The Scotch-Irish : a social history /
by James G. Leyburn.
Chapel Hill, N.C. : University of North Carolina Press, c1962.
xix, 377 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.
More Details
Chapel Hill, N.C. : University of North Carolina Press, c1962.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [354]-372) and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
The late James G. Leyburn was professor of sociology at Washington and Lee University
First Chapter

Chapter One

Poverty and Insecurity

Scotland is, by American standards, a small country. With its 30,405 square miles, it is approximately the size of Maine or of South Carolina. At least three-fifths of its territory comprises the Highlands of the north and west and the islands off the west coast; in these regions the soil is so scanty and the climate so difficult that farming is often impossible. In 1600 only about half a million people lived in the whole country, and only the capital, Edinburgh, had as many as ten thousand. All towns, and a majority of the population, were in the Lowlands, the territory south of the narrow waist of Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the coastal strip north of Edinburgh. In the interior parts of the Lowlands are high hills and moors known as the Southern Uplands; but although some of its prominences rise more than twenty-five hundred feet, the south has no such proliferation of isolated valleys and inaccessible places as abound in the Highlands. Every royal burgh in old Scotland, like practically every modern city, was within ten miles of the sea.

    In 1600 Scotland had never known orderly government or a rule by law instead of by men, nor had the country ever, for many years at a time, known peace. Life everywhere was insecure, not only because of recurrent wars with the English, but even more because of abominable economic methods, a niggardly soil, and constant cattle raiding and feuds. No policemen kept order. Although there was a large measure of local justice, Scots had not yet learned general respect for property rights, nor had they been converted to admiration for principles of law and impersonal justice. Royal burghs and farm "touns" were mere villages with filthy mudholes for streets and foul shanties for the average inhabitant to live in.

    Scotland was a poor country. Scots themselves had a wry saying that when the Devil showed all the countries of the world to our Lord, he kept his "mickle thoomb" upon Scotland. A later poet concluded that

Had Cain been Scot, God had ne'er changed his doom,

Not made him wander, but confined him home.

The best of its farming land was in the eastern Lowlands, between the English border and Edinburgh; but this was the very region most open to constant English invasion and depredation. The southwestern Lowlands had a thin soft. Stony moors covered with heath and whin, long stretches of bog and moss in the lower districts, gravelly soft along the coast, and numerous burns and lochs, more plentiful then than now, made farming difficult under any circumstances, and especially for a people who had no knowledge of drainage and who used only the most primitive methods and implements.

    The Lowland countryside in 1600 hardly resembled what it is now, for it was practically treeless. The region had once been covered with woods, but the continued waste of timber had made trees almost disappear everywhere except around the houses of a few lairds. A traveler might walk many miles (and he must either walk or pick his way on horseback over unkempt paths, since there were no roads nor any public conveyances) without even seeing a bush. To such an extent had the land been denuded in the south that Parliament passed several laws to encourage the planting of trees and to prevent mischievous persons from injuring young trees. Despite such laws, little timber was grown, and consequently there was no wood for building and little for furniture; certainly there was none for shipbuilding, an enterprise Parliament would have liked to encourage.

    Destruction of forests had led to the extermination of such wild animals as formerly inhabited the woods. The wild boar, once common, was scarcely seen after 1500, nor were wolves, formerly numerous and dangerous. For fuel the Lowlanders burned turf, stone peat, and coal.

    All over the Lowlands were marshes and small lochs which no longer exist. Arable areas were still further limited by the ignorance of the people about drainage. A serious drawback to decent farming was that there were no fences, hedges, or stone walls to separate farms, fields, or strips ("rigs," as the Scots called them). All fields lay open, and even the employment of shepherds could not keep animals from straying. When a farmer's cattle trampled the crops of another, and the second farmer retaliated, another element was added to the insecurity of life and another cause existed for ill-feeling between neighbors.

    Scotland was noted in the eyes of foreigners as a barren land. Shakespeare compares it for nakedness to the palm of the hand. The soil in the southwest was miserable. Sir William Brereton, an Englishman who traveled from Glasgow to the southern part of Ayrshire at the very moment many of the Scots were going across to Ireland, said: "We passed through a barren and poor country, the most of it yielding neither corn [grain] nor grass; and that which yields corn is very poor, much punished with drought." Only the higher portions of land were chosen for tillage. The valleys and banks of rivers were too marshy and too much exposed to sudden inundation for farming by a people who had neither the knowledge nor the industry to build dams, sluice off excess water, or prevent floods.

