The Charter-Hemphill Story


Chapter 2

The mouth of the River Ayr as it appears today.

Ayr  (/ɛər/;  Scottish  Gaelic: Inbhir Àir, "Mouth of the River Ayr") is a town situated on the southwest coast of Scotland near Ulster. It is the historic county town of Ayrshire. Ayr was established as a Royal Burgh in 1205. It served as Ayrshire's central marketplace and harbor throughout the Medieval Period and was a well-known port during the Early Modern Period. Hemphill is originally Scottish; a habitational name meaning from a place near Galston in Ayrshire, apparently so named from Old English henep ‘hemp’ + hyll ‘hill’.  


European society four centuries ago was clearly divided into social classes, an inheritance of the feudal age; ones’ social class was an unalterable fact of life. The Hemphills undoubtedly came from the lowest class in the pyramid--the peasants—as did practically all Scots who became Ulster-Scots. Andrew was doubly “decapitated,” no longer a Scot and then no longer an Ulster-Scot, but a Canadian. The move from Scotland to Ireland had been made by the optimistic poor; the move to the Americas once more left behind those who had risen to prominence.

Medieval farming methods continued in Scotland far longer than in other parts of Europe

The Scotland from which the exodus to Ulster began was one of the poorest and most backward of European countries. Poverty-stricken, generally lawless, still lingering in the Middle Ages in the seventeenth century (and even into the eighteenth), with agricultural methods hardly better than primitive, there was every reason an ambitious Scot should look elsewhere for improvement of his condition. The Hemphills and other immigrants to Ireland were not the romantic Scots of the Highlands with their kilts and tartans but were the lowland Scots whose clans had given over to feudalism. The highlanders were wild tribesmen who kept the country in turmoil. They spoke Gaelic and two centuries after the Reformation, they were a people filled with superstition. King James had specifically excluded the Highlanders from his design for the Plantation of Ulster; he wanted to civilize Ireland, not to confirm Irishmen in the intransigence. 

Inside of a cottage Of Weavers, National Gallary of Scotland

Scotland was noted in the eyes of foreigners as a barren land. Only the higher portions of land were chosen for tillage. The valleys and banks of rivers were too marshy and too much exposed to sudden inundation for farming by a people who had neither the knowledge nor the industry to build dams, sluice off excess water or prevent floods.

One of the chief reasons, and possibly the primary cause, for the continued backwardness of their farming methods was the insecurity of life and property; and this in turn was a corollary of their addiction to fighting and violence. Cause and effect are here intermingled. It is the lawlessness and violence of life in Scotland that made the deepest impression on visitors from more stable countries and justify one in speaking of Lowland Scotland as barbarous.

Travel was dangerous anywhere in Scotland unless they went accompanied by armed men. War continued to be the universal trade. The curious point must be made, however, that the humble farmer, who suffered most, did not attribute his calamities to the noblemen and lairds (generic name for the owner of a large, long-established Scottish estate). He seems to have regarded violent lawlessness as simply the way of the world. It is a notable fact that in Scotland, probably alone among all the countries in Europe, there was never anything approaching a general uprising against the lords.

The squalor and meanness of their country life around 1600 can hardly be conceived by us today. A cluster of hovels housed them and their helpers, and nearby were whatever sheds and outhouses might have been built. Their home was likely to be little more than a shanty, constructed of stones, banked with turf, without mortar, and with straw, heather, or moss stuffed in holes to keep out he blasts. Their roof was of thatch or of turf. They had no chimney, but only a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape. Their fire, usually in the middle of the house floor, often filled the whole hut with malodorous clouds, since the smoke clotted roof gradually stopped the vent-hole. Their cattle were tethered at night at one end of the room, while they lay at the other on heather piled upon the floor. Light came from an opening at either gable; when the wind blew and winter came, they stuffed these holes with brackens or old rags to keep out the sleet and blast. Their floors were of the earth itself, and mud from the farmyard was tracked into their house to compound the filthiness. Since sanitary arrangements were wholly lacking and since animals slept in the same fetid room, vermin abounded. They professed to like their small, filthy hovels because of their warmth.

In their dismal, ill-lighted shanty, when night set in there was only the fitful light of the peat fire to illuminate their spinning and other chores that they had to perform.

