© Copyright 2024 Mary McGonigal

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Movement between Scotland and Ireland




The geographical closeness of the north of Ireland - the old province of Ulster - to the west of Scotland has encouraged travel across the narrow strait of water between them for a very long time, probably longer than written history. Land, politics, religion, military duties, trade and family were the principal motivations that have encouraged the inhabitants on both sides to visit, invade, settle in, farm in, emigrate or flee to either shore. Where two or more of these motivations combined, the outcome could be, and has been, potent, and on occasion catastrophic.

The Plantations

In recent history, the seventeenth century forcible Plantation of Calvinist, Covenanting Scots among the Gaelic, Catholic Irish, by the monarchical government of Great Britain and Ireland, had serious and sometimes violent repercussions, whose effects we are still experiencing four hundred years later.

A contemporary, and continuing, heated dispute about whether a northern Irish port should be referred to as 'Derry' or 'Londonderry' displays battle lines that were laid down at that time. The choice a person makes, 'Derry' or 'Londonderry', might indicate to an apt listener that person's affiliations, not only in matters Irish but in religion, core values, and one's perception of the passage of history.

The Wars of the 17th century in Great Britain, with their Jacobite and anti-Jacobite contenders, either linked or divided the people of Scotland and Ireland in an intricate web of hostility or friendship formed by their history, their language, their religious beliefs, their present politics and their future ambitions and ideals.

Dissenter Education

The Ulster Presbyterians in Ireland found themselves at odds not only with Roman Catholicism but also with the Established or Anglican Church. To the latter, they were dissenters in matters of doctrine as well as radicals in politics.

As a consequence, Ulster candidates wishing to study for the ministry, who could not take the oath required for entry to Irish Universities, usually set sail for Scotland, where the Established Church of Scotland was presbyterian, to seek a university education there. The University of Glasgow was the most favoured of the universities. Thus in the eighteenth century, many influential and educated Ulstermen recognised Scotland as their alma mater in education.

Nor was the movement only one way: an Ulsterman, a native of County Down, called Francis Hutcheson became professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow in 1729. Among his distinguished pupils was the Scots born economist Adam Smith. Thus it came about that serious, high-minded, contemporary academic debates and controversies were being held simultaneously on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Ireland's academic link with Scotland and especially with the University of Glasgow continued to grow throughout the eighteenth century, producing a harvest of leaders in the 1798 Rebellion; leaders, for example, of the calibre of William Steel Dickson. Edinburgh University was pre-eminent in medical education. In the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s two of the most distinguished reformers, William Drennan and Thomas Addis Emmet, received their medical degree from Edinburgh.

 Seasonal migration

Many people think that Irish migration to Great Britain began with the Great Famine in the 1840s. In fact there was a very long tradition of the migration of seasonal workers to Scotland, especially to the south west of Scotland. The muscle and labour that the 19th century 'navvies' supplied to British industry, were complemented in the 18th century and earlier by that of agricultural workers who supplemented the available labour in Scots counties.

Travel by water was often easier than travel by road in earlier centuries, so using Irish rather than Scots labour was a rational, economic move. Irish men, and sometimes women, supplemented their earnings from their own small cultivable areas with what they could earn in the harvests of other larger farmers. The actual numbers involved in this seasonal migration was related to the rise and fall of population in each country, and the level of wages that could be expected in such conditions.

There were several sea crossings between Ireland and Scotland. One of the most important was that  between Donaghadee and Portpatrick. Many an Irish worker travelled this route, sometimes with four hundred cattle for company.

New Opportunities

During the 1790s in Scotland, profound changes were taking place in Scottish industry. Steam power began to replace water power in cotton mills, and this encouraged a move to town sites, heralding a need for a workforce made up of all age groups and genders, any worker in short that could tolerate the new factory conditions.

Irish immigrants, sailing to Scotland at this time in record numbers, seemed to be just such a group. They accepted working conditions that many native Scots considered to be beneath their dignity. The new cotton mills were constructed in and around Paisley and Glasgow, and consequently this was where the earliest concentrations of Irish communities were to be found.



Movement between Scotland and Ireland



The events of 1798 in Ireland could have been, and were meant to be in many respects, similar in their nature and consequence to those that had taken place in France nine years earlier. An urgent belief in freedom and the Rights of Man, fostered and encouraged by the secret brotherhood of United Irishmen, caused a potentially huge revolution  to catch fire and blaze, first in County Wexford, then later in the North of the country. However the fiery flame of revolution was dampened long before it could become general all over Ireland, occasionally with the assistance of reinforcements of Fencibles brought over from Scotland.

Naturally there was a strong desire for retribution on the part of the authorities, and many revolutionaries were summarily killed, or first arrested, tried and then speedily executed. Seventy six of the revolutionary leaders were considered for enforced exile in the United States.  However, President Adams regarded them as too dangerous to admit into the relatively new republic. Their destination instead was to be Fort George in the Highlands of Scotland where they were incarcerated until 1802.