    One of the chief reasons, and possibly the primary cause, for the continued backwardness of farming methods was the insecurity of life and property; and this in turn was a corollary of the addiction of the Scots to fighting and violence. Cause and effect are here intermingled. It is the lawlessness and violence of life in Scotland the period from 1400 to 1600 that made the deepest impression on visitors from more stable countries and that justify one in speaking of the life of Lowland Scotland as barbarous.

    Noblemen set the example, even by their determination to defend the rights of their underlings. They took the law, what there was of it, into their own hands. They constantly feuded with one another, and the lairds followed the lead of their overlords by feuding with other lairds. When local quarrels were quiescent, there was the constant threat of war with England, or the frequent actuality of English raids across the Scottish border, where the dividing line of the Cheviot Hills and the Tweed River interposed no true barrier. Scottish farmers formed the armies. It was a rare farmer who was not a returned soldier, and an even rarer one who had not participated in a foray with arms; thus violence was confirmed as a way of life. "In a country where feudalism still prevailed and where there was little general organization of justice, driving off cattle and sheep was almost one of the recognized sports of the time. You appealed to your feudal overlord to help you regain your stock; in that foray to regain what had been lost your lord and his fellow retainers were not unlikely to bring back more if possible than what had been driven away."

    In those unspacious times, when even few barons could read and write, and before the church established by the Reformation had begun to promote education, when cities were few and roads were mere paths, people had little to occupy either the mind or the imagination. It is understandable that customs should have resembled more those of the time of Beowulf or of the tribes of central Europe during the Dark Ages than those of the present. When people are isolated, farming is monotonous and life is drab, with no visitors, no news, and little diversion. Fighting and raiding were not only traditional: they were an exciting relief from tedium.

    The root of the trouble was political, for no king since the time of Robert the Bruce (d. 1329) had been able to keep the English out, or to rule over the whole country and so provide national law and order. Seven monarchs ruled between 1406 and 1625, and, of the seven, five had been infants or mere children upon their accession. Long regencies gave noblemen an opportunity for cabal, bickering, maneuver, and most of all for assertion of their independence from royal control. Scotland had no standing army, no regular taxation, no police force, and very few civil servants. Under such conditions every baron was a law unto himself.

    Feudalism everywhere implied the right of noblemen to carry on their private quarrels. In this it corresponded with the clan tradition of much earlier times in Scotland. Since barons lived in strong castles, the king was rarely powerful enough to subdue them to his rule, even if he could have persuaded other barons to fight on his side to establish a principle that would curb their own independence. Nor were the kings always wise and good and constructive in their policies. Noblemen regarded the king as merely another power, sometimes useful as an ally in their ambitious enterprises, but always to be made to realize that he was no better a man than they. Few felt any personal loyalty to him or any dedication to the principle of unified central authority. The national government, if it can be called such, was rule by faction.

    What can be said for the lords is that most of them felt deeply responsible for the life and goods of every dweller on their domains. An unavenged injury to any person or thing, however indirectly connected with the lord, was at once a personal insult and a derogation from his authority. If he could not defend those who looked to him for protection, the very reason for his existence was at an end. It must be said, too, that a lord's protection was really valuable to his people in the unpoliced land; without it the tenant would have been helpless. But one man's security was another man's insecurity; one raid led to another in endless succession. Parliament took constant note of the rapine, spoil, and lawlessness, yet the very barons who composed the Parliament refused to apply the Acts to themselves and submit to restriction.

    The other side of the picture is that the lords were often as unprincipled as they were rank individualists. A modern historian calls them "as brutal tyrants as ever lived." Thomas Carlyle, himself a Scot, made the "swingeing generalization" about them that they were "a selfish, ferocious, unprincipled set of hyenas." The author of the anonymous Complaynt of Scotlande in the sixteenth century made Dame Scotia bitterly reproach her noblemen, saying: "Thou are the special cause of my reuyne, for thou and thy sect that professes you to be nobilis ande gentill men, there is nocht ane sperk of nobilnes nor gentrice among the maist part of you."

    Feuds were not only traditionally customary but in contemporary minds were justifiable. Sicily's vendettas had their counterpart all over Scotland. In the southwest, especially, these blood feuds were violent and unending. Montgomery and Cunningham were the Montague and Capulet of Ayrshire, if the Kennedys and their opponents could not contest the designation. Since the Crown was not strong enough to put down the rivals, it stood aside and let them fight it out. One historian names a list of families who "lived in a great measure by robbing and oppressing their neighbors. Occasionally, too, they would make predatory forays into England, and thereby endanger the peace existing between the two realms." The Records of the Privy Council are full of instances of assaults made by men of rank and property with deadly weapons. Despite Acts of Parliament prohibiting going about armed defensively or offensively, men still "set about their vengeful proceedings in steel bonnets, gauntlets, and plait sleeves, and with swords and pistolets." The traveler John Major attributes much of the violence to pride, for "among the Scots 'tis held to be a base man's part to die in his bed, but death in battle they think a noble thing."