Illness was frequent and epidemics recurrent. Skin diseases were prevalent in their dirty, dank home. Infectious diseases were propagated readily, since they had no notion of quarantine. In sick huts on the Sabbath day the neighbors would gather to extend their sympathy, till the hovel was fouler than ever, the afflicted stifled by the heat, and the friends now probably carriers of the disease. Smallpox often ravaged a countryside. Not even this dread disease restrained visitors, who believed that everything was ordained by God and that no one could hasten or hinder a death.

Rheumatism was a constant complaint, for farm work had to be done in weather as in fair, and damp clothes were not changed inside the house. Malaria (ague, as it was called) beset the people, the mosquitoes breeding freely in the swamps, bogs, and morasses which were never drained. The Black Death, which had destroyed probably a third of the population in 1348, returned at intervals, the last outbreak of this virulent (bubonic) plague being reported in 1648.

Black death victims.

Their agricultural methods were of an unbelievable primitiveness. The Hemphills, as all Scots, were utterly ignorant of any improvement elsewhere that had come to agriculture since the Dark Ages, and their conservatism kept them from adopting the few suggestions for change made by Parliament.

The high-death rate, a result of disease, kept the population stationary despite the fecundity of the Scots. Their steady diet was oaten cakes or oatmeal, later to be called “mush,” greens or “pot herbs” from the garden, and ale or beer, year in and year out. As the Hemphills were near the seacoast fish were sometimes included in their diet. Beef and mutton were rare (progressively so) unless a cow or sheep was found dead of starvation, old age, or disease. Milk could be used only sparingly, for the ill-fed cows gave only about two pints a day—and was almost certain to turn sour by being kept in dirty containers. Pork was not eaten. They brewed ale and beer at home by turning the considerable quantity of his oats and barley into malt and mixing it with heather.

A group of drinking peasants, Adriaen von Ostade. National Gallery of Scotland

Their old proverbs taught, “the mair dirt the less hurt,” and “the clartier the cosier” (clarty meaning foul with stickiness and mud). They considered unlucky to wash churns; a frog was put into the tub to make the milk churn; the consistency of butter was thought to depend upon the number of hairs it contained.

Loy Charter, my father, always professed not to like butter, preferring margarine, that is until late in life he ate some store-bought butter and never ate margarine again. His wife Dorothy, my mother, said she thinks the butter he got at his home, meaning Granma Charter’s, was sour. I always thought it was because butter was costlier, thriftiness also being a Scottish trait.

Like all tenants, their rent was paid with a proportion of the crop agreed upon when the land was re-allotted, but his wife must also take eggs and fowls regularly to the Big House. The landlord not only called on them for regular work on his farmlands but could call them to help him, even at the busiest seasons. According to a bitter saying, all a man’s produce went into three shares: “ane to saw [sow], ane to gnaw, and ane to pay the laird witha’.”

Their house had little furniture, beds were bundles of straw and heather laid on the floor, and seats were generally flat boulders. Their kitchen implements were rude and few. Some people had to be content to wear skins of animals for clothing, although the usual dress was plaid and bonnet. Wool was spun into yarn by the women and woven into coarse cloth, which was then colored with “dirty dyes.” Portions of black and white wool in their natural state were also mixed and manufactured into cloth, and from this cloth garments were devised. Although flax grew in some places, linen was little used in country regions. Their feet generally remained bare, although rude shoes, made of untanned or ill-tanned hides, were sometimes worn.

Towards the close of the sixteenth century, several parts of southwestern Scotland had become chiefly pastoral. Wool was sent from Galloway to the burgh of Dumfries to be made into broadcloth, for the manufacture of which this town obtained much celebrity.

A visitor from England in the eighteenth century describes dismay at what he finds, a hundred years after the migrations to Ireland had begun; by that time, one might suppose conditions had improved. Entering Dumfriesshires, and the moors of Galloway--the birthplace of Granma Charter’s grandmother, Jane Ferguson, he was surprised by the dismal change from his own country—the landscape a bleak and bare solitude, destitute of trees, abounding in heather and a morass and barren hills; soil where cultivation was found only in dirty patches of crops, on land surrounded by heather and bog; regions where the inhabitants spoke an uncouth dialect, were dressed in rags, lived in hovels, and fed on grain, with which he fed his horse; and when night fell, and he reached a town of dirty thatched huts, and gained refuge in a miserable abode that passed for an inn, only to get a bed he could not sleep in, and fare he could not eat, his disgust was inexpressible; summing up his impressions of the North: “I passed to English ground, and hope I may never go to such a country again. I thank God I never saw such another.”