Heading for Scotland

Even before the Rebellion broke, during the 'Troubles' of the 1790s, a stream of refugees from Ireland were already heading for the comparative safety of the Scottish shore. The Armagh 'outrages' and the anti-insurgent drive in Ulster by Lieutenant General Lake  in 1797 caused many inhabitants of Ulster to flee the troops, the violence, and the burning houses. In Scotland many found work in the new cotton mills or as weavers or labourers. One month before the outbreak in the south, in May 1798, the provost of Campbeltown was complaining to an Irish correspondent of being much pestered with the people from 'your' side of the water and of being at some loss how to treat them.

As news travelled by word of mouth around Ireland, and local awareness grew in the spring and summer of 1798 of what was about to happen, or what was already happening, there was a strong push to evacuate the vulnerable from the danger zone. Women, children, the old and young, the frail and peace-loving, began to flee to Scotland, if their circumstances allowed.

In crowded sailing ships or private boats hired for the purpose, in cattle boats or coal boats, they crossed in panic to Portpatrick, to the Mull of Kintyre or to some other Scottish shore. The celebrated professor and chemist, Joseph Black was among those eager for news of the refugees. His brother and a nephew, both called George, were among the many escaping from Ireland at this time.

Arrival in Scotland did not initially bring comprehensive relief, for other anxieties greeted refugees: there were the ranks of military personnel heading for Ireland, the scarcity of lodgings and food, even for the most well off, and the general dawning realisation of all that they had left behind. With every new packet boat arriving from Ireland, rumours of the worst sort, of the terrible happenings there, pursued them.  Ever greater numbers arrived in Scotland by whatever means, sometimes in large groups, and many who arrived from Ireland in 1798 and 1799, far from being welcomed with open arms, were detained by the Scottish authorities.

United Irishmen and United Scotsmen

From the formation of the United Irishmen first in Dublin, then in Belfast in 1791, it was very clear that their republican aspirations and ideals, like those of the revolutionary Americans and French, applied to all, not only to the Irish. The United Irishmen was a secret organisation, a brotherhood sealed by a solemn and religious compact, whose purpose was to overthrow the present order and enable all Irishmen to enjoy the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Moreover, it reached out for help in its campaign to France, the very state againsy which Great Britain was waging war. A procession through Dublin to celebrate the second anniversary of the French Revolution declared 'We do not rejoice because we are slaves, but because Frenchmen are free'.

To some in the know in the late 1790s it was also clear that Irishmen played an important part in setting up and recruiting for the United Scotsmen, a society whose aims and methods were virtually indistinguishable from those of their Irish counterpart.  Indeed in some quarters 'Irish' and 'rebel' were almost synonymous. 'Insurrection' and 'radical' could be added to them to complete a fearful foursome that alarmed the authorities. An Irish magistrate, Edmund McNaghten, wrote to Lord Castlereagh in the summer of 1798 that 'these villains have societies here and in Argyleshire which hold communication with each other''.

The United Scotsmen Society had been preceded earlier in the 1790s by The Scottish Association of the Friends of the People who advocated serious political reform. This association was not a secret group, nor was it republican. However Britain and France were at war and the British government's attitude to such desire for reform was repressive. The United Scotsmen Executive Committee was based in Glasgow, and societies are known to have existed across all the southern half of Scotland as far north as Perth. Spies were used by the government to gain as much information as could be gleaned from groups whose very nature was secret.

Though by no means all United Scotsmen Societies contained Irishmen, intelligence officers were stationed at Portpatrick on the orders of the Home Secretary and funded by the secret service to monitor the personnel arriving from Ireland in 1798. Some of the Irish passengers were returned to Ireland on the grounds of poverty and of having no fixed object in coming to Scotland; others were found to have forged documents.

The government searches also meant that many Irish forsook Portpatrick and landed  instead in small boats on different parts of the Scottish coast. It was not the typical refugee that the authorities considered dangerous but rather the defeated members of United Irishmen Societies, formerly of the rebel army, who were attempting to escape their pursuers. So much did they fear the influence of such men within Scotland that the authorities, on their own admission, went well beyond the bounds of Law in dealing with this emergency. Some of those arriving in Scotland were seized and returned to Ireland to serve in the British army, some were imprisoned or interned.



Movement between Scotland and Ireland


Immediate Aftermath

The influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the social and political upheaval in their native country continued after 1798 came to a close. The 'swarms from Ireland' referred to by Lord Advocate Robert Dundas, and 'the low Irish' as the Sheriff of Wigtown, William McConnell, described them, continued to arrive on Scottish soil. Although the 1798 rebellion in Ireland had faltered, many believers and activists had not yet given up on their ideals and their dream of making these a reality. Those who were not arrested and imprisoned or executed, continue to flee for their lives and the possibility of fighting on another day. Irish people who were not directly involved also fled, to escape the turmoil of what looked to become a civil war and to find new employment to support their families.

Not all of these, of either group, were Roman Catholic. The United Irishmen themselves were a strictly non-sectarian group, so both Protestants belonging to the Church of Ireland, and non-conformists like Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, were within their ranks. Both sides of the sectarian divide arrived in Scotland to take the reins of a new life. The numbers of Catholics in Paisley and Glasgow swelled at this time, encouraging the establishment of parish structures and the building of Catholic chapels, St Mirin's in Paisley in 1808 and St Andrew's in Glasgow in 1816. Similarly, the first Orange Lodges in Scotland were established at this time, that of Maybole  in Ayrshire claiming the honour of being the very first.

