Michael C. Scoggins, York County Historical Center

As far back as the fourth century AD, the Romans used the word “Scots” (Latin Scotti) to designate the inhabitants of Ireland. In the early sixth century, Scots from the province of Ulster in northern Ireland began settling in northern Britain, and this area of Britain eventually came to be known as “Scotland” (Hanna 2:199). The adjective “Scotch” has been used since the Middle Ages to refer to the inhabitants of Scotland and their language; according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary “Scotch” is a native contraction of the word “Scottish,” and has the same meaning as that word (Webster 1278). The use of the name “Scotch-Irish” is documented as far back as 1573, when Queen Elizabeth I employed it to describe Highland Scots who were migrating back to Ulster (Leyburn 329). In the seventeenth century, King James I of Great Britain began settling Protestants from Lowland Scotland and northern England in the Ulster province of northern Ireland, and the term “Scotch-Irish” began to be used to describe these settlers. The term is chiefly a geographical description and refers to Scots who settled in northern Ireland, since for the most part the Protestant Scottish settlers in Ulster did not mix with the native Catholic Irish (Hanna 2:160-161). The respected English historian G. M. Trevelyan of Cambridge, in his 1926 History of England, referred to this settlement as the “English and Scotch colony in Ulster” (Trevelyan 2:320). In 1675, the Latin term Scoto-Hybernicus, meaning literally “Scotch-Irish,” was used by the University of Glasgow in Scotland to describe Presbyterian divinity students from Ireland, including Francis Makemie, who went on to become the father of the Presbyterian church in America (Leyburn 329).

However, the term “Scotch-Irish” did not become widely popular in Great Britain or Ireland, where names like “Ulster Scots” and “Scoto-Irish” were more frequently used by scholars (Woodburn 7, Hamilton 3). The name would probably have been a historical footnote had it not been adopted by the Ulster Scots who migrated from northern Ireland to North America in the eighteenth century. The English colonists in America generally referred to these Ulster Scots simply as “Irish,” so the newcomers adopted the term “Scotch-Irish” to distinguish themselves from the native Irish (Leyburn 327-328). In 1695, Sir Thomas Laurence, Secretary of Maryland, referred to “the two counties of Dorchester and Somerset, where the Scotch-Irish are numerous.” (329-330). In 1723, two different Anglican ministers in Delaware stated that the settlers from northern Ireland referred to themselves as “Scotch-Irish,” and in 1730 James Logan, secretary to the Penn family, stated that the term was also used by settlers in Pennsylvania (330). In 1737, the editor of the Virginia Gazette referred to several ships “from the North of Ireland, and from Holland [that] have brought a great Number of Irish, Scotch-Irish, and Palatines, Passengers” (Montgomery 3). Here we clearly see the native Irish being differentiated from the Scotch-Irish. The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1756 mentioned “some Scotch-Irish kill’d” by Indians on the Pennsylvania frontier (Montgomery 3). Further south, Governor Arthur Dobbs of North Carolina, an immigrant from Ulster himself, wrote of seventy-five families “from Pennsylvania of what we call Scotch-Irish Presbyterians” who settled in his colony in 1755 (Leyburn 215). In the late 1760’s, the Anglican minister Charles Woodmason preached among “Scotch Irish Presbyterians from the North of Ireland” who were living in the South Carolina backcountry (Hooker 14). And in 1772, a newspaper advertisement in the Virginia Gazette reported a runaway African slave named Jack who “speaks in the Scotch-Irish dialect” (Bridenbaugh 169).

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American historians and geographers almost universally employed the term “Scotch-Irish” to refer to the Ulster Scots who colonized America (see Bibliography). The 1956 edition of the venerable Encyclopedia Americana used the term no less than eleven times in seven different articles when referring to the early settlers of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. The term “Scotch-Irish” has also been used by modern Irish historians. William F. Marshall, a native of Ulster, used “Scotch-Irish” throughout his 1943 book Ulster Sails West, alongside such terms as “Ulster-Irish” and “Ulstermen” (25, 29, 31, 34, 82), and R. J. Dickson of County Tyrone, Northern Ireland employed it in his ground-breaking 1966 work Ulster Emigration to Colonial America 1718-1775 (3).

