs. YDNA dating suggests our closest common ancestor with the McCullochs was in the 1400s or 1500s when surnames were first taken. You are fortunate to be able to trace your McCulloch ancestors back to Scotland. Most cannot (except through yDNA). We have searched the genealogy record thoroughly and so far cannot find a paper record to document our ancestor’s immigration, but with YDNA (and more men testing in Ireland and Scotland), perhaps we will be able to finally identify our long lost cousins.


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