The term Scotch-Irish is first known to have been used to refer to a people living in Northeastern Ireland. In a letter of April 14, 1573, in reference to Ulster,
Elizabeth I of England wrote: "We are given to understand that a nobleman named 'Sorley Boy' [MacDonnel] and others, who be of the Scotch-Irish race..."
 This term continued in usage for over a century
 before the earliest known American reference appeared in a Maryland affidavit in 1689/90.
Today, Scotch-Irish is an
Americanism rarely used in England, Ireland or Scotland.
 The term is somewhat ambiguous because some of the Scotch-Irish have little or no Scottish ancestry at all: numerous
dissenter families had also been transplanted to Ulster from northern England, in particular the border counties of
Cumberland. Smaller numbers of migrants also came from Wales and the southeast of England, and others were Protestant religious refugees from
German Palatinate, and France (such as the French
Huguenot ancestors of
 What united these different national groups was a base of
Calvinist religious beliefs,
 and their separation from the
established church (the
Church of England and
Church of Ireland in this case). That said, the large ethnic Scottish element in the Plantation of Ulster gave the settlements a Scottish character.
Upon arrival in North America, these migrants at first usually identified simply as Irish, without the qualifier Scotch. It was not until a century later, following the surge in Irish immigration after the
Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, that the descendants of the earlier arrivals began to commonly call themselves Scotch-Irish to distinguish themselves from the newer, predominantly
Roman Catholic and poor immigrants; these largely had no Scottish ancestry.
 At first, the two groups had little interaction in America, as the Scots-Irish had become settled decades earlier, primarily in the backcountry of the
Appalachian region. The new wave of
Irish families settled primarily in port cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago, and New Orleans, where large immigrant communities formed and there were an increasing number of industrial jobs. Many of the new Irish migrants also went to the interior in the 19th century, attracted to jobs on large-scale infrastructure projects such as
The usage Scots-Irish developed in the late 19th century as a relatively recent version of the term. Two early citations include: 1) "a grave, elderly man of the race known in America as "Scots-Irish" (1870);
 and 2) "Dr. Cochran was of stately presence, of fair and florid complexion, features which testified his Scots-Irish descent" (1884)
Ulster-Scots (or "Ullans"), Scotch-Irish Americans are referred to as the Scotch Airish o' Amerikey.
Twentieth-century English author
Kingsley Amis endorsed the traditional Scotch-Irish usage implicitly in noting that "nobody talks about butterscottish or hopscots,...or Scottish pine", and that while Scots or Scottish is how people of Scots origin refer to themselves in Scotland, the traditional English usage Scotch continues to be appropriate in "compounds and set phrases".
History of the term Scotch-Irish
An example, showing the archaic usage of Scotch as an adjective, in the 4th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, Edinburgh, Scotland (1800), and modernized in the 7th edition (1829). This usage appears hundreds of times throughout the work.
The word "
Scotch" was the favored adjective for things "of Scotland", including people, until the early 19th century, when it was replaced by the word "Scottish". It was never properly used as a noun. People in
Scotland refer to themselves as Scots, as a noun, or adjectivally/collectively as Scots or
Scottish. The use of "Scotch" as an adjective for anything but whiskey has been out of favor in the U.K. for 200 years, but remains in use in the U.S. in place names, names of plants, breeds of dog, a type of tape, etc., and in the term Scotch-Irish.
Although referenced by
Merriam-Webster dictionaries as having first appeared in 1744, the American term Scotch-Irish is undoubtedly older. An affidavit of William Patent, dated March 15, 1689, in a case against a Mr. Matthew Scarbrough in Somerset County, Maryland, quotes Mr. Patent as saying he was told by Scarbrough that "... it was no more sin to kill me then to kill a dogg, or any Scotch Irish dogg ..."
Leyburn cites the following as early American uses of the term before 1744.
- The earliest is a report in June 1695, by Sir Thomas Laurence, Secretary of Maryland, that "In the two counties of Dorchester and Somerset, where the Scotch-Irish are numerous, they clothe themselves by their linen and woolen manufactures."
- In September 1723, Rev. George Ross, Rector of Immanuel Church in New Castle, Delaware, wrote in reference to their anti-Church of England stance that, "They call themselves Scotch-Irish ... and the bitterest railers against the church that ever trod upon American ground."
- Another Church of England clergyman from Lewes, Delaware, commented in 1723 that "great numbers of Irish (who usually call themselves Scotch-Irish) have transplanted themselves and their families from the north of Ireland."
The Oxford English Dictionary says the first use of the term Scotch-Irish came in Pennsylvania in 1744:
W. MARSHE Jrnl. 21 June in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. (1801) 1st Ser. VII. 177: 'The inhabitants [of Lancaster, Pa.] are chiefly High-Dutch, Scotch-Irish, some few English families, and unbelieving Israelites." Its citations include examples after that into the late 19th century.
Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, historian
David Hackett Fischer asserts:
Some historians describe these immigrants as "Ulster Irish" or "Northern Irish". It is true that many sailed from the province of Ulster ... part of much larger flow which drew from the lowlands of Scotland, the north of England, and every side of the Irish Sea. Many scholars call these people Scotch-Irish. That expression is an Americanism, rarely used in Britain and much resented by the people to whom it was attached.
Fischer prefers to speak of "borderers" (referring to the historically war-torn England-Scotland border) as the population ancestral to the "backcountry" "cultural stream" (one of the four major and persistent cultural streams from the British Isles which he identifies in American history). He notes the borderers were not purely Celtic but also had substantial
Scandinavian roots. He described them as quite different from Celtic-speaking groups such as the Scottish Highlanders or Irish (that is, Gaelic-speaking and Roman Catholic).
An example of the use of the term is found in A History of Ulster: "Ulster Presbyterians – known as the 'Scotch Irish' – were already accustomed to being on the move, and clearing and defending their land."
While Scotch-Irish is the term most used in scholarship to describe these people, use of the term has drawn ire from both Scots and Irish. To the Scots, the term Scotch is derogatory when referring to a person or people, and should be applied only to
whisky. Many Irish have claimed that such a distinction should not be used, and that those called Scotch-Irish are simply Irish.
 Other Irish limit the term Irish to those of native Gaelic stock, and prefer to describe the Ulster Protestants as British (a description many Ulster Protestants have preferred themselves to Irish, at least since the
Irish Free State broke free from the United Kingdom, although Ulstermen has been adopted in order to maintain a distinction from the native Irish Gaels while retaining a claim to the North of Ireland).
 However, as one scholar observed in 1944, "... in this country [USA], where they have been called Scotch-Irish for over two hundred years, it would be absurd to give them a name by which they are not known here. ... Here their name is Scotch-Irish; let us call them by it."