    Emissaries from the king who tried to enforce the law were often handled summarily. Letters and summons were taken from officers and torn to tatters, and once an officer was made to eat and swallow the summons he bore. "Evildoers boasted, menaced, disobeyed, struck, and pursued the officers, and sometimes killed them outright." The officers themselves were peccant, sometimes taking bribes from the rich and powerful.

    The most constant crime, more likely than the feuds of noblemen and lairds to keep the farmers in a turmoil, was cattle stealing. Theft of stock often led to assault, and assault to a general fight to the death. This private avenging of wrong, combined with the feuds, makes it seem that Scotland was in a constant state of undeclared civil war. Tenants of those lords who got the worst of any of the frequent broils suffered severely, and the lot of men living upon the land of a freeholder who was not strong enough to defend them must have been a hard one.

    Added to all this, there were the constant wars between England and Scotland, generally fought on Lowland territory, and usually accompanied by the burning of crops and other property. Englishmen of Cumberland and Northumberland, the counties adjacent to the Lowlands, were not above making their own raids across the border. Between 1377 and 1550 "there was either tacit or open war between Scotland and England during fifty-two years;" moreover, when there was not actual fighting, the truces were precarious. Life on the Border was notoriously unsafe. At least until the Reformation, travel was dangerous anywhere in Scotland unless one went accompanied by armed men. "War continued to be the universal trade; and all who had not devoted themselves to the duties of religion considered it as the principal business of their lives; all other duties were secondary and incidental. Every chieftain's vassals held themselves in readiness, at the most unexpected summons, to rise in arms."

    When Scottish poets appear in the sixteenth century, in what for a moment promised to be the beginning of a Renaissance, they reveal the violence of the times and the hard lot of the man "whose hands cannot keep his head." The curious point must be made, however, that the humble farmer, who suffered most, did not attribute his calamities to the noblemen and lairds. He seems to have regarded violent lawlessness as simply the way of the world. It is a notable fact that in Scotland, probably alone among all the countries of Europe, there was never anything approaching a general uprising against the lords. On the contrary, the sense of personal and reciprocal loyalty between barons and underlings, lairds and tenants, usually made the farmers devoted retainers. Feudal ties, like assaults on the peace, seemed to accord very well with the pugnacity and clannishness of the Scot's traditional ways. A farmer knew his woes, but he did not blame them on his superiors; and the migrations to Ireland were not protests against the overlords.

    True, the farmers had their complaints, the chief one being the large fees they had to pay on the renewal of their leases. Laws were enacted in 1546 and 1555 to assure orderly legal eviction, requiring the landlord to give fifty days' notice; yet evictions remained fairly common. Two acts of Parliament specifically enjoined that the plow-beasts of tenants were never to be destrained for debt, and the grievance of inconsiderate taking of teinds (tithes) was also legislated about.

    Occasionally, too, a tenant had to endure the injustices of an unprincipled laird. There is, for example, an account of a turbulent laird, Gordon of Avochy, who, attended by a motley crew, including the miller and cobbler, kept the surrounding country-folk in terror for over twenty years. His gang murdered and stole, and forced tenants to perform unpaid services for the laird. The height of his insolence consisted of tearing the wooden fittings out of their houses and forcing them to carry these themselves to his mansion-house. But such cases were clearly exceptional.

    The Borders between Scotland and England, which had always vied with the Highlands and the Western Islands in disorderliness, finally began to be brought under control during the very years of the first settlement of Scots in northern Ireland. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, at the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the two kingdoms had a common ruler. During the same week that the monarch was on his way to be crowed in London, a group of Armstrongs with their retainers made a raid into the English county of Cumberland, killing the inhabitants and then carrying off whatever booty they could. James sent against them armed force with instructions to wipe out the Armstrongs. So many were put to death that other Borderers accepted the fact that James intended Border raids to cease.

