Ulster Scots

The Migration of the Scots-Irish to Southwestern North Carolina

by Matthew Newsome (c) 2001

Southern Scotland in the 16th Century

To follow the route of the Scots-Irish people, we must look at the path taken by their church, the Presbyterian Church.  And to better understand the culture and mind set of these immigrants, we must be aware of the history of their church. 

Scotland was first Christianized in the 5th and 6th centuries by great men of the church such as St. Columba, St. Kintigern, St. Ninian, etc.  It was part of the Catholic Church for its entire Christian history up until the turbulent times of the 1500s.  While the Reformation swept Europe and Protestantism took hold in England, there was initially very little support for Protestantism in Scotland.  The Auld Alliance with France was still strong, and France was a very Catholic nation.  This alliance was seen by many Scottish nobles as an unbalanced one, and it was a thorn in the side of the English, as we shall see later. 

When one reads of the Reformation in Scotland, the common complaints against the Church are that it was overly rich in its lands and overly corrupt in its clergy.  To have a balanced look, one must also consider that this is the church whose many religious orders in Scotland had no property, owned no land, and subsisted on donations only.  These holy monks and friars tended to the lepers and plague ridden, many dying in the effort.  It was the Catholic Church that owned the only libraries in Scotland, and that ran the only grammar schools and universities in Scotland.  As a whole, the people of Scotland had very little complaint against the Roman Catholic Church. 

What they did complain about was the clergy.  Individual clergymen in the Church had become very corrupt by the 16th century.  The reasons for this were plenty.  The country was very thinly populated; the villages were far apart.  It was very hard to maintain parishes or to supply priests.  The priests who were there were over worked, understaffed and undereducated.  Scotland was far from Rome, even farther in the days prior to modern transportation and communication methods.  Corrupt clergy found that they could get away with most anything they chose, and the devout clergymen could do little more than complain about it. 

Catholics attempted many times to reform the Church in Scotland from within during the 16th century.  Some of the Church’s harshest criticism came from these Catholic reformers.  The Jesuit priest Father Nicholas Floris of Gouda remarked in 1562, “It is no wonder that with such shepherds, the wolves invade the flock of the Lord and ruin all.”  The Jesuits were an order founded to confront Protestantism in Europe. 

Despite the corruption of part of the clergy, and the difficulties faced by the devout, Protestantism really didn’t have much influence on the Scottish people until John Knox stepped on the scene preaching his Calvinist sermons.  The rise of the Protestant movement in Scotland, as it was in England, was not so much a movement from the people based on theological or ideological motives, as it was a movement spurned on by individuals with agendas that were political as well as theological. 

Knox’s biographer, Jasper Ridley, wrote, “Knox is one of the most ruthless and successful revolutionary leaders in history. . . . Dictators ancient and modern have killed their opponents whenever they considered that this was expedient.  Revolutionary mobs have killed oppressors out of a desire for vengeance and justice.  But Knox and his Puritans are the only modern revolutionaries who proclaimed that it was sinful not to kill their enemies.”  Knox thought the Catholic Church was the instrument of the devil.  He delighted when the Scottish Cardinal Beaton was assassinated.  His own admirers describe him as narrow, bigoted and humorless.  But his sincerity was never doubted and he was a renowned charismatic speaker who could move entire audiences to his will.  One French Catholic who heard him speak said he had the power to control men’s souls. 

Knox first targeted the nobility of Scotland.  As it had been in England, the Protestant movement began with the nobles, not the common man.  There was a strong political movement among the nobility to end the alliance with France, who had so often used the Scottish soldiers to their benefit with seemingly little retribution, and encourage a strong alliance with England, thus consolidating the Isle of Britain.  One major obstacle was the fact that England was a Protestant nation while France remained Catholic.  Of course, were Scotland to become Protestant, this would no longer be an issue.  Plus, the nobility were tempted by the great church land holdings.  If the church no longer had claims to those lands, who would get them?  It would not be the common man. 

