Over the past few years as I’ve worked with the Ulster Heritage DNA Project I have noticed a new direction in Scots-Irish family history research. I have noted for many years now that there are families in America and Canada with Highland Scottish surnames that describe their ethnicity as Scots-Irish. These families are from Ulster, but have roots that go back to the southern Hebrides or Argyll. They belong to a little studied aspect of Ulster history, the many Highland Scots, often called Redshanks, that were living in Ulster prior to the 1609 Plantation and yet in time became part of the Scots-Irish story, albeit a little known part of it.
Everyone knows that in 1609 the Plantation of Ulster began and many Lowland Scots, usually Presbyterians, settled in Ulster. In time of course they would become the Scots-Irish that conquered the New World frontier. There was another Scottish migration to Ulster prior to 1609, one in the 1500s, this one however was comprised of Highland Scots from Argyll and Hebrides. These were Gaelic speakers, part of what Scottish historian Wilson McLeod calls the, Redshank Period.
This migration is woefully understudied, but there are signs that at least some academics are taking an interest in it now. These Highland Scots were moving into Ulster to support the various Irish lords there, especially the Ó Dónaill and Ó Neill clans. Many of them were sent there by the political efforts of the 5th Earl of Argyll, Giolla Easpuig Caimbeul, a Gael himself.
The Redshank period began in the late 1400s and gathered strength throughout the 1500s. By the 1560s Argyll Gaels were pouring into Ulster, to settle. There were several areas where they lived in great numbers, in east Donegal, in parts of Tyrone, and in north Antrim. The obscure part of their history is what happened to them after the Plantation began in 1609. Did they come to terms with the Presbyterian Lowland Scots?
Well part of the answer can be found in the fact that a fair number of Scots-Irish have very Highland Scottish surnames. I've been reading through the primary records that exist circa 1600 to 1630s pulling any information I can concerning these 'Highland Scots-Irish' families and I have found some interesting clues as to how they fared when the Plantation came.
I recently found letters written by James Hamilton and Dennis Campbell in the 1601, that discussed the possibility of using the Highland Scot communities in Donegal and Tyrone. They wanted to hire the men to undercut the supply of Redshanks to Irish lords and also to protect lands that they intended to settle. It is no surprise that later Highland Scottish surnames appear on muster and tenant lists on the vast Hamilton estates in east Donegal and northwest Tyrone.
While there has been no definitive study on these Highland Scots settlements in Ireland, it does appear that at least some of them in Donegal and Tyrone did manage to find a place within the Plantation Scot society in time. Surnames such as McAllen, McColley, Campbell, McKean, McDuff, McNaughten, etc. just to name a very few, are all Highland Scottish surnames, yet also are very Scots-Irish and appear in the Colonial Ulster settlements.
More research is being done on these families right now. Their DNA results often reveal their Argyll and Hebridean roots and point to their origins being with the little known Highland Scot migration to Ulster in the 1500s.
We will be updating on this theme in the future.