A Letter from Ireland:

A Journey from Ireland to Scotland


Side by side with only a bit of sea between, the countries of Ireland and Scotland have many shared histories. In this letter we will celebrate one of Scotland’s finest treasures, the gifted poet Robert Burns, for whom the holiday Burns Night is celebrated.

Céad Míle Failte and you are very welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. We’re now well into the New Year, even seeing our first daffodil on the side of the road yesterday! I hope you are keeping well, wherever you are in the world today.

I’m settling into a nice cup of Lyon’s tea and I hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter. This coming week sees two celebrations that are close to the hearts of many of our readers – Australia Day and Burns Night. So, I wish all of our Australian readers best wishes for the week – and I look forward to writing a letter next week focused our rich shared Australian-Irish heritage. For this week, however, we’re going to look at a country very close to Ireland – and one that shares much of our ancestry and heritage.

Many of our readers have mixed Irish and Scottish ancestry. How about you? Do reply below and let me know. More have surnames that they can’t quite figure out to be Irish or Scottish. This week, I thought it would be appropriate to talk a little more about this “overlap” between Ireland and Scotland as we will see the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns (January 25th) – Scotland’s national poet. Maybe you celebrate Burn’s Night in your house or community – getting out the “neeps, tatties and haggis” – with a “wee dram or two”? So, let’s now go on a short journey together.

The Road From Cork to Edinburgh.

“Good God almighty, man – what time is it at all?” That was my reaction on being woken up at four in the morning. We had a long day ahead of us – driving from Cork to Edinburgh – but the key thing was making the Belfast ferry by noon.

While Ireland might be a land of winding lanes and green fields, these days you can also drive from Cork to Belfast without encountering one traffic light. Maybe you have taken this trip in the past? So, off we headed at that ungodly hour – and we made the ferry in good time and relaxed while crossing from Belfast to Stranraer.

This ferry joins two places that has seen much “toing and froing” of our shared people down through the centuries. It’s a place where Ireland and Scotland are practically touching – in fact, they were united as the kingdom of the Dal Riada across this short sea stretch many centuries ago. Around that time, the Romans gave the Irish the latin name of “Scotti” – and this name worked it’s way into the modern name of Scotland.

Driving up the beautiful coast road in Ayrshire, on towards Glasgow – we saw the sign for the town of Alloway – where Robbie Burns was born in 1759. He came from a tenant farming family – but like many poor Scottish families of that time, there was an equal emphasis on hard work and education. So, while Robbie might have been the main labourer on his father’s farm by the age of 15, he was developing an ability with language – especially with the Scot’s dialect that many of his peers used in their day to day living.

It might be a stereotype for romantic poets, but Robbie seems to have attracted the attention of many the young lady – and formed a number of admiring relationships. His first major work – “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” – was published in 1786. Over the remaining ten years of his life, he went on to publish a number of poems, lyrics and songs – many of which have worked their way into our collective consciousness (maybe you have sang “Auld Lang Syne” from time to time). One of his more famous poems was “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose” – which captures that local spoken dialect:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

Don’t you feel like saying that out loud – with your best attempt at a Scottish accent?

On we drove – skirting around Glasgow – and made it to Edinburgh for 4.00pm, giving us a total journey time of 12 hours which included the ferry crossing and a few stops. I might add, we were also fully awake at that stage for what was to be a lovely visit.

Robert Burns died at the young age of 37 – he had a heart condition (that’s the poet for you) which finally gave out after a routine tooth extraction. In 1801, a number of young men held the first memorial supper for their friend – around the time of his birthday – and this tradition has caught on across many parts of the world today. Have you ever attended (or hosted) a Burns night supper?

One of my own favourites of Burn’s poems – called “Ae Fond Kiss” has been set to music. Maybe you know it? It’s all about a final farewell and a love that cannot be. The lines include:

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him

While the star of hope she leaves him?

Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights me,

Dark despair around benights me.

The poem might be written in that local dialect, but doesn’t it speak a universal language? That seems to have been the attraction of Robbie Burns – he spoke the language of the fields and villages but somehow managed to capture those complex feelings and connections that we have always valued between each other.

I’d like to leave you with a special treat. Here we have Karen Matheson (from Ayrshire in Scotland) and Paul Brady (from County Tyrone in Ireland) uniting the countries with a beautiful version of “Ae Fond Kiss”:

Was that not beautiful? What perfect voices to set off that wonderful song.

So, how about you – do you have mixed Irish and Scottish ancestry? Maybe you have a Scottish surname or two in family? Do feel free to reply below and let me know. So, a toast to all you Lassies and Laddies for the week that’s in it – and your acquaintance will not be forgot!

Chat again next week.
Slan for now, Mike and Carina.

  • Peggy Bennett says:

    My DNA shows that I’m 5%lreland, Scotland and wales…my Surname is Smith. My mom surname is Ebanks..don’t know if that’s Irish..the same with Viera..I would really like to know since I’m new in genealogy.thanks.

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  • Harry Paige says:

    My DNA says I’m 41% Scotch-Irish. My Great Grandmother was Mary Elizabeth Greene. Born in Ireland but raised in Scotland. While residing in Scotland she gives birth to Isabella Wilson. The Wilson family now mostly resides in PEI.

  • Hayden says:

    Family oral history says Scotch-Irish in part as does my DNA. Not unusual for the southern USA

  • My Ancestry DNA profile, which has been recalculated three times, now has me with 12% Irish and 42% Scottish DNA. The rest is English and Welsh. I have ancestors with the surnames of Hanna, McFadden, and Kief (McKiff). I am sure there are more relevant surnames in my tree, but my ancestors on both of my parents’ sides have been in the US since the 1600’s, so I am working hard to find their original homes.

  • Gary Laing says:

    My Laing ancestor from Fife came to the US in the early 1840s. My Kavanaugh great-grandparents came from County Wicklow in the 1890s.

  • David Vuckson says:

    Mike and Carina, aside from my O’Brien line about which I have posted so much in the Green Room, I also have Irish ancestors from Cavan and Monaghan Counties, one of them surnamed Little, who was descended from Scottish people named Lyttle from the border area of Scotland. These people from the northern counties left Ireland during the famine for Canada, whereas my O’Brien line came to Canada before the famine. Another strand of my ancestry (these are all on my mother’s side) has a Scottish family named Wilkie. One of my great-great grandmothers was from this family, some of whom carried the titles “Sir” and “Lady”.

  • Christine Strachan says:

    My maiden surname is Shanks. My GG Grandparents John and Sarah (née Magill) Shanks came here to Melbourne, Australia in 1855 from Kernan- near Portadown, Co Armagh. The name Shanks is obviously Scottish and I assume they went to Ireland in the ‘Plantation’. Several other family members emigrated as well but there were also many who came from Scotland so I have always been careful to follow the right line back.

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