William Roulston – Scots-Irish Emigration

Scots-Irish Emigration

The seventeenth century witnessed large-scale migration from Scotland to Ulster, some of it as part of the ‘official’ Plantation of Ulster which began in 1610, though many people came independently to seek a new life in the province. The most significant migration of all actually took place in the 1690s against a backdrop of severe famine conditions in Scotland. It is reckoned that as many as 50,000 Scots settled in Ulster in this decade alone. Many of the descendants of these settlers would move on to another part of the world.

This synopsis focuses primarily on eighteenth-century migration, though at the same time it is important to remember that the emigration of the Scots-Irish/Ulster-Scots from the north of Ireland took place over a much broader time-span. In fact the earliest attempt to create an Ulster settlement across the Atlantic took place in 1636 when several Presbyterian ministers and around of their 140 followers set sail in the Eagle Wing for America; they never reached their destination as storms drove the ship back.

Though there had been emigration to America in the latter part of the seventeenth century and the early years of the eighteenth, 1718 is generally regarded as the year in which emigration from Ulster to America began in earnest. The factors encouraging emigration in this period were numerous and complex with debate focussing on the economic motivation of the migrants set against the issue of religious freedom. Both were clearly at play.

Some were concerned that emigration was draining Ulster of its Protestants and would harm the nascent linen industry. In the event the concerns raised were not realised. The numbers of people emigrating was not constant, with variations depending on economic conditions in Ireland as well as other external factors. The outbreak of the American war of independence in the 1770s all but halted emigration, but once peace had been signed in 1783 it resumed once again.

In focusing on America, one should not lose sight of the fact that there were attempts to settle Ulstermen in Canada in the eighteenth century. For example, in 1761 an Ulster colony was established on Nova Scotia and a settlement founded which was given the name Londonderry.

In the nineteenth century the flow of emigrants from Ulster to North America increased significantly, while new countries opened up for settlement by families from the province – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other parts of the British Empire. The short move across the Irish Sea to Britain was another very important part of the overall migration story.