Scotland and Ireland the Road to Independence (part 1)


Should Scotland follow Ireland in becoming an independent country? The answer may lie in comparing the history and economy of our two countries and the prospects for the future. There seem to be a lack of knowledge in the UK in general and Scotland in particular regarding Ireland. Part I will concentrate on where our two countries are interlinked and part II on comparative economics. There is remarkably little written on the subject indeed a quick search only turned up Prof Brian Lucy’s blog.

I’m a Dubliner, but have always loved Scotland. My parents were big fans of the Edinburgh festival and use to go every year in the ’50 and ’60s. I was always sadly left behind with grandparents but looked forward to presents which always  included a tin of excellent Scottish shortbread with Tartan design.

I visit Scotland regularly. Over the past decade in spring half term I have taken my motor-home to the highlands and Islands: Skye, Mull, Iona, Bute,  the Uists, Harris and Lewis, Caithness and Sutherland. I have dear friends in Helensburgh and visit once year during the highland games, normally taking in a classical concert in Glasgow, which has been Mahler for the past few years.

I currently live in Northumberland north of Hadrian’s wall and visit Edinburgh frequently. When I take my motor-home to Ireland it is normally via Cairnryan to Belfast so drive through Dumfries and Galloway a few times a year. Last summer we stayed in Wigtown largely to visit the bookshop.

I have many Scottish friends. Hugh was learning Scottish Gaelic and we used to try to talk. My Irish Gaelic,  is influenced by my childhood summers in the Kerry Gaeltacht (Dingle peninsula) –  the most linguistically removed from the Scots equivalent – it was a bit of a struggle, but fun!

In many ways Scotland and Ireland are sister countries, similar in size, population and economy. It’s  a shame the countries are not currently more interlinked. This is largely a product of the English divide and conquer strategy, that had worked effectively for centuries.

The current sheer venality and incompetence of Westminster in tackling the  Brexit issue, in contrast to Edinburgh and Dublin, is prompting a rethink about the merits of both a United Ireland and Scottish Independence. The ruthless efficiency which has worked well for the English over the past few hundred years, since Tudor times, has been replaced by bumbling incompetence. Is it possible that things are changing and  in Yeats words “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born“?

Interlinking of Peoples

The interlinking of the Scots and Irish go back millennia, but there have been three major mass movements: the Dark Ages, the 17th century and the 19th century.

The Dark Ages

Knowledge of  5th-10th c Scotland  is extremely murky. The Irish at the time were called Scoti or Scots and according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “in the 9th century Ireland was referred to as ‘Scotia Maior’” – Great Scotland. Conventional wisdom has it that the Scots or Gaels invaded Ireland and from Ireland to Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Scots initially inhabited the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada as shown in Fig. 1.


Fig. 1 Approximate Maximum Extent of the Ancient Kingdom of Dalriada.


The Gaels are most easily identified by their language, Q-Celtic: Gaeilge (Irish), Gaelg (Manx) and Gàidhlig (Scottish). Even today these languages are very close if accented differently. The other branch of the W European Celtic languages B-Celtic encompasses Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

According to the Scots Language Centre:

Gaelic was introduced to what is now Scotland from at least the 6th century AD. It was a Gaelic speaking dynasty that created the kingdom of Scotland between the 9th and 11th centuries but the language began to fall out of favour from the 12th century onwards, first in favour of French, and then the emerging Lowland Scots language.

Dalriada was quite small in comparison to Pictland which formed the bulk of Alba (Scotland). It is a mystery therefore as to how the Pictish language disappeared and how Gàidhlig became the dominant language. John Bannon in his paper The Scottish Takeover of Pictland and the relics of Columba states that thinking is moving towards “a consensus which sees Alba as a military creation by the Scots supported by the Columban Church as the expense of the Picts.” It is certainly true that the form of Christianity introduced, from Ireland, by Columba and centered on Iona had a major influence on Scotland and indeed further afield in Northumbria centered on Lindesfarne. The time around the formation of Scotland, under Kenneth I, remains shrouded in legend and mystery and seems subject to many conflicting theories.

The 17th Century

Though Ireland was invaded by the Normans in 1169 it was not fully conquered. Ulster remained a bastion of Irish rule, culture and heritage, right through to Tudor times. Sadly after the 9 years war Ulster was finally defeated in 1603. From Wikipedia:

The Nine Years’ War or Tyrone’s Rebellion took place in Ireland from 1593 to 1603. It was fought between the forces of Gaelic Irish chieftains Hugh O’Neill of Tír Eoghain, Hugh Roe O’Donnell of Tír Chonaill and their allies, against English rule in Ireland. The war was fought in all parts of the country, but mainly in the northern province of Ulster. It ended in defeat for the Irish lords, which led to their exile in the Flight of the Earls, and to the Plantation of Ulster.