The bubonic plague is estimated to have killed one-third the population.

Another dire misery of Scotland was the constant appearance of plague. The bubonic plague first appeared, in the form of the Black Death, in England in 1348 and in Scotland two years later. In the northern realm it is estimated to have destroyed a third of the population. Once introduced, it returned frequently. “It hit the villagers and burghs even worse than the farms, for there the houses were close together, the streets littered with offal, and rats considered to be scavengers. When the pest struck, there was little the people could do about it. Some of the burghs engaged, at a stiff price, “foul clinger”—that is, male and female cleaners, generally from the lowest stratum of society—to boil the clothes of the infected people, and to care for, and bury, those who had been isolated upon some “foul mure” outside the village. But such methods did not do anything to get rid of the rats who carried the disease nor of the filth of the houses and outhouses upon which the vermin lived.

No soap was made in Scotland until 1619; even the higher classes “were alike filthy in their persons as in their houses, the demand for soap was too small to induce any one to attempt its manufacture.

It has been said that the Scots of the 17th century and earlier had an addiction to fighting.

The Scots were unable to make even the arms they fought with and had to import their armor, spears, bows and arrows from Flanders; ordinary farming implements, such as cartwheels and wheelbarrows, were also imported from the Low Countries.

Another mark of the backwardness of Scotland is that no glass was manufactured until the seventeenth century, the tanning of leather was not introduced until 1620, and the making of paper not until the middle of the eighteenth century.

Around 1550 economic conditions seemed to be improving. A French clergyman, after noting that the people had little money, remarked that they had plenty of provisions, which were as cheap in Scotland as in any other part of the world, thanks to the abundance of cattle and the grain crops. Under James VI there was still further improvement. The most powerful king Scotland had known for centuries, James undertook to subdue the anarchy of the nobles so that peace and order might prevail on the farmlands. As far as food was concerned the farmers of Scotland were, throughout this whole period, better off than the peasants of France. Their condition remained, however, perilously close to the margin of subsistence. An attractive opportunity to go elsewhere and improve their lot was incentive enough to make thousands desert Scotland for Ulster.

There is no indication that the nature of the people was depressed; on the contrary, they seem to have lived a robustly cheerful life. Local singers with their ballads were in the tradition of the Celt, and many communities had their harpists and pipe-players. The people were rich in folk tales. Dances drew neighbors together. [Note: A tradition Henry and Mary Charter, both of Scottish ancestry. would rekindle on the plains of Alberta; they owned a dancehall, with Saturday night dances.] Yule (Christmas), Pasch (Easter), and the various saints’ days were observed with gaiety until the Reformation sternly repressed their celebrations.

Other amusements were the Feast of Fools, which occurred in December. A man was dressed to resemble a donkey, while others masqueraded as the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks with dresses turned inside out. “Then the donkey braying, and others making every kind of strange noise, the whole procession proceeded to a church, and went through the service with the books turned upside down.” This amusement obviously also ended abruptly at the Reformation. A day of practical joking, known as Robin Hood’s Day, often ended in riot and drunkenness; Queen Mary commanded the magistrates of Edinburgh to put an end to it, but it was given up only after many years. Indoors, the burghers played cards, backgammon, and dice—before the Reformation.

Marriage among country-folk occurred at an early age. As soon as the boy was able to do a man’s work and had proved his ability to bear arms, he was considered old enough to marry; and the girl might marry shortly after she became nubile. Even after the Reformation the age of marriage was often as early as fourteen for boys and twelve for girls.

Feast of Fools celebration

The status of women was, quite simply, that of many primitive agricultural tribes. Women did most of the duties connected with the house and worked in the fields, not only alongside men, but especially when men were away at war. On women “devolved almost all the duties both of house and of the field; in short every task of mean and painful drudgery.” They had few legal rights. Marriage was a practical necessity. Chivalry was absent, politeness was regarded as an affectation, and abductions, both “under the impulse of passion and from motives of cupidity,” were frequent.

Ready as any Scot was to assemble for a fight, no one expected to stay for long. According to feudal theory, a man had to give forty days of service each year to his lord for war; actually, men were ready to go home after a week or two, and often did so, whether the war was finished or not.


The Scottish Reformation was the process by which Scotland broke with the Papacy and developed a predominantly Calvinist national Kirk (church), which was strongly Presbyterian in outlook. It was part of the wider European Protestant Reformation that took place from the sixteenth century. Parliament, meeting in 1560, put an end to the Church of Rome as the national church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church now became the established Kirk of Scotland. Rarely in Europe had the change from Catholicism to Protestantism been affected more peacefully than in Scotland.

