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The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee
An Irishwoman's Diary
By Caroline McEldowney
According to the Tennessee census bureau, one in
five Tennesseans can trace their roots directly to the Scots-Irish settlers of the 18th
century. Most of these settlers are of Ulster Protestant/Presbyterian stock who were
forced under British rule to flee their country. So claims Billy Kennedy, who has
researched the topic and written about it in his book, The Scots-Irish in the Hills of
The Scots-Irish originated in Lowland Scotland and moved to
Ulster throughout the 17th century. At the start things were good, as Ulster was under the
rule of King William III who granted them civil and religious liberties.
The Scots, who were originally involved in farming, began to
establish industries with the French Huguenots, allies of King William. The two groups
came together and established churches and schools for their people.
William's reign ended in 1702 when he was succeeded by his
sister-in-law, Anne. She passed a series of acts which were unfavourable to the Scots,
placed severe restrictions on their Presbyterian faith and forced many of them out of
Along with this, Ulster was experiencing an economic crisis;
the textile industry was in a recession, small peasant farmers could not cope with the
droughts of those years and landlords were charging exorbitant rents. Faced with this and
the embitterment of the discriminatory religious policies, many of the Scots settlers
found they had no choice but to leave Ulster and start a new life in America.
The first ship to leave Ulster was The Friends' Goodwill
which set sail from Larne, Co Antrim, for Boston in April 1717.
Emigration continued throughout the century and became so
widespread that the British Government was eventually forced to sit up and take notice. A
commission was appointed to investigate the cause of emigration, and some of the religious
laws were relaxed.
On reaching North America, the Scots-Irish headed for
Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Virginia. They were warmly received and noted for their
honesty, independence of spirit and ability to work hard. They tended to stick together
and, because they had little money, were driven to the frontier regions, the hills and
inland areas where land was cheap.
In June 1796, when Tennessee became a state, the Ulster
settlers moved to its hills and set up home. Once established, they began to set up
churches and schools and became pioneers of education in the region. Presbyterianism
became the first Christian denomination to be established in the state and today accounts
for 132,344 members.
Along with religion, the settlers brought with them their
traditions of storytelling, singing, dancing and making "moonshine", illicit
whiskey. To this day, a lot of the country and Western music can be traced back to the
Ulster settlers. Dolly Parton is said to be a descendant of the Scots-Irish.
The traditional square dance, clogging to fiddle-backed
music, also comes from the settlers. In those days, the fiddler was one of the most
respected people in the area.
The practice of distilling illegal whiskey had its origins in
16th-century Scotland, but was brought to Ulster when the Scots moved. Both whiskey and
brandy were made from ingredients such as barley, raisins, rye and corn which grew in
abundance around the hills of Tennessee. The moonshine, dubbed "white
lightning", was very potent and readily available in the area.
After the Revolutionary War, whiskey was taxed and the
mountain settlers threatened to take up arms against the government of George Washington.
This incident became known as the "Whiskey Revolution" and was eventually
When the alcoholic prohibition was imposed in the 1920s, the
distilling of moonshine became widespread throughout the US, although it eventually died
out in most states. However, moonshine-making persists in the Appalachia region of
Tennessee, a tradition carried on by the distant relatives of the 17th-century settlers.
Although most Scots-Irish made a career of farming, several
became involved in politics and went on to great things, including the establishment of
Of the 56 signatures on the Declaration of Independence, July
4th, 1776, eight were of Scots-Irish descent. Eleven US Presidents, including Jackson,
Wilson and Nixon, can trace direct ancestry back to the Ulster settlers. Also, Sam
Houston, the man responsible for wresting Texas from Mexican control, was the grandson of
an Ulster Presbyterian, as was the frontiersman and later Congressman, Davy Crockett.
So it is with great pride that Tennesseans trace their blood
back to Ireland, and remember their ancestors who left the hillsides of Antrim and Down to
create a civilisation in a wilderness and help to lay the foundations of what today is
possibly the greatest nation on the earth.
The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee by Billy Kennedy.
Causeway Press, costs £8.99 paperback, £14.99 hardback. See our Scottish Books section
to order the book!
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