The Scotch-Irish

As children, when we asked where our McCollough family came from, my grandfather Theodore “Doc” McCollough proudly claimed, “You are Scotch-Irish!” The spelling of our surname “McCollough” is common in Ireland and suggests that our immigrant ancestors were from the Emerald Isle. Given the history of our McCollough family in early Pennsylvania, the odds may be greater that our immigrant ancestors came from Ulster in northern Ireland than directly from Scotland. Where did this mystical hybrid of nationalities, the name “Scotch-Irish,” come from?

Today, Scotch is an adjective meaning “of or from Scotland.” Many Scots dislike the term Scotch, and some consider it offensive. The modern usage in Scotland is Scottish or Scots, and the word Scotch is now reserved to name food or drink, such as Scotch whisky, Scotch pie, or Scotch broth.

In the book The Scotch Irish. A Social History (1962), author James Leyburn explains that the name “Scotch-Irish” was unknown in Scotland and Northern Ireland where the “Scotch-Irish” originated. By the time of the first migration to America in the early 1700s, most of the people that immigrated from the Scottish Lowlands to Ulster had lived in Ireland for as many as six generations. They were a different people from their Scottish forebears. Some intermarried with the native Irish, and they assumed certain aspects of Irish culture. They retained their Presbyterian religion that was not congenial with the Irish Catholics, a difference that would lead to troubled times in Northern Ireland for centuries. 

When they came to America, the immigrants considered and called themselves “Irish.” After all, their families had lived there for generations. Once in America, they named their pioneer settlements after their homes in Ireland (not Scotland). For example, Donegal Township (where Captain John McCollough settled) was named by a group of Catholics and Presbyterians from the banks of Loch Erne in County Donegal, Ireland. Nearby “Argyle” in Fairview Township is named after the county in Northern Ireland. Today, the “Argyle” Masonic Lodge is on Captain John McCollough’s original farm.

The invention of the term Scotch-Irish in America is obscure. It seems to be a derogatory term that infrequently appears in 16th century English documents. Its not again until the 1720s when the term “Scotch-Irish” surfaces again early in Pennsylvania’s history in Episcopalian and Quaker writings. Again, it was used as a derogatory name for the immigrants from Ulster. One Anglican minister wrote, “They call themselves Scotch-Irish and the bitterest railers against the church [of England] that ever trod upon American ground.” James Logan, secretary to the Penn family and a Quaker from Ireland, wrote, “The settlement of five families from Ireland gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people.” The Scotch-Irish had a disposition to settle on any land they found suitable without proper authorization or ownership. In his writings, Logan referred to them as “Irish,” “people from the North of Ireland,” and “Scotch-Irish.” He wrote to Thomas Penn, “they are of the Scotch-Irish (so called here)…” The hyphenated title and uncomplimentary nickname was thus coined and became commonly used in America.

Throughout history, humans have a propensity to denigrate immigrants and others “from away.”  Each new wave of immigrants to America, if in numbers great enough to be visible, has had to endure a period injustice by the established, incorporated Americans. Foreigners with different manners, language, clothing, and customs have endured these prejudices and discrimination. Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, Jews, Africans, and Latin Americans all endured this painful treatment. Name-calling and epithets are one way that these injustices are exacted by society and instill prejudices against the newcomers. 

Treatment of the 4 to 5 million Irish immigrants that came to America following the potato famines in the 1830s and 1840s was no different. They were mostly Roman Catholics arriving in a predominantly Protestant country. Prejudices and discrimination resulted in violent attacks by mobs, murders, and discrimination that resulted in diminished career opportunities for generations for the oppressed Irish. 

James Leyburn writes, “In this atmosphere of prejudice, say the Irish Americans, the Scotch-Irish who up to now had not objected to being known as “Irish,” looked for a way to disassociate themselves from the newcomers, who were call “shanty Irish” or “bog Irish” or worse names. The compound name [Scotch-Irish], already known, thereupon came into general use, first by the descendants of the Ulstermen and then by the public. Its very acceptance contributed to the “myth’” as Irish Americans conceived it, that the Scotch-Irish had never been Irish but wholly Scottish.”

At the same time during the mid-1800s, the Victorian fascination with Scottish culture became popular in England and America. Sir Walter Scott’s novels of Scotland were popular and painted a picture of clans, kilts, bagpipes, and fierce Highlanders. Everything Scottish came to be considered glamorous. By the mid-1800s, the so-called Scotch-Irish were well incorporated into America and proud of their many accomplishments. Many were instrumental in settling the frontier, fought in the American Revolutions, and even served as Presidents (Jackson, Polk, Buchannan), and their virtues were extolled and magnified in the history books. The Ulster Scots in America used the term “Scotch-Irish” to distinguish themselves from the newer, poor, predominantly Catholic immigrants and to affirm their distant Scottish heritage that was now in vogue. Thus, the term Scotch-Irish has an unsavory history reflecting past prejudices. 

Despite its contentious origins, the term Scotch-Irish is still widely used today. James Leyburn argues that “Scotch-Irish” is a legitimate term to describe the biological, cultural, historical, and geographical reality of a people who came from the Lowland regions of Scotland, lived for several generations in Ulster Ireland, and eventually came to America. Scholars estimate that over 200,000 Scotch-Irish migrated to the Americas between 1717 and 1775, and many Americans still identify Scotch-Irish as their native origin today. All Americans were once immigrants. I am descended from the McColloughs, Spanglers, and Fiscus families who immigrated from Ireland and Germany in the mid-1700s and John O’Beirne and Rosanna Boyle who immigrated from Ireland in 1830. We are all pilgrims to these verdant shores, and I am grateful that America was here to provide our ancestors refuge and opportunity.

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