The boiling point came one Sunday in a local parish church in Perth at which Knox was speaking.  His speech so enflamed the gathered crowd that when a priest attempted to say mass afterwards, a riot broke out in which all of the statues of the church were destroyed.  After ransacking that church, the mob moved out to other religious houses in the community.  The Catholic Queen Mary responded to the mob riot by sending French troops in to quell it.  The Protestants in turn invited English troops in to assist them in the rebellion.  This Protestant army succeeded in taking Edinburgh in October of 1560.  A few days later, French troops were able to reclaim the city, although temporarily, with the inhabitants rejoicing.  The citizen’s opinion of the Protestant army was that it was a mob of heretics and traitors.  However, this “mob” did eventually win out over the Catholic troops, with 11,000 English soldiers assisting the 2,000 Scottish Protestants. 

On July 6, 1560, the treaty of Edinburgh declared Scotland and England allies, with England the “protector” of Scotland.  All French troops were removed.  In August of that year the Scottish Parliament abolished papal jurisdiction over Scottish churches and officially adopted a Calvinist confession drawn up by John Knox.  The mass was outlawed.  The Presbyterian Church was now the official church of Scotland. 

While the Highlands of Scotland remained largely Catholic, being too remote, and the inhabitants being too stubborn and too hardy to be converted by force, the Lowlands of Scotland were now effectively, legally, Protestant.  Every adult was required by law to attend a Calvinist sermon on Sunday.  The Presbyterian ministers were extraordinary preachers and public speakers.  The people of the Lowlands must have noticed a sharp contrast between these hell-fire and brimstone preachers, trained in a tradition of effective preaching, and the lax, burned out, and/or corrupt Catholic priests they had known.  The Presbyterian Church was intent on changing the morals of the people.  Puritanism had come to Scotland.  Modern Scottish songwriter, Brian McNeill, commented on this new morality when he wrote the lines, “Did ye no think to tell when John Knox himsel’ preached under yet branches sae black, to the poor common folk, who would lift up the yolk of the bishops and priests from their backs.  But you knew the bargain he sold them, and freedom was only one part, for the price of their souls was a gospel so cold it would freeze up the joy in their hearts.”  This is the mindset that would lead to the outlawing of Christmas, as it was “too Catholic” a holiday, and the public stoning of priests in the streets. 

The effective preaching and public education by the Presbyterian church in the Lowlands of Scotland left the Scots with a deep rooted suspicion for religious authority and a hatred of the old Catholic church that would effect their role in the Ulster plantation of the next century.

Move to Ulster

People have always moved back and forth across the Irish Sea. The Scotti tribe from northern Ireland were the first Gaelic speaking settlers of Scotland. During the Middle Ages mercenary soldiers from both sides crossed to support eachother’s armies. The great MacDonald clan at one time held Antrim, bringing northern Ireland under one rule with the Scottish west, in the Lordship of the Isles.

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland inherited the English and Irish thrones, uniting the crowns and making him King James I of England, Scotland and Ireland. Of course, his rule in Ireland was titular only. There was really no effective rule to be had. James was a very Protestant king, and Ireland was still an extremely Catholic nation. James was of the opinion that the only way to pacify the recently conquered Irish was by planting Protestant, English speaking loyalists among them.

Other plantation efforts had been attempted in Ireland, but this was to be the largest and most effective, the results of which can still be seen in the news headlines today. In 1607 two Ulster chieftains, the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, fled to France rather than live under English rule. James confiscated their land, consisting of 3.8 million acres. He encouraged settlement on these new lands, by Scottish Presbyterians especially. James preferred Scots for the colony because, in his words, they were “of a middle temper between the English tender and the Irish rude breeding, and a great deal more like to adventure to plant Ulster than the English, it [Ulster] lying far both from the English native land, and more from their humour, while it [Ulster] lies night to Scotland, and the inhabitants not so far from ancient Scots manner.”

James granted these lands to two major ranks of men. First were the undertakers-men of high rank who were granted between 1,000 and 2,000 acres and could rent only to Scottish or English tenants. Second were the servitors-military men and government administrators, who received similar grants but could also rent to the Irish. Some native Irish received small grants of 100 to 200 acres, and could likewise rent to Irish.