Tír Chonaill was centered on modern day Donegal but encompassed part of Leitrim and Sligo. Tír Eoghain was centered on modern day Tyrone.

By a quirk of history Elizabeth died in 1603, without an heir, and James VI of Scotland became king of England. James was keen to reward some of his Scottish subjects and get rid of some of the more troublesome families such as the Border Reivers. James was also worried that the Irish would rebel again and was keen to secure Ulster with loyal protestant subjects. The plantation of Ulster offered exactly this opportunity and in the thinking of the time seemed divine providence as the defeat of Irish Ulster coincided with James ascending the Throne of England.

There are many sources on the plantation but this one from the NI curriculum is very accessible. (A more detailed and scholarly source is here). The planters consisted of a number of different types and were granted parcels of land (in total 424k acres): Undertakers 160k, Servitors 55k, London Companies 40k, Irish 94k and Church of Ireland 75k. The Undertakers for example (from the NI curriculum source):

The undertakers got their name because they agreed to undertake the ‘planting’ of British settlers on the estates they were given. There were 59 Scottish undertakers and 51 English undertakers, but the average size of the Scottish-owned estates was smaller than the English-owned estates. The undertakers were expected to introduce British settlers to their estates. For every 1,000 acres he received an undertaker was expected to ‘plant’ 24 men or at least 10 families from England or Scotland.

Planting was also done by private enterprise. Indeed the protestant and Unionist heartland is now centered in Antrim and Down, two counties which did not form part of the official plantation.

The plantation was very successful. Religion was and still is a powerful firewall in Ulster with little intermarriage between the largely Catholic Irish, Presbyterian Scots and Protestant (Church of Ireland) English. In 1921 when NI was formed these three communities were of roughly equal size. In the 2021 census it is likely however that Catholics will overtake the two protestant communities. This demographic shift has major implications for a United Ireland.

The 19th Century

There was a devastating famine in Ireland from 1845-48, An Gorta Mór (the great hunger) caused by potato blight. Approximately 1M  people died and 2M emigrated, as many as 100k to Scotland, mainly to the Glasgow region. The history is complex and  the recent Glasgow Famine memorial took five years of controversy to build. Some of the history is unconformable. As Prof Sir Tom Devine said at the unveiling:

Its memorial garden reflects the unfiltered stories of Irish – protestant and Catholic – and Highlanders who came to Glasgow to escape hunger. An exhibition also explains the context of that cold welcome. Glasgow in the late 1840s was in enduring a depression. There was typhus then cholera. “The burial rate quadrupled,” the historian explained. Among those moaning of an Irish “visitation” was the Roman Catholic bishop, John Murdoch, who was watching his own priests die.

The uncomfortable truth is that there was at least till recently covert and sometimes overt sectarianism in Scotland towards people of Catholic Irish heritage. This was confronted head on by James MacMillan (Scotland’s leading modern composer) in a water-shed speech The Bigotry that Shames Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999. There was a worry that recognising the extent of the problem might make matters worse. Thankfully the opposite has happened and Scotland is moving towards a modern inclusive state where all citizens of any religion and none are treated with equality and respect.

Indeed it seems that traditionally Presbyterian Scotland and traditionally Catholic Ireland have matured dramatically over the past few decades and indeed are in a similar space.


Scotland joined in Union with England in 1707 and Ireland in 1801. Both Unions were extremely unpopular with their respective populations at the time and were brought about by bribery and corruption of the respective powers that be. The difficulty has always been that England is more powerful and populated than Scotland or Ireland. As Prof Brendan O’Leary prophetically said in his Dalriada Document:

The United Kingdom is a multi-national state, a partnership of peoples, a country of countries, a nation of nations. It is neither an English nation-state nor a British nation-state. It is a union-state, not a unitary state. English politicians in particular have frequently told the Scottish and the Northern Irish as much, especially after they have been reminded that the UK is not a synonym for Britain. Yet political steps currently being considered — and demanded — may well destroy forever the merits of defining the UK as a multi – national union – state. If these steps are completed, they will emphatically confirm the claims of those who have maintained that the UK is mere camouflage for what has always really been Greater England (or Greater England & Wales).

The shameful treatment of Scotland throughout the Brexit process reinforces O’Leary’s suspicions.

It is probably less clear cut for Scotland, but for Ireland (apart from the small NE corner) the Union was a disaster. In 1801 Ireland was over twice as populous as Scotland and Dublin was, apart from London, easily the largest and wealthiest city in these islands. By 1901 Dublin was an impoverished wreck, with slums worse than Naples, and most of the once palatial Georgian townhouses becoming decrepit tenements. It was possibly not in the top 20 never-mind top 10 cities in these islands with both Edinburgh and Glasgow for example overtaking Dublin. The Scottish population also overtook that of the Island of Ireland in the late 19th century.


