The Water is Wide: Scottish Journeys to Ireland and New England, 1603-1718

“The water is wide, I cannot get over
Neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I”
– The Water is Wide, Scots ballad, trad

As far back as the time of the Roman Empire, the connection between Northern Ireland and Scotland was clearly established. The Hibernian tribes the Romans called the ‘Scotti’ were engaged in fighting with the Pictish peoples local to Caledonia. The Scotti eventually settled most of Western Scotland, confining the Picts to the east where they were later to experience further pressure, this time from Viking invaders.

Once England turned its attention to Ireland things became even more messy. The Tudors were unable to succeed in taming the Catholic Irish to their satisfaction, and although Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland, it was really in name only. His daughter Elizabeth largely left Ireland alone and focused on Spain instead, although there were several battles between English and Irish lords during her reign which cost a great deal of money and did very little to advance English control.

Scotland and England historically did not get along, but when James I – originally James VI of Scotland – came to the throne of England (and Ireland) in 1603, he was determined to kill two birds with one stone: unite his three countries and deal with the Ireland problem all in one go. He tried at first to handle the complex situation in Ireland by dealing with the country as a separate kingdom under his rule and not as a colony, but the failure of this plan made plantation the only feasible solution as far as James could see. (Plantation in this instance refers to deliberate settling/colonization authorized and planned by the Crown)

To divide the ‘sides’ of this situation into ‘Catholic Irish’ and ‘Protestant Scots’ is to oversimplify the issue and miss some important points about the Plantation and emigration of the Scots. There were many Catholic Scots as well as Presbyterians, and they were not welcomed in England during this period, or by the government in Ireland. However, some Catholic Scottish landlords in Northern Ireland were eager to invite their compatriots to their territories. Some Protestant Scots even converted to Catholicism once in Ireland.

The main bulk of the Plantation that began in 1609, though, did consist of Presbyterian Scots and Protestant English and Welsh. Other groups involved in the mass emigration included French Huguenots and German Protestants, as well as Catholics from southwest Scotland. The taming – and eventual Protestantization – of Ireland was now once again a major concern for the Crown, although James was not interested in forcing Protestantism on Ireland so much as making sure the ‘rebellious Catholic’ Irish population was diluted enough to make it less of a threat.

The area of Ulster (including the counties of Donegal, now in the ROI, and Coleraine, which is now Derry/Londonderry) was the focus of the Plantation. James seized the domains of local earls to replace them with English nobility after a number of them had fled the country to try to find support with Spain and Rome.

War and the resultant shortages of food and housing had left Ulster seemingly barren and inhospitable, but lowland Scottish farmers, used to working miracles with difficult terrain, introduced new farming methods to the area and were often successful in bringing in good harvests. Churches and houses were built or rebuilt, and both industrial and economic gains were made during the mid-17th Century. The settling Scots engaged in social and commercial communication with their Irish Catholic neighbours.

Despite this, relations between the Irish and the Scots were often contentious. Religious and political clashes were perhaps inevitable. To make things even more difficult, the planted English landlords did not get along with the Scottish settlers either.

However, the biggest problems began with the rise of Oliver Cromwell to power in England. A Puritanical, authoritarian government intent on micromanaging its subjects never goes down well with fiercely independent characters of any religious persuasion. The evident weakness of Charles I and the subsequent shift toward Parliamentarian control during the Civil War pushed the already precarious position of the Scots in Ireland over the edge. Local Irish Catholics, economically disadvantaged by hefty tithes from English and Scottish landlord-clergymen, deeply resentful of centuries of English interference, and anxious for a future they could see being dominated by heavy-handed Puritans, struck at the people they saw as both scapegoats and the means of English control – the Presbyterian Scots occupying Ulster.  The Rising of 1641 was to all intents and purposes a massacre in which an estimated 12,000 Ulster Protestants were killed.

Given the danger of this turn of events, it’s unsurprising that the Ulster Scots started to look elsewhere for aid. In 1642 help arrived from Scotland in the form of Monroe’s Army, who provided defence against further local uprisings. The Rising morphed into the Eleven Years’ War which went on until 1652 when the rebellion, weakened by Cromwell’s New Model Army in three significant ways – destruction, killing, and disease – finally buckled, and all remaining Catholic-owned land was confiscated by the government and given to loyal Parliamentarians. Many Scots who had begun on the side of the Parliamentarians switched loyalties halfway through the Eleven Years’ War and became Royalist, thus setting the stage for Jacobite drama well into the 1700s.

Over the next 50 years, Scottish people travelled back and forth between Ulster and Scotland as circumstances shifted. Sometimes the political, religious, and economic pressures in Ireland were worse, and sometimes those in Scotland.

In the early 1700s, however, Parliament imposed strong restrictions on trade, which caused severe problems in both Irish and Scottish commerce. This in turn led to more conflict between the Irish and the Scots settlers over rapidly dwindling resources, made especially urgent by a harsh winter in 1717.

The Ulster Scots had, largely, had enough by this point. New England was being touted as a paradise of opportunity, cheap land, and religious tolerance – things very much lacking in Ulster at this point – and in 1718 a petition was signed by over 300 Ulster Scots families to ask the governor of Massachusetts for land. Rev. William Boyd undertook the long journey from Ulster to Boston to give the petition to Gov. Samuel Shute, who was amenable to the idea. Between 1718 and 1755, what is known as the Great Migration took place, with hundreds of thousands of Scots travelling across the Atlantic to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Nothing is ever quite as good as it seems, though. The grass is always greener on the other side, as many who arrived in the early days were soon to discover. Resentment and fear of immigrant Scots led the people of Worcester to burn them out of their new settlement, and many other instances of pressure and outright violence forced large numbers of Ulster Scots to move further afield.

Once they were allowed to settle properly, however, their enclaves thrived, bringing prosperity to the areas they inhabited and forever changing the face of New England’s historical demographic.

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