    Since it was always possible for a Lowlander who had committed a crime to flee to England, where he was beyond the reach of Scottish law, James decided upon a plan to eliminate this source of disturbance. He appointed a commission consisting of five Englishmen and five Scots to try criminals on the Borders. If a Scot fled to England, the English commissioners sent him back to Scotland to be tried; if an Englisman fled to Scotland, he was returned to be tried by English judges. To make sure that no criminal would escape, a troop of twenty-five mounted police was stationed upon the Borders, and were commanded to slay anyone who resisted arrest. It was further ordered that no Border except a nobleman or gentleman should carry any weapon. Finally, James sent many of the "broken men" (those who had defied the law) abroad to serve as soldiers in the German wars.

    The Borders had become so tamed and disciplined by 1610 that the Chancellor could assure the King that they had been purged "of all the chiefest malefactors, robbers and brigands," as completely as Hercules had cleansed the Augean stables, and that they were now "as lawful, as peaceable and quiet as any part of any civil kingdom in Christendom." This was an exaggeration; but the Borders were at least now safe enough for trade to begin for the first time in four centuries between the neighboring countries.

    James took other steps to promote institutional justice. In every Scottish county a Court was set up, to meet twice a year. To it anyone might repair. Having observed the benefit of justices of the peace in England, he ordered that in every Scottish county there should be justices to try all crimes that did not deserve death.

    But if the English border now became quieter, there was still the age-long danger from the wild Highlanders. These barbarians, living in a truly desolate and niggardly region, derived a considerable part of their livelihood by their depredations on Lowland farms and towns. There was constant stealing, "reiving," lifting cows from the more civilized people to the south; and the Highlander prided himself on his prowess at these sports. Dr. Johnson in the eighteenth century noted that the dislike of Lowlander and Highlander for each other was mutual, usually compounded of contempt for a way of life entirely different from their own.

Copyright © 1962 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Review Quotes
A most readable contribution to the growing body of sophisticated literature on immigration in the colonial period.Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
A most readable contribution to the growing body of sophisticated literature on immigration in the colonial period. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
Clearly written and well organized. . . . Leyburn has provided the general reader with an extremely useful account.North Carolina Historical Review
Clearly written and well organized. . . . Leyburn has provided the general reader with an extremely useful account. North Carolina Historical Review
Shrewd and novel speculations on frontier society and national character. . . . The best survey yet of the Scotch-Irish.American Historical Review
This admirable book takes a fresh and frank look at the Scotch-Irish. Journal of Presbyterian History
Shrewd and novel speculations on frontier society and national character. . . . The best survey yet of the Scotch-Irish. American Historical Review
Work . . . of such merit that it should supersede most of its predecessors. Mississippi Valley Historical Review
This admirable book takes a fresh and frank look at the Scotch-Irish.Journal of Presbyterian History
Work . . . of such merit that it should supersede most of its predecessors.Mississippi Valley Historical Review
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Long Description
Dispelling much of what he terms the 'mythology' of the Scotch-Irish, James Leyburn provides an absorbing account of their heritage. He discusses their life in Scotland, when the essentials of their character and culture were shaped; their removal to Northern Ireland and the action of their residence in that region upon their outlook on life; and their successive migrations to America, where they settled especially in the back-country of Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, and then after the Revolutionary War were in the van of pioneers to the west.
Table of Contents
Forewordp. v
Introductionp. xi
The Scot in 1600
Poverty and Insecurityp. 3
Domestic Life of the Lowland Scotp. 14
Scottish Social Institutions in 1600p. 36
Religion in Scotlandp. 47
Before the Reformationp. 47
The Reform and Afterp. 56
The Mind and Character of the Lowlanderp. 62
The Scots in Ireland
The Plantation of Ulster, 1610 and Afterp. 83
Causes of the Scottish Migrationp. 99
Economicp. 99
Religiousp. 101
The Pioneer Scots in Ulster, 1606-1634p. 108
The Hard Years, 1634-1690p. 120
Intermarriage with the Irishp. 133
The Character of the Ulster Scotp. 140
The Scotch-Irish in America
The Migrationp. 157
Scotch-Irish Settlementsp. 184
Southeastern Pennsylvaniap. 186
The Valley of Virginiap. 200
The Upper Carolinasp. 210
Indian Menace to Settlementp. 223
Smaller Settlements of Scotch-Irishp. 225
New Englandp. 236
The Middle Coloniesp. 242
The Tidewater Southp. 250
Frontier Societyp. 256
The Presbyterian Churchp. 273
The Scotch-Irish in Politicsp. 296
Final Estimatep. 317
The Name "Scotch-Irish"p. 327
Important Events in Scottish Historyp. 335
Notesp. 338
Bibliographyp. 354
Indexp. 373
Table of Contents provided by Rittenhouse. All Rights Reserved.

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