The United Scotsmen Society continued too after 1798, as did the system of government spies and informers seeking intelligence about the society's members. Irishmen were said to permeate these cells, though hard evidence was, and is, difficult to come by given the secret nature of their constitution.  Shortages of food in 1800 may have influenced some stirrings of active discontent in these groups. 1802 and 1803 were earmarked on both sides of the Irish Sea for risings, in the hope of a French invasion which would lend strength to their move. These joint risings did not take place, although Robert Emmet did lead an abortive insurrection in Ireland in 1803. After 1803 no more references to the United Scotsmen occur in government correspondence.

The twin Acts of Union, passed by the parliament of each country in 1800, united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The laws establishing the new state came into effect on 1 January 1801. Ireland no longer had a separate parliament in Dublin. The protestant ascendancy was maintained by law.

Scottish Radicalism up to 1820

Failure to achieve the goals of the United Scotsmen left social and political problems still to be tackled. Issues concerning land and wages, franchise and fair treatment before the Law, working conditions and freedom from persecution, all continued to stimulate unrest in Scotland between 1803 and 1820. Faced with a system that paid agents provocateurs like Richmond the spy and his associates in the Lowlands and tolerated evictions and clearances in the Highlands, Scottish radicals reinforced by Irish immigrants shook the government with the threat of insurrection. The radical years of 1816-1820 in the Central Lowlands of Scotland were studded with Irish born radicals as well as native Scots. That they were Irish born did not necessarily mean they were Roman Catholics. Indeed Protestantism was possibly a much more likely antecedent of their principles than Catholicism ever would have been. In Paisley and in Glasgow, each a focus in April 1820,  and in the neighbouring counties, around 60,000 working people ceased work in support of the proclamation posted by the radical committee demanding political reform for the benefit of the people. A sizeable proportion of that number would have been Irish born. Irish and Scots together were defeated again by the successful government measures against them.

After 1820: Emancipation

The Act of Union of 1800, and its consequences throughout the 19th century, affected all of Great Britain and Ireland. The high levels of population in Ireland in the first half of the century were not matched by comparably high levels of industrialisation, as could be found on the mainland. Emigration of population from Ireland into Scotland and England continued at what was for some an alarming rate.

In addition the major political issue was the great religious divide and the demand for Catholic Emancipation so that Roman Catholics might no longer be deprived of their civil rights. The Catholic Association was founded by Daniel O'Connell in 1824. It demanded an Act of Parliament - by the Westminster Parliament - to enable Roman Catholics to become MPs and to hold civil office.  O'Connell's tactics drew attention to the plight of British Catholic subjects. This movement was powerful not only in Ireland but in parts of Scotland too, where emigrants or their children could be found. The leading figures in the Glasgow branch were William and James McGowan and Dr Andrew Stewart. The intense hostility and opposition they encountered, not least from local Roman Catholic clergy and hierarchy, for example Scott and Murdoch, did not inhibit their active support of O'Connell, nor the successful passing of the Catholic Emancipatio in 1829. O'Connell was then returned to Parliament himself as an MP to continue his demands for reform from within.

O'Connell visited Glasgow in 1835, during a decade in which the agitation for reform was very great. Despite opposition by Tories and Orangemen, the visit was a great success. However, it demonstrated an aspect of West of Scotland society that matched, and would continue to match the profile of Northern Ireland politics: the stand-off between Orangemen and Catholics. As much historical and political as religious, the stand-off would very soon become a stand-off between Loyalists and Home Rulers.


In 1838 the Poor Law for Ireland was established and the workhouse introduced. Large numbers of the 8.5 million of the Irish population lived in rural conditions of extreme poverty, the potato being their staple food. As in many third world countries of the present day, there was an abundance of food grown in some parts of Ireland, but it was not available to the majority of its people, since it was exported, or afforded only by the better off. From 1845 until 1849 there were a series of failed harvests, damaged by potato blight. Many died and many emigrated to escape the worst horrors of their own poverty and starvation. The need of the poor to escape from Ireland did not occur only in these years, but the excess of suffering drew the world's attention to Ireland at this time in a special way. Some paid, or had paid for them, their fare to America; for others it was beyond their means. The number of destitute Irish in the west of Scotland, especially Glasgow, soared. One writer said the city streets were literally swarming with Irish. Many were destined only for the Scottish poorhouse: but the choice that faced faced them was a stark one, for the alternative was death.

After 1848

The links between Ireland and Scotland did not disappear in the ensuing decades. Far from it. The political and religious turmoil in the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century in one country often mirrored itself in the other. The Irish who had emigrated to Scotland continued to feel, and often acted, as Irish people rather than as Scots, for many generations. Home Rule for Ireland, Republicanism, and Sectarianism crossed and recrossed the Irish Sea. Today, that link is still firmly established, though many may not fully know its origins. Are the Irish and the Scots the same people? For many, though not all, the answer must be a resounding 'Yes!'


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© Copyright 2024 Mary McGonigal