One of the tasks the newly established Kirk set itself after jkejrj 1561 was the reform of morals. It may be contended that the reform was too thoroughgoing and that it went beyond the bounds of morality to make the Scots dour and puritanical; yet there is ample evidence that the moral sense of the people had been feeble, quite aside from the common practice of cattle thefts and personal violence. Parliament in 1528 had attached severe penalties to the crime of rape, yet courts often passed over the crime with light punishment. Bigamy and adultery were legislated against in 1551. The new Kirk, through its parish Sessions, constantly hammered at the people for their fornication, adultery, murder, conjuring, giving of drink “to destroy children,” drunkenness, blasphemy, and other offenses against morality, in addition to its campaign for the observance of the Sabbath, which under the Catholic Church had been a holiday for games, sport, and dancing. All classes of people were in the habit of swearing: Sir David Lyndsay uses fifty forms of swearing in his work.


My Aunt Mary, Dad’s younger sister, told me her father, Henry Charter, my GF, “could swear for fifteen minutes without repeating himself.

Despite these lapses, the Scots took to the reformed Kirk as they never had to Catholicism with its hierarchy, vestments, rituals and above all, its wealth. The Roman Catholic Church owned a third of all the land in the country and half its wealth. The King had used the Church for political ends and the noblemen regarded it as a refuge for their sons and kinsmen who were to feckless to become warriors or who merited a reward for service rendered. In short, it had lost the respect and loyalty of the people.

On the other hand, they flocked to hear sermons of the new Kirk and would listen for hours. The pulpit was a person’s one source of excitement, and one delighted in the new experience. Centuries of illiteracy had not dulled the shrewdness of the mind. The sermon and what it did to a man proved to be an oasis in a desert. The lowlands and especially the southwestern region of the Lowlands was fever heat with religious zeal. In the two years 1559-1561 and increasing for more than a century, the Scots became so fervid in their religious intensity that few people in modern times have ever matched them.

An upshot of this reform was education became open to all. Schools were supported by the parish or by the common funds of the burgh. It is probably fair to say not only that Scotland was the first country to inaugurate public education but also that this democratic arrangement met no opposition from any quarter, least of all from the “aristocrats.” Promising lads were encouraged to go on to the university, and they were more likely, by their very number, to be from farming families than from gentry. Scotland had its Reformation in the sixteenth century but reversing the order of things in most European countries, it did not achieve its Renaissance until the eighteenth. The earth might now be proved to be round, but that fact had no bearing on the matters that interested the Scot at the time. The universities remained primarily schools of theology.

Scotland lay, geographically, on the northwestern periphery of “civilization.” It was an isolated country whose people were poor. Stimulus of new ideas comes from contacts, frequent and easily maintained, and the focus of such contacts is the teeming city, with its specialization and intermingling. Both contacts and cities were few in Scotland. Foreign traders were rare. The seventeenth-century Scot thus stood outside the currents then playing over Europe, except in the one field of religion.


The opening of Ulster lands to the Scots in 1610 was the Scot's first opportunity near at hand to escape a drab and dreary life. The Scots-Irish, or Ulster-Scot, came into existence because England tried to settle the Irish problem, a perennial nettle to royal politicians. Throughout five centuries, ever since the Norman king of England, Henry II (1139-89), invaded Ireland, the English had tried repeatedly and constantly to subdue the island, whose people steadfastly resisted subjection. It became customary for the English king, after a successful campaign in Ireland, to give land there to Anglo-Norman families, hoping that they might, by living in the countryside, maintain and spread the English influence and so “domesticate” the wild Irish; yet it almost always happened that these families before many years intermarried with the Irish, taking sometimes their language, often their customs, and generally their patriotism, and thus joined with the Irish in resistance to English domination.

By the time of Queen Elizabeth (ruled 1558 – 1603) the Irish “problem” was no longer a sporadic one: it had become a steady drain on the royal exchequer, as on English manpower. A foothold for the English had been secured, but this was all. Around Dublin and its neighboring counties, a Pale, or defended region, had been established; with that Pale, English control was relatively secure and English language and culture predominant. An Irish Parliament met in Dublin to carry out recommendations from London. But beyond the Pale lay most of Ireland, whose peasants