The journey of our Scot-Irish family ancestors, the Brysons, to the colonies is complex. Fortunately, a Ronald Bryson completed a history of the Brysons in 2002 and provides the best documented information on the early Brysons. It has provided a wonderful starting point for our quest to visit Bryson locales and to understand their motivations and lives. Naturally, Peggy and I need to see the actual places. This is the story of the Scot-Irish family origins (on the Bryson side, whether the McCaslins were of Scot-Irish background remains to be documented).
Most of the Scot-Irish were from the western Lowlands of Scotland around modern day Glasgow. The lowlanders were mostly farmers and stock men raising cattle on their English landlord’s property as tenant farmers. The opportunity for social advancement or escape from grinding poverty was remote. Homes would typically have been built of stone with a thatched roof. Since their land leases were for short terms and any improvements by the tenant, like a cottage, were dismantled by the tenant if a new lease could not be arranged with the landlord.
There was little chance for improvement. Not only were the tenants controlled by the landlords, they also had to defend themselves from the constant raids by the cattle thieves known as the Highlanders. Rob Roy may be a Scottish hero but not to the lowland Scots. The nice bench pictured above would have been a rarity. Most settled for straw floor and a fire on the floor. Since there was no chimney, the smoke eventually seeped through the roof but hung around long enough to make the cottage a smoke house. We could only stay in the reproductions with fires for a few minutes without gagging. Did I mention that the livestock shared your one room estate?
Lowland Scots followed the teaching of John Knox and became almost universally Presbyterian after 1560. Catholics convicted of taking mass were sentenced to death. It is assumed that the Scottish Brysons were also Presbyterian because of location and the large number of Presbyterian ministers that populate their Scottish and American descendents. Marriages were times of celebration and mischief that seem to have continued with the Oklahoma Brysons. The cuisine for a tenant might be limited to ale, grain and some greens. If they owned cattle, they might bleed it a little and add the blood to the porridge. I wish I could say that things have improved a bunch. Money was in short supply. Most exchanged their limited goods through barter.
The Bryson name in Scotland is seen in various forms as far back as the 1100’s. There was a Bricius, the Abbot of St. Columb around 1260 and another who was the Earl of Angus’ Chaplin. On the other side, in 1392 a Briceson was outlawed for the murder of the sheriff of Mearns. The actual spelling of Bryson is first noted in the records of the Tower of London in 1413. He had been taken captive by the English in one the many Scottish revolts against the English. A Robert Bryson wrote and printed from his shop in Edinburgh an account of the Scottish Presbyterian invasion of England during the reign of Charles I. It was this trouble by the Scots that caused Charles to recall Parliament and created an opportunity for Oliver Cromwell and other Puritans to defy Charles, who shortly became shorter. While these Brysons were probably related to our Brysons, it is likely that our linage belonged to the tenant farmer class. They were among the first to seek out opportunity provided by the Plantations of Northern Ireland.
Queen Mary and Elizabeth started the practice of confiscating Irish land and providing it to their English subjects. I guess in that way the daughters took after their old man, Henry VIII. The existing Irish farmer were removed and thus replaced by English farmers. Private entrepreneurship also played a part in the north of Ireland. Irish noble landowners who could not pay their English lenders back were foreclosed. The English investors could count on a legal system that favored them as well as support from English Protestant rulers. An Irish chieftain, Con O’Neill lost control of most of Down County over a lost shipment of whiskey. Sounds reminiscent of American colonists and Native Americans. Th English view towards the Irish was very similar.
These English landlords needed reliable tenant farmers to make their investments pay. Land confiscation accelerated under James I of England (1603-1625) with his Ulster Plantation and the wholesale eviction of Irish farmers and their replacement with English and Scottish farmers.
The Brysons were certainly in Ulster by 1631 as there is a John Bryson on the militia rolls. A militia was certainly necessary. In 1641, the native Irish rose up and were determined to slaughter all of the English and Scots. Several thousand were killed. The English at the time were distracted by their own Civil War which lasted until 1649. Oliver Cromwell is sent to put down the Irish Rebellion and by 1653 will reduce the Irish population by one half. The Scottish Brysons will survive this conflict. The family Brysons seem to have emigrated to America from Antrim County which lies to the west of Belfast in Ulster.
The wave of Scot-Irish immigration in the mid-1700’s was the product of British laws which stifled the Ulster economy and increasing persecution of Presbyterians by the Anglican Church of England. Dissenters like the Brysons were barred from important government and military positions. In addition, there were years of famine in 1729 and 1740-41. William Bryson was in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania as early as 1743. Unlike many of his contemporaries who paid for their passage by voluntary servitude, the Brysons were soon able to purchase land in the colonies. Most of the Scots from Antrim County departed from Portrush. According to locals, immigrants would use the “Pilgrim’s Steps” to board their ship.
The Bryson’s who stayed behind fill the church pews and pulpits and their descendents continue to dominate the political and economic structure of this remaining bastion of British control in Ireland. We ventured into Londonderry for a quick visit to the Presbyterian stronghold that survived an Irish siege in the late 1600’s. The fortifications were mighty but the most moving elements were the reminders of the “Troubles” between the Ulster Irish and the Protestants through much of the 20th Century.
As the Scots left Ulster for the colonies, they could look forward to an eight week passage. Sometimes there was not enough food and they resorted to a Donner solutions. It appears that the Brysons could afford full fare and probably received ample food and water. Those who had sold themselves into slavery got by living on less than 5 foot high decks. William and his three brothers made it to Philadelphia. We will return to their story a little later.
Not sure if the Bryson’s ever got to see the Giant’s Causeway but because there was a scary rope bridge and cliffs to hang over, we made it.