Courtney McKinney-Whitaker • Derry Member

Last week, we discussed how Presbyterians from southern Scotland migrated to Ulster, Ireland’s northernmost province, and became known as the Ulster Scots. To summarize, in the early 1600s, England determined to strengthen its grip on Ulster through a policy of plantation (or settler-colonialism). English landlords found tenants for their holdings among the Presbyterians of southern Scotland, for whom repeated crop failures and religious persecution made Scotland a difficult place to live. Some Scottish Presbyterians settled in Ulster on the chance life might be easier there, but some were forced to emigrate. 

Now we’ll look at how many Ulster Scots found themselves emigrating a second time in relatively short order, not simply across the narrow channel that divides Ulster from southern Scotland, but across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Siege of Londonderry
Toward the end of the 17th century, Ireland became a minor theater in a larger struggle known variously as the War of the League of Augsberg, the War of the Grand Alliance, the Nine Years’ War, King William’s War, and the War of the Three Kings (1688-1697). To summarize, the French Catholic monarch Louis XIV sought to extend his power and smaller (largely Protestant) nations banded together to stop him. 

Louis XIV was the first, and certainly the most powerful, of the three kings referenced. The two others were the Catholic James II of England (also James VII of Scotland) and Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange. William was both James’s nephew and son-in-law, as he was married to his first cousin, James’s daughter Mary. 

Despite persecution from Protestant reformers, the Catholic presence in England had never disappeared. After Oliver Cromwell’s death, his Commonwealth government collapsed and the Stuart dynasty was restored to the English throne in the person of Charles II, son of the executed monarch Charles I. While Charles II produced many children with his mistresses, his marriage was childless, so his openly Catholic younger brother James inherited the throne upon his death in 1685. 

When James’s Catholic second wife gave birth to a son in June 1688, panic arose among Protestants across both islands at the thought of a Catholic dynasty. When William of Orange invaded England in November 1688, the English army and navy supported him and James escaped to France.

In England, Parliament declared that James had abdicated through desertion and offered William and Mary the crown as co-regents ruling as William III and Mary II. James attempted to reclaim his throne by bringing a French army to Ireland. In Ireland, the larger-scale European conflict between Protestant and Catholic powers played out between Jacobite (Latin for James) forces who favored the Catholic James II and VII’s claim to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland and Williamite forces who favored William of Orange.

As Protestants, the Ulster Scots were firmly in the Williamite camp. The Siege of Londonderry is probably the most lauded moment in Ulster Scots history. In 1689, they made their most famous stand as they held the walled city of Londonderry against Jacobite forces for 105 days at great personal cost, contributing mightily to William’s ultimate victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. 

In the ensuing years, many more Presbyterians left Scotland to join the Ulster Scots Presbyterians in Ireland. Alas, any belief that their contributions to the Williamite victory would lead to political and religious equality with Anglicans was short-lived. By 1704, the more religiously tolerant (and perhaps grateful) William III was dead, along with his wife and co-regent Mary II. In that year, the Test Acts went into effect, requiring all public office holders to produce a certificate stating they had received communion in an Anglican church, effectively barring Presbyterians from government. 

Emigration to North America
In the 18th century, many elements combined to make emigration to North America attractive to the Ulster Scots. The Crown and the Anglican Church regarded their marriages as invalid, excluded them from public life, and required them to pay additional taxes. They were accustomed to religious intolerance, and that alone might not have induced them to leave Ulster. But crop failures, rising rents, and a string of economic crises made the prospect of a new land more appealing. 

Kevin Kenny writes, “Presbyterians began to leave Ulster for America in large numbers at the turn of the eighteenth century. They left in pursuit of land and religious toleration, the two goals that had brought their Scottish forefathers to Ulster over the previous three generations” (27). In the early decades of the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania was the most religiously tolerant of Great Britain’s North American colonies, an appealing prospect for dissenters from the Church of England, including Presbyterians. (In 1707, the Treaty of Union established the Kingdom of Great Britain as a sovereign nation by uniting the Kingdom of England, which included Wales from 1542, and the Kingdom of Scotland.)

In 1718, large-scale Ulster Scots migration to North America began with the departure from Derry Quay of five ships carrying several congregations of Presbyterians led by their ministers. Landing in Boston, they found the long-established Puritan inhabitants hostile. As early as 1700, noted Puritan minister Cotton Mather had declared attempts at Ulster Scots settlement in New England to be “formidable attempts of Satan and his Sons to Unsettle us”(28). By 1724, the traditional date of Derry Church’s founding, new Ulster Scots immigrants to North America had learned to look for homes further south, a process facilitated by close ties between Belfast merchants and Delaware ports.

For the third time in history, the people who had been the Lowland Scots and who had become the Ulster Scots, would take on a new frontier and a new name. “On both sides of the Atlantic, Ulster Presbyterians served as a military and cultural buffer between zones of perceived civility and barbarity, separating Anglicans from Catholics in Ireland and eastern elites from Indians in the American colonies. What they wanted above all else was personal security and land to call their own” (3). In North America, the Ulster Scots became known as the Scots-Irish, and would again serve as a human shield between elite colonizers and indigenous people, at the mercy of, and ultimately reviled by, both.

This was the world into which Derry Church came into being, a world whose true nature has been cloaked over time in the myth of brave and hearty frontiersmen and women. No doubt some of them were brave and hearty, and certainly most of them clung to their own interpretation of the Presbyterian faith as a comfort and a guide in a world in which their lives were likely to be short and difficult and to end messily. Conditions on the North American frontier were brutal, and the choices these largely impoverished and repeatedly oppressed people faced were often no choice at all. Sometimes their migration was forced. Often they were lied to about the opportunities awaiting them on the opposite side of a perilous sea voyage.

The Ulster Scots who made their way to North America were victims of the generational trauma of living a hardscrabble existence on frontiers, between warring forces, their homes never secure, their lives perpetually at risk. By the time they came to the place they called Derry Church, they were ready to fight for their own security, whether that meant fighting the people who were already here or the elites who forced them onto the frontier.

Perhaps for our 300th Anniversary, we can give our forebears the gift of seeing them truly, with the mix of pride, shame, and compassion which is the legacy of most of the people who have walked this earth.

Further Reading: The best secondary source on this topic is Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment, from which the above quotations are taken.