Men were eager to move from their homes in southern Scotland to Ulster mainly due to economic reasons. Lowland Scotland in the 17th century was becoming overpopulated. The land was harsh. Rents were high. And Ulster was a familiar territory not that far away. Scots settling in Ulster could expect to rent land for a period of 21 to 31 years, sometimes longer (as much as three lifetimes). This was seen as a sure way to improve one’s economic standing. By 1619 over 8000 families had relocated to Ulster. By 1715 over 1/3 of Ulster’s 600,000 inhabitants were Scottish.

The lands of Ulster lent themselves to the same farming practices that these families knew in Scotland. Large herds of sheep or cattle, supplemented by small crop farms, consisting of an infield that would be sewn and harvested each year and receive much fertilization, and an outfield that would be planted for a few years with no fertilization, then left fallow for several years to rejuvenate.

There were three major ethnic groups and three religions in the Ulster plantation. These were English/Anglican, Scottish/Presbyterian, and Irish/Catholic. The Irish resentment of occupation by Protestants made them more devoutly Catholic than ever. They took to it as a badge of their ethnicity. The Anglican Church, because of the English conquest, was the official Church of Ireland. Penal laws were established for those who did not accept it. These laws often came into play among the Scottish Presbyterians as well, who found themselves more and more isolated as a religious community.

The native Irish, though displaced from their land holdings, remained by and large as cheap laborers. They were extremely hostile towards the newcomers, however, whom they viewed as foreign heretics. Most of the estates of the landowners had to be walled and fortified.

Surrounded by hostile Catholics and feeling oppressed by the government sanctioned Anglican church, Scottish Presbyterians became more and more defensive and intolerant of other religions. They were able to maintain close ties with the Presbyterian Church in Scotland by frequent back and forth travel of ministers. One common occurrence in both Ulster and Scotland was the “holy fair.” This was a large outdoor gathering marked by preaching of the hellfire and brimstone variety, a call for personal conversion as a mark of salvation, and meditation. Such gatherings often aroused strong emotional responses, resulting in crying, shouting and even fainting.

There were differences between the Scottish and Irish Presbyterianism, however. In Scotland, it was the sanctioned church and had government support. In Ulster, no such support existed. Because of persecution in Ulster, the Presbyterian church there became very determined not to compromise or yield to outside forces. Local parishes were the strength of the church, each with its own interpretation of Calvinism. There was little authority or unity among them, other than the Calvinist framework. It was a very democratic and rather opinionated group.

Across the Atlantic

Society in the Ulster plantation consisted of a small landholding elite class that held economic and political supremacy over a large, poor body of tenants. The vast majority of these tenants, the Scots, were in an oppressed religious minority. They were subject to British rule as a colony. They were also recent immigrants who were not very attached to their homeland.

The Scots had come to Ulster for a better life. In the 18th century, that life was not to be found. The population of Ulster had grown rapidly. The land had grown scarce. Rents were rising ever higher. The economy was poor. If you were a Presbyterian, that meant you could not take a role in the government. But you had to pay tithes to the Anglican church. This led many Presbyterian ministers to preach against the British authorities and encourage unrest and discontent among their congregations. In 1729, Ezekiel Stewart, a Donegal judge, wrote in a letter, “The Presbyterian ministers have taken their share of pains to seduce their poor ignorant hearers, by bellowing from their pulpits against the Landlords and the Clergy, calling them rackers of Rents, and Servers of Tithes, with other reflections of this nature, which they know is pleasing to their people, at the same time telling them that God has appointed a country for them to depart thence, where they will be freed from the bondage of Egypt and go to the land of Canaan.”

This Promised Land was America, and sometimes entire congregations left for it, as in 1772 when Rev. William Martin led his 467 families to South Carolina. But religion was not the only motivation for migration. Rising rent, low wages, and low prices on goods, combined with period of crop failure left many people impoverished. Because of the population growth, farmable land was more scarce, and landlords could charge more and more rent. When leases expired, the land was rented out to the highest bidder. Many bid more money than they had just to obtain the land, leading to much debt in northern Ireland. Vast numbers of people left Ulster for America between the years 1717 and 1727, which corresponds to the end of the leases issued in the 1690s.