Ireland became largely independent in 1921 and much more will be said in part II, but from the Scottish perspective the important question is has it been a success? I would argue that the answer is an emphatic yes! On nearly every international measure Ireland is now well ahead of Scotland and the UK. One nice graphic comparing the cities in these islands from Cities in Europe is shown in Fig. 2. The graphic is nice in that the area of the block is population, the height GDP per capita, hence the volume total economic activity. Dublin is easily back in 2nd place and may have more economic activity than the entire Central Belt of Scotland.

Fig. 2 Comparative population and GDP per capita of Dublin and UK cities (metropolitan areas).

How this came about will be continued in part 2…..


  1. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

    Looking forward to reading the rest! I’m currently one week forward from a complete knee replacement operation – the original damage, oddly enough, happened fifty-odd years ago on a cliff face (Fair Head) in Northern Ireland. We were on a geology field trip. What I learned, following the accident (had to be winched up the cliff!), was a lot about Irish history – from the delightful; Irish priest whose house they had to take me to, to wait for the ambulance. Since I couldn’t take an active part in other field expeditions (dislocated knee and badly-torn tendons), the priest used to come to the hotel to keep me company…
    And no, he didn’t try to convert me – it was just what he told me about the history of the islands, and the ‘divide and rule’ policies of successive English governments. When I returned home, my father (a Welsh-speaking Welshman) told me how the policies had been honed on the Welsh first.
    My mother, daughter of part-German, part-Italian half-English parents, had a more conventional idea of history – but her father had been a Black-and-Tan in the 1920s, so I suppose his imperialism gave her mind its tone.
    Anyway – sorry for the personal history, but I’ve continued reading about Ireland – Thomas Pakenham and Cecil Woodham-Smith for two.

    Now for some more exercises…

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks Jeni
      I do hope you knee recovered rapidly and thanks for the insight re Wales. I’m not very familiar with Welsh history sadly and the Welsh language is very different to Irish with very little common vocabulary. I’ve read some Thomas Pakenham in the distant past, but never Cecil Woodham-Smith, though we did have a copy of her “The Great Hunger” in the house – my mother was a history teacher.

      The Black and Tan’s were not much loved in Ireland – the Irish war of independence was very bloody and many of the tactics such as the burning of Cork rather dubious

  2. Graham -

    On the economic front, isn’t Ireland something of “tax haven” and it is this which has driven it’s apparent increase in GDP rather than “real” economic activity?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Hi Graham
      it is a good point. There is a lot of economic activity but it is generally considered that GNP is a better measure of the real economy and is about 20% lower. Goods exports are a good place to look – services are more difficult to measure, though goods and services exports are about equal in IE. In terms of goods exports IE exports about 6x more per capita than the UK. In 2016 IE exported $161bn in goods according to as compared to $374bn for the UK with only 1/14 of the population.

  3. Graham -

    Another fine piece. Re the famine, I read somewhere recently that the disaster was compounded by the continuing export of food from Ireland and the failure of Westminster properly to address the problem. A quick Google brought up confirmation:

    The Bengal Famine during war was also (probably) exacerbated by the response of UK politicians, notably Churchill.

    I don’t wish to be flippant in the context of millions of deaths, but the rise of Food Banks are also the result of political decisions.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      the Famine was dreadful. Potato blight also hit Scotland and caused real problems in the highlands. The Irish population was around 8.5m when the famine struck and it was estimated that IE grew enough food at the time to feed about 16m, but most grain and exported to England often under heavy military guard. It was the mismanagement that caused so much resentment, particularly in the Irish American diaspora. These are people who lost everything and developed a real hatred for English rule. There was an earlier famine around 1770 I think when Ireland had its own parliament which was far better managed. Charles Trevelyan,_1st_Baronet was particularly hated and immortalised in song “the Fields of Athenry.” He described the famine as an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” as well as “the judgement of God” and wrote that “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”.

  4. Ivan Horrocks -

    No doubt we might find a few who would be happy to parrot Trevelyan’s words amongst English far right nationalists, Sean. Leaving that aside, fascinating stuff from you as usual. Tough on us English, but justified I’d say. Look forward to Part 2.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The Irish have always gotten on well with the English on a personal level. It is the Tory class they dislike and their belief they have a God given right to lord over lower mortals such as the Irish, Scots, Welsh and indeed many normal English people.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The Quakers were and still are very admired. And there were tremendous acts of generosity from many (thousands) at the local level.

      The failure was at Governmental level.

      I have indeed had coffee in Bewleys in Grafton St. – indeed I often used to have lunch there in the 1960 when I vidited my father who worked on St Stephen’s Green (a large Georgian square) at the time.

  5. Iain Macmillan -

    Please read ‘Were the Scots Irish? ‘ by Dr. Ewan Campbell. The Scots did not come from Ireland to Scotland.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. I have seen alternate theories which sat the Gaels arrived independently in both Ireland and Scotland. It could well be there is more evidence now pointing in that direction.

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