‘Planted by a River’: Some Scots Presbyterians in Irish historical fiction

Author: Colin Walker

Date: 2012

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 12 Wunter 2011/12

Colin Walker


In recent years there has been a vogue for historical themes in the works of many distinguished Irish novelists — John Banville, Joseph O’Connor and Sebastian Barry are just a few examples — but the story of the Ulster Scot has not featured prominently. Yet if we delve back into the literature of previous centuries we can find many fascinating narratives of salient events in Ulster history. There are many novels about the Plantation, the Siege of Derry, and the 1798 Rebellion, for instance, though historical fiction dealing with the Home Rule Crisis or the Somme is less easy to find.

It must be admitted that many of these novels are tendentious, and can be exercises in sectarian propaganda. The portrayal of Scots Presbyterians can be hostile: the very prevalent term “canting Calvinists” is a relatively polite one. In an early novel by the Jesuit writer and educationalist T.A. Finlay, The Chances of War (Dublin, 1877), the narrator writes of Munro’s Scottish regiments in Ireland in 1642 (whose chaplains established the first presbytery in Ireland) as composed chiefly of “gloomy fanatics who had sworn to extirpate ‘Popery, prelacy, heresy, schism, and profaneness’.” On the other hand, in Under Which King (London, 1873) William Johnston, MP, of Ballykilbeg, the relentless champion of the Orangemen’s right to march, presents Scottish Covenanters who came to Ulster in the 1680s after the ‘Killing Times’ under James II as the precursors of Derry’s defenders and of latter-day Orangemen in their resistance to Catholic hegemony.

Attitudes to the past in former days can now seem very dated. 1690 was remembered very differently in 1790, 1890 and 1990. It is important to try to discern the messages which authors of historical novels offer to their contemporary readers, and the viewpoints which they assume in those readers.

James McHenry, a Larne physician who emigrated to the United States, is often regarded as a pioneer of Irish historical fiction, indeed of American historical fiction. Like his successors in this genre, he was very evidently indebted to the novels of Sir Walter Scott. He published Hearts of Steel (1825), in London and Dublin, then in Philadelphia, and clearly aimed to enlighten his readers, to free them from anti-Presbyterian prejudice. Much of this very illuminating novel depicts agrarian unrest in the County Antrim of the 1760s; but more than two chapters are devoted to one of the bi-annual communion services in a Carrickfergus meeting-house, with a thorough description of the sanctuary, the procedure of the sacrament, especially the distribution of the elements, and of course an exposition of the sermons.

In Our Scottish Forefathers (Belfast, 1837), James Meikle, a Scottish schoolmaster who spent much of his professional life in Ulster, tells the story of an Ayrshire farmer who settles in County Antrim in the early 17th century and witnesses many of the birth-pangs of Irish Presbyterianism. Amidst all his trials, his faith is rewarded. The narrator tells us that he “flourished like a tree whose root is planted by the waters, budding in spring and loaded with plenty in autumn”, lines evidently inspired by Jeremiah 17:7-8, and Psalm 1. On his deathbed this “aged saint” is granted also a prophetic vision, in which he foresees the victory of Rev. Henry Cooke in the Subscription Controversy. This occurred just eight years before the novel (fulsomely dedicated to Cooke) was published. As in Meikle’s other novel, Killinchy; Or, The Days of Livingston: A Tale of the Ulster Presbyterians (Belfast, 1839), the settlers are presented as a Chosen People, who for all their faltering and their setbacks are assured of the Lord’s favour and guidance in the land in which He has placed them. In the aftermath of Protestant sufferings in the 1641 Rebellion, a main character in Killinchy tells his young son:

Thou art a cedar-beam left in the temple, thou shal’t yet help to build up our Zion; thou art an acorn preserv’t, to grow yet green in the house o’ our God, thou art a plant o’ goodliness spar’t in her wastet fiel’s yet to flourish, when the glorious sunshine o’ better days shall come to mak’ her fruitfu’. The Lord will mak’ thee a witness for his ain truth an’ thy seed shall be the strong men in our Israel that shall stan’ the storm an’ abide the trial.

Similar biblical resonances in Rev. W.F. Marshall’s Planted by a River (Belfast, 1948) are less explicit but just as certain. The novel is set in Marshall’s native Tyrone in the early 18th century, in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars. His Presbyterian settlers see their survival and revived prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing and ultimate purpose. The first-person narrator considers it “right and just that […] we should hold this province and kingdom for the Crown (for which also we have been planted here), seeing that by this back door, entrance has ever been sought into the fortress of Britain by our enemies.” Behind this 18th-century voice one can surely discern a reference by Marshall, the committed Unionist, to Northern Ireland’s role in World War II and Irish Free State neutrality.

The broadcaster Sam Hanna Bell described Planted by a River as “our [presumably Ulster’s] finest historical novel”, though some would reserve that accolade for Helen Waddell’s Peter Abelard (London, 1933), which is admittedly set in medieval France, or indeed one of Bell’s own novels, such as Across the Narrow Sea (Belfast, 1987), a ‘Romance’ depicting Scottish settlers in North Down in the early 17th century; or, more persuasively perhaps, his A Man Flourishing (London, 1973). The title of this novel is ironic. The protagonist is an erstwhile student for the ministry and United Irishman who, after the crushing of the 1798 rebellion, emerges from his refuge in Belfast’s criminal underworld to become a wealthy and respected merchant and magistrate. One evening he stands looking down the Lagan at the thriving port of Belfast, and he murmurs to himself lines from Psalm 1:3: “He shall be like a tree that grows / near planted by a river, / Which in his season yields his fruit, / and his leaf fadeth never —”. Bell, a lifelong socialist, portrays him as typical of Belfast Presbyterians who prospered materially in the 19th century but turned their backs on the socially and politically oppressed. His prosperity is not a sign of God’s blessing, but a danger to his soul.

The authors considered here have several things in common: all were strongly influenced by the historical novels of Scott, and all have entries in Frank Ferguson’s splendid anthology Ulster-Scots Writing (Dublin, 2008). They also share another feature that I have not mentioned here: all employ Ulster-Scots to some degree in their novels. That, I hope, will be the subject of a further article.

Readers may be interested to know that the anthology praised in the last paragraph of this article was researched and compiled under the auspices of the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group while it functioned in Regent House, Newtownards (as mentioned in our Editorial).



The Ulster-Scots Academy has been an integral part of the Ulster-Scots Language Society since 1993. The name "Ulster-Scots Academy" is registered to the USLS with the Intellectual Property Office.

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A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



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This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

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