The vast majority of those who left, though they did not necessarily know the economic causes of their hardships, knew enough that they blamed the English government. Edmond Kaine, an estate manager in County Monaghan, wrote in the early 1720’s that “money was never worse since I came here this 24 years than it is at this time for our market is all down. I know not the meaning of it, but it is believed here that it is occasioned by the hardship England is putting upon us.”

Ulster was a British colony, the same as the Americas, only closer to home. She had the same import and export restrictions. Ulster could ship wool nowhere but to Britain. Linen was the only profitable crop they had, and when the linen prices fell, many small farmers had nothing left to subsist on.

Migration to America became a more and more attractive option to many Ulster Scots. Since it was a part of the British Empire, there were no emigration restrictions, and no language barrier. A linen trade route existed between Ulster and Philadelphia and ships went back and forth across the Atlantic all the time. The American colonies had a labor shortage. Emigrants could expect to be paid well for their work. Many colonies encouraged white settlers to combat the number of Native Americans and African slaves. In the 1730s and 1760s South Carolina offered land, tools and seeds to white settlers, and this made Charleston a very popular port for Scots-Irish migration during those periods. There was cheap land in America, and lots of it. There were no landlords, no tithes, and no Penal laws.

The migration began in the 1680s, but it really took off in the period following 1717. Some Catholics and Anglicans came across, but the vast majority of people leaving Ulster were Presbyterian Scots. Between 1717 and 1800 some 250,000 people left for America. There were 20,000 Anglo-Irish, 20,000 Irish Gaels, and the rest were Scottish.

The average emigrant would find passage aboard a linen trade vessel. The ships would bring flax seed from Pennsylvania to Ulster, and the captains were happy to have a return cargo that could pay cash. Some Ulstermen paid their own way, while many had arranged to become indentured servants, selling their labor for a period of seven years. Many, though, had no way to pay. These souls, upon arrival in Philadelphia, would have to remain on board the ship until the captain was able to sell their labor and collect payment.

In Pennsylvania and the Great Wagon Road

Philadelphia was by far the most popular port for Scots-Irish migrants. This was due to the pre-established trade routes, the religious tolerance of the Pennsylvania colony, and the good, available farm land. And there was a great labor shortage there, to boot.

Most of the Scots-Irish became farmers in Pennsylvania, as they had been in Ulster. Beginning around 1730, the population of the colony really exploded and by 1740 good farm land was becoming scarce. The prices for land rose, and Scots-Irish settlers began to occupy lands in western Pennsylvania. Here they settled among the Germans, English, Welsh, Swedes, and American Indians. Though they were largely defensive and intolerant of others in Ulster, here they did pick up some things from their neighbors, such as the mountain dulcimer and the practice of building log cabins. The mark of the Scots-Irish can best be seen in their church. The first Presbytery in America was founded in Philadelphia in 1706. By 1718 there were 13 Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania. By the 1730s the Scottish ministers could no longer fill the demand for pastors and Presbyterian ministers began to be trained and educated at American schools.

As more and more Scots-Irish settlers came to Pennsylvania, land became scarce and prices began once more to rise. Scots-Irish settlers would often squat on a piece of land and never claim it or pay for it. This was in part due to their poverty, but also due to their use of the land, farming a field until it was barren and then moving on. This led to them being very mobile. Since these families did not have roots in the land, so to speak, the cheap and fertile land of the Virginia Valley attracted many Scots-Irish. There were no hostile Indians there, and Colonial Virginia encouraged settlers in the area. The Germans were actually the first to stake claims there, in 1726-30, but the Scots-Irish soon followed.

