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.