Historic Presbyterian trek from Ulster in 1718

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Three hundred years ago this autumn 600 Presbyterian folk from the lower Bann Valley area around Coleraine, Aghadowey, Macosquin, and Ballymoney arrived in Boston on one of the earliest movements of Ulster emigrants.

The historic passage across the Atlantic from Londonderry to what was a strongly English Puritan colony was sounded out by Macosquin cleric the Rev William Boyd, who was sent ahead to view the land of their adoption.

Boyd presented a petition to the Massachusetts governor seeking a portion of land to be allocated to the Bann Valley Presbyterians and his report back was highly favourable.

Reasons for the emigration were not founded on materialism, but on matters of faith, “to avoid oppression, shun persecution and secure freedom of worship”. Under Anglican authority, Ulster-Scots Presbyterians did not enjoy these freedoms. The Presbyterians, who travelled in four sailing ships, were led by the Rev James McGregor, minister of Aghadowey Church, who had been at the 1688-89 Siege of Londonderry and was a straight-talking and inspiring pastor to his people. These folk were weavers, bleachers, and artisans, who spoke “pure Scotch” as one might hear in any part of Ayrshire and Argyllshire. They were “civilised, God-fearing industrious people”.

McGregor’s text on the eve-of-departure from Aghadowey was: “If thy presence go not with me, carry us up not hence”. His hard-hitting farewell sermon was a broadside at the episcopacy in Ireland. However, the Puritans in Massachusetts were hostile to the Bann Valley folk, who were forced to move on to Casco Bay, near present-day Portland, Maine. Eventually, they made it to New Hampshire, developing churches in townships that became known as Londonderry and Coleraine.

The McGregor-led exodus out of Ulster to America is a rich part of Ulster-Scots history and the movement’s anniversary has been meaningfully recognised this year on both sides of the Atlantic.

This week, as an author on 18th century Ulster migration to America, I was privileged to travel to the United States, courtesy of the Irish consulate in Atlanta, to speak on the significance of the McGregor passage and the legacy it heralded and sustained in American society.

On Wednesday night, I spoke at First Knoxville Presbyterian Church, Tennessee and, yesterday morning, at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. My American audiences were welcoming and appreciative of this significant milestone.

Scots-Irish Presbyterian legacy runs deep in many parts of the United States, strongly influencing, over 300 years, the religious and political mantra of the nation.