Migration was starting to be a hallmark of Scots-Irish culture now. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was also a large trade route between the middle and the southern colonies. There was a lot of traffic on the Great Wagon Road, and settlers here saw men moving north and south all the time. In time, the Presbyterian missionaries moved south. Then the cattle drivers began to move south. The settlers soon followed. Many of the same Scots-Irish who had bought the cheap land in Virginia, and had turned it into nice farmstead, now sold that developed land to new Scots-Irish migrants at a profit, and used the money to buy even more land, at even cheaper prices in the Carolinas.

Home to North Carolina

Most of the Scots-Irish settlers in the Carolinas came first to the Piedmont. Some continued south to South Carolina, but many stayed. In 1730, the population of North Carolina was 36,000, mostly on the coast. In 1750 it had risen to 70,000 and in 1770 it was 180,000, with most of the growth being in the Piedmont region. Migrants came to this area from the Great Wagon Road in the north, as well as from the port of Charleston in the south.

Land in the Piedmont was even cheaper than it was in Pennsylvania or in Virginia. There were fewer problems with hostile Indians. There was rich soil and abundant game. Many in North Carolina did their best to promote settlement far and wide. Arthur Dobbs was an Ulsterman who was granted land in Mecklenburg and Cabbarus counties in NC. He actively promoted settlement in North Carolina among the Ulster Scots. William Byrd II wrote in 1731 that “North Carolina is a Very happy Country where people may live with the least labour that they can in any part of the world.” Many writers of his day agreed with him, making North Carolina one of the most popular destinations for the emigrant.

But this time the Scots-Irish got there first, and got the best of the land. They continued to use the same agricultural techniques as they had in Ulster. They maintained livestock, supplemented by crops, using simple tools and an almost wasteful land management policy. Some of the land taken from the Native Americans had already been cleared for use in farming, and a few settlers used this land for intensive, permanent agriculture. But the majority of the Scots-Irish preferred instead to clear their own land, farm around the stumps, and when the land was exhausted, clear more. This slash and burn method of farming was a hallmark of the Piedmont farmers. The livestock was branded and left free to graze in the uncleared areas, gaining a profit from that land as well.

This frontier, advantageous as it was to farming and settlement, gave rise to unique challenges for the Presbyterian Church. The Calvinist virtues of individualism and self-sufficiency did well here, but the Christian virtues of kindness, compassion and humility suffered. The Scots-Irish people loved their faith and desperately clung to it. Yet the Presbyterian Church required an educated clergy, stressed an educated laity, and relied on an organized structure connected through presbyteries and synods. This simply could not work on the frontier.

Presbyterian missionaries from Pennsylvania did establish churches in North Carolina. The first churches west of the Yadkin river were all Presbyterian. Yet many of these congregations had to wait years for a pastor to be found. They were sheep without shepherds, and many strayed.


Most of the Scots-Irish were very independent, self-reliant, and very resistant to British rule. This was a character trait brought with them from the Ulster plantation where they suffered so much at the hands of the ruling British.

In 1767 the Rev. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican clergyman, wrote of the Carolina Piedmont, “Not less than 20 Itinerant Presbyterian, Baptist and Independent Preachers are maintain’d by the Synods of Pennsylvania and New England to traverse this Country Poisoning the Minds of the People-Instilling Democratical and Commonwealth Principles into their minds-Embittering them against the very name of Bishops, and all Episcopal Government and laying deep their Republican Notions and Principles-Especially That they owe no Subjection to Great Britain-That they are a free People-That they are to pay allegiance to King George as their Sovereign-But as to Great Britain or the Parliament, or any there, that they have no more to think of or about them than the Turk or Pope-Thus do Itinerant Preachers sent from the Northern Colonies pervert the Minds of the Vulgar.” The Scots-Irish in the Piedmont struggled often, sometimes violently, against the colonial government on the coast for much of the 1760s, and this was a forerunner of what was to come.

More people settling the Piedmont meant more people moving westward towards the mountains. The British government did not want settlers on Cherokee land, however. This caused conflict with many Scots-Irish who intended to settle there, and eventually a settlement in Watauga in east Tennessee was established, albeit illegally. These Scots-Irish settlers were now fighting a British enemy and a Cherokee one. The British authorities would often entice the Cherokee to violence against the settlers, as in the French and Indian War. When the Revolution started in 1776, the British once more utilized the Cherokee to attack the settlers. Gen. Griffith Rutherford, and Ulsterman, led an expedition across the Blue Ridge Mountains that effectively removed the Indian threat. Marching with him was Rev. James Hall, a prominent Presbyterian minister. This was the first view many Scots-Irish would have of their future mountain home.