In the late twentieth century, a movement was launched to abolish the use of the historical term “Scotch-Irish” and replace it with “Scots-Irish,” a word that has been touted as more accurate and respectable. One of the champions of this movement, Billy Kennedy of Northern Ireland, states in his 1995 book The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee:

Scots-Irish is the modern term used to describe the people who settled in the American frontier in the 100 years from about 1717…. Some in the United States today refer to the “Scotch-Irish”, but this term now causes offence to many of the Scots-Irish tradition in Britain and America where “Scotch” is looked upon as an alcoholic spirit. In Northern Ireland the designation Ulster-Scot is very widely used by the Presbyterian descendants of the early frontier settlers. Nevertheless, for all the sensitivities it still touches upon, the term “Scotch-Irish” has an historical reality and utility . . . . The form “Scotch-Irish” would have been used in the vernacular, as “Scotch” was the proper idiom until the 20th century for both language and people [italics mine – MCS]. (27)

Such sensitivities to the term “Scotch” are both arbitrary and artificial, and have no place in the historical tradition. Taking offense to the term “Scotch” because it happens to be a type of whiskey makes no more sense than taking offense to the terms “Irish” or “Canadian,” which also happen to be types of whiskey. Scotch whiskey was named after the people who invented it, not the other way around. There is no escaping the conclusion that “Scotch-Irish” is a historically accurate and viable name for the early American settlers from Northern Ireland and their modern descendants.


Bolivar Christian, The Scotch-Irish in the Valley of Virginia (Richmond, 1860).

J. G. Craighead, Scotch and Irish Seeds in American Soil (Philadelphia, 1878).

Samuel Swett Green, The Scotch-Irish in America (Worcester, 1895).

James Shaw, The Scotch-Irish in History (Springfield, MS, 1899).

Charles A. Hanna, The Scotch-Irish, or the Scot in North Britain, North Ireland and North America (New York and London, 1902; 2 vols.).

John C. Linahan, The Irish Scots and the “Scotch-Irish” (Concord, NH, 1902).

John Walker Dinsmore, The Scotch-Irish in America (Chicago, 1906).

Charles Knowles Bolton, Scotch-Irish Pioneers in Ulster and America (Boston, 1910).

Lyman Chalkley, Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia (Rosslyn, VA: 1912, 3 vols.).

Henry Jones Ford, The Scotch-Irish in America (Princeton, 1915).

Robert Garland, The Scotch-Irish in Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburg, 1923).

Maude Glasgow, The Scotch-Irish in Northern Ireland and in the American Colonies (New York, 1936).

Wayland F. Dunaway, The Scotch-Irish of Colonial Pennsylvania (Chapel Hill, 1944).

Guy S. Klett, The Scotch-Irish in Pennsylvania (Gettysburg, 1948).

James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill, 1962).


Bridenbaugh, Carl. Myths and Realities: Societies of the Colonial South. Baton Rouge:

Louisiana State University Press, 1952.

Dickson, R. J. Ulster Emigration to Colonial America 1718-1775. Belfast: Ulster

Historical Foundation, 1966.

Encyclopedia Americana. New York: The Americana Press, 1956.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York:

Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hamilton, Thomas. History of Presbyterianism in Ireland. Belfast: Ambassador

Productions, 1992.

Hanna, Charles A. The Scotch-Irish, or the Scot in North Britain, North Ireland and

North America. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902.

Hooker, Richard J., ed. The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

Kennedy, Billy. The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee. Londonderry: Causeway

Press, 1995.

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

Marshall, William F. Ulster Sails West. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company,


Montgomery, Michael. “Eighteenth-Century Nomenclature for Ulster Emigrants.” The Journal of Scotch-Irish Studies. 1.2 (Summer 2001): 1-6.

Trevelyan, G. M. History of England. 5th ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Second College Edition. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1970.

Woodburn, James Barkley. The Ulster Scot: His History and Religion. London: H. R. Allenson, 1914.