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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 Tennessee.

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 their jobs.

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 settled.

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 great cities.

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!