The Scots-Irish were heavily involved on the patriot side of the Revolutionary War. They viewed it as an extension of the conflict they had been having with the British for a long time. After the Revolution, the new NC state government gave large land grants to Revolutionary War veterans. This encouraged many of the Ulstermen who had been on Rutherford’s expedition to seek new land in the mountains, and push the frontier farther west.

The Southwestern Appalachians

Many ethnic groups settled the southwestern mountains of North Carolina. There were English, German, French, Welsh, and African American. But the largest group of all was the Scots-Irish, making up at least a third of all settlers to the region, coming from the Great Wagon Road and from the Watauga settlement.

In 1790 there were 88 families in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 40% of them were of Ulster stock. In 1800 there were 888 families, 43% of Ulster stock. According to Doctors Curtis Wood and Tyler Blethen of Western Carolina University, the percentages may actually have been 15% higher, if one counts those names of uncertain origin that may have come from Ulster. Scots-Irish certainly held a high percentage of leadership positions. Sixty percent of landowners in Buncombe and Haywood counties who owned more than 1000 acres between 1788 and 1810 were Scots-Irish. Ten out of 16 landowners in the new town of Asheville were Scots-Irish. One half of the justices of the peace and five of seven office holders in Buncombe in 1792 were Scots-Irish.

The Scots-Irish were finally seeming to flourish. The same could not be said of their church. The Presbyterian Church was the first in the area. It came in with the first Ulster Scot settlers. James Hall was the central figure in promoting the Presbyterian church here. He and other missionaries founded churches and schools in the mountains. It was increasingly difficult to maintain this activity, however. In 1804 James Hall reported that the Great Awakening that was sweeping the country had led to “wild and delusive fanaticism” and “horrid and extravagant conduct.” He complained of the lack of educated ministers and vacant churches. Some Presbyterian churches began to employ ministers of other denominations just to fill the demand.

After 1810, there was a rapid growth of Baptist and Methodist churches in the mountains. Many Scots-Irish Presbyterians began to attend these churches rather than give up their faith lives altogether. In 1840 there were only 7 Presbyterian churches serving a total of 300 people in all of southwestern NC. In 1850 there were 37 Baptist and 32 Methodist churches in the same area. The independent structure of these churches, and the fact that they did not require an educated clergy, made them perfectly suited to a frontier environment.

Some of the Presbyterian influence of course survived. The holy fairs from Ulster were still practiced in these new denominations. But now the more conservative Presbyterian clergy though them too emotional and flamboyant.

It would seem that in the end, the Presbyterian church in southwestern NC was, ironically, to suffer the same fate as the Catholic Church in southern Scotland. A lack of properly educated clergy, and a few motivated, radical preachers would change the religious face of an entire people. From Catholicism, the original church of Scotland, to Presbyterianism, these people held on to their faith, and indeed defined themselves by it, in Ulster. They carried it with them across the Atlantic, deep into the mountains of North Carolina. And here they found themselves shifting from Presbyterianism, the original church of the mountains, to the Baptist and Methodist movements.


Blethen, H. Tyler and Curtis W. Wood Jr.  From Ulster to Carolina: The Migration of the Scotch-Irish to Southwestern North Carolina.  NC Dept of Cultural Resources Division of Archives and History.  Raleigh, NC:  1998.

Carroll, Warren H.  The Cleaving of Christendom:  A History of Christendom Vol. 4. Christendom Press.  Front Royal, VA:  2000.

Kennedy, Billy.  The Scots-Irish in the Carolinas.  Causway Press.  Greenville, SC:   1997.

Leyburn, James G.  The Scotch-Irish: A Social History.  University of NC Press.  Chapel Hill, NC.  1962.