Kelly on Vann, 'In Search of Ulster-Scots Land: the Birth and Geotheological Imagings of a Transatlantic People'

Barry Vann
Mary C. Kelly

Barry Vann. In Search of Ulster-Scots Land: the Birth and Geotheological Imagings of a Transatlantic People. Columbis: University of South Carolina Press, 2008. 252 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-708-5.

Reviewed by Mary C. Kelly (Franklin Pierce University) Published on H-Albion (July, 2009) Commissioned by Michael De Nie

The Physical, Spiritual, and Thought Worlds of the Ulster-Scots

Documentation of Scotch-Irish settlement in colonial North America has progressed over the course of two centuries by this point, the record affirming James G. Leyburn’s 1962 contention that “primary sources for Scotch-Irish settlement and social life in America are almost inexhaustible.”[1] Most recently, an upswing of interest in the Scotch-Irish zone of origin is accentuating the Ulster-Scots cultural foundation and strengthening our understanding of the group’s North America settlement in the process. Barry Aron Vann embraces the trend, casting a geographer’s eye over the North Channel historical landscape and the identity that developed in southwestern Scotland and the easterly counties of Ulster throughout the seventeenth century.

The emergence of an Ulster-Scots ethnicity within the broader transatlantic context is his primary focus, as per the headline of his title. If In Search of Ulster-Scots Land comprised the entire title, readers might expect a revisionist interpretation of Leyburn, or perhaps engagement with James Webb's Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004), or Patrick Griffin's The People With No Name: Ireland's Ulster Scots, America's Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764 (2001). Instead, the “geotheological imagings” of the subheading offers quite a different perspective on the ethnic history. Vann argues that Lowlander migration into Ulster during the Jacobite Plantation is characterized by a series of “thought worlds” deriving from a specifically Ulster-centered, rural-based Presbyterian worldview aligned against a range of powerful political forces. The defining elements of the Ulster-Scots intellectual world are presented here as “geotheological imagings,” or key sources of the group’s identity forged within the North Channel theological and cultural milieu. While much of the introduction is taken up with definitions, the geographical, historical, religious, and intellectual factors underpinning the “thought worlds” never quite fuse coherently to form a clear thesis. As a result, while the aspiration to highlight these factors in a history of the Ulster-Scots may be commendable, the "geotheological imagings” approach is superficially rendered throughout.

The introductory chapters reveal the “imagings” as lenses through which to explore the intellectual culture of these nonconformists within the troubled political and social context of the 1600s. Intrepid Scottish ministers, or “Puritan-Presbyterian intelligentsia” (p. 46), who led devout congregations from a hardscrabble existence in Scotland to the heartland of Protestant Ireland are considered the primary architects of the “thought worlds” emerging within the group. Over the course of an introduction and five chapters, Vann ploughs valiantly through the convolutions of the seventeenth century. He interweaves standard Jacobite themes with continual reference to the intellectual culture under construction, although much of this material has been addressed in other studies mapping the cultural exchange between impoverished Lowlanders and spare Ulster settlements. Vann’s argument that Ulster-Scots Land constituted the nexus of an intellectual worldview with far-reaching consequences for American settlement harbors workable dimensions, but the “thought worlds” fail to mobilize as useful categories of analysis within the protracted attention to the economic and political concerns of the Ulster-Scots.   

Vann is conscientious in documenting the shift from a grace-centered ideology to a covenant of works doctrine, and occasionally evokes the pioneering spirit of the Scottish ministers as they wean their newfound Presbyterian communities. Descriptive passages on the time-honored sea-route operating between Portpatrick and Donaghadee (pp. 42-46) reflect the geographic approach of the book and frame the Presbyterian/Puritan “exodus” from Scotland within a maritime context, but the convolutions of Plantation politics dominate the narrative at the expense of the ineffectual “thought worlds.” The emergence of a nonconformist culture straddling the North Channel is not in question, and neither is the claim that dissenters forged a distinct intellectual community, but the overextended coverage of ministers’ endeavors and incoherent modes of analysis ultimately suffocate the intellectual progressions. “With respect to relationships between schismatic actions and how those actions and beliefs influenced the formation of the trans-Irish Sea Presbyterian community,” Vann informs us, “it is argued that it was their beliefs and steadfastness to their oaths that created situations in which political and social conflict, as well as theological schisms, could occur, with spatial relocation for many being the consequence.” (p. 90). Quite, but Vann might have more profitably narrowed his focus to a single community, or selected one dimension of the burgeoning intellectual culture to track. In so doing, he might have avoided pronouncements more applicable to a biblical epic than the inhabitants of Ulster-Scots Land, for example: “Refuge such as the wilderness (for example, Egypt or the nearly destroyed lands of Ulster) allowed the true followers of Christ to avoid a wrong-headed monarch’s staff and rod as they were let loose to control their nation” (p. 107).

Chapter 6 finally brings us to the "transatlantic people" of the title, where Vann abandons the constraints imposed by the book’s time frame of 1603-1703 in an extraordinary jump to the present day. To describe the final chapter and conclusion as a leap of faith is not entirely inaccurate. Vann’s argument for the endurance of Ulster-Scots culture in the American Bible Belt draws heavily from a selection of pop-culture sources, demoting the final section of the book to mere conjecture. Rather than mining Carrie Underwood’s or Hank Williams Jr.’s lyrics (regardless of their success in the country charts) for evidence of Ulster-Scots cultural survival across the Atlantic, Vann would have been better served subscribing to Leyburn’s "thought world" on the wealth of state, local, and personal records available to those interested in the history of Ulster-Scots settlement in America.


[1]. James Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 362.

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Citation: Mary C. Kelly. Review of Vann, Barry, In Search of Ulster-Scots Land: the Birth and Geotheological Imagings of a Transatlantic People. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. July, 2009. URL:

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