The Grammarphobia Blog

When Ireland was Scotland

Q: In a recent posting, you cite a study entitled “The Scotch-Irish Element in Appalachian English.” There is no such thing as “Scotch-Irish”! There is Ireland and Scotland. The inhabitants of the former are Irish whilst the inhabitants of the latter are Scots or Scottish, not scotch, a variety of whiskey. I submit these observations for your comment. Full disclosure: I am a Canadian of English birth.

A: No such thing as Scotch-Irish? We beg to differ. The linguist who wrote the study we cited in our post about “everwhat” and “everwhere” was perfectly correct to use the term “Scotch-Irish” in his title.

In fact, we briefly mentioned this term in a blog item we wrote a couple of years ago about the use of the adjectives “Scot,” “Scotch,” and “Scottish.”

In that posting, we noted that “Scotch-Irish” is commonly used on this side of the Atlantic to refer to the descendants of Scots who migrated to Ireland, and later to North America.

These people are also sometimes referred to as “Scots-Irish” or “Ulster Scots.” But in the US and Canada, the preferred term is “Scotch-Irish.”

You needn’t take our word for it. You’ll find “Scotch-Irish” defined similarly in standard dictionaries as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the term “Scotch-Irish,” when used in this sense, is “chiefly” North American. It has citations for the published use of the term from Colonial documents dating back to the late 1600s.

The OED defines “Scotch-Irish,” which is both a noun and an adjective, as “designating Ulster Scots settlers in North America; of, belonging to, or descended from these settlers; (occas.) designating the Ulster Scots themselves. Also: of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry.”

The term “Scotch-Irish,” the OED adds, is “usually preferred in the United States and Canada over Scots-Irish. Historically, the term was sometimes used more widely in North America to designate any Irish Protestant immigrants, as well as those from southern Scotland and the English-Scottish borderlands.”

The OED has many citations for this sense of the term. We’ll quote one each from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

This example is from a colorful affidavit—”sworn,” you might say, in more senses than one—found in the judicial records of Somerset County, Maryland (1690): “I will give you full satisfaction to your own Content. You Scotch Irish dogg it was you.”

From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society comes this entry in the journal of Witham Marshe (1744): “The inhabitants [of Lancaster, Pa.] are chiefly High-Dutch, Scotch-Irish, some few English families, and unbelieving Israelites.”

And this example is from George Bancroft’s A History of the United States (1876): “Its convenient proximity to the border counties of Pennsylvania and Virginia had been observed by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and other bold and industrious men.”

Besides those US and Canadian senses of “Scotch-Irish,” the phrase has had several earlier meanings in Celtic history, according to the OED.

For instance, the terms “Scotch-Irish,” “Scots-Irish,” “Scoto-Irish,” and “Irish-Scots” have been used at various periods—though rarely today except in history books—to refer to Irish settlers in what is now western Scotland.

And “Scotch-Irish” has been used to mean the “Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands and Islands considered collectively,” Oxford says.

In fact, in very early Old English the term “Scot” itself, both the noun and the adjective, referred to the Gaelic people of early medieval Ireland. Yes, Ireland!

As the OED explains, this Old English term applied to “a member of the Gaelic people inhabiting early medieval Ireland; spec. a member of the people of Dalriada who began settling in what is now the west of Scotland from about the 5th cent. a.d.”

This modern citation, from William Ferguson’s The Identity of the Scottish Nation (1998), refers to “Scot” in this sense: “Buchanan meant the ancient Scots of Dalriada, who were … the root stock from which the Scottish nation developed.”

(Dalriada was an ancient kingdom “originally located in the far north-east of Ireland,” the OED says. This kingdom “expanded into parts of what is now western Scotland (esp. Argyll) from at least the 5th cent. a.d. During the 9th cent., alliances between Dalriada and the Pictish kingdoms led to the formation of the kingdom of Alba, the forerunner of the medieval kingdom of Scotland.”)

The ultimate origin of the word “Scot” is something of a mystery. It comes from a post-classical Latin word, Scottus, which in the late 4th century denoted the inhabitants of Ireland. The word Scot in Early Irish is probably from the Latin Scottus.

But the origin of the Latin term is described by the OED as uncertain: “There is no evidence that it represents the indigenous name of any Irish-speaking people.” (The classical Latin name for Ireland was Hibernia.)

Both the post-classical Latin word Scotia and the English name “Scotland” were first recorded as ancient names for Ireland.

In those days, and until about the 800s, Ireland “was probably understood to include the areas of Irish settlement in northern Britain,” the dictionary adds. And from about this time, the word “Scot” began to appear in reference to inhabitants of Scotland.

“The emergence of Scotland as the name exclusively denoting a part of northern Britain is probably linked to the consolidation of the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th cent.,” Oxford says.

If the ancient Irish (that is, the first “Scots”) hadn’t moved east, what would Scotland be called today? Perhaps “Pictland,” after the Picts who occupied the lands north of the Firth and Clyde rivers and who eventually merged with the immigrants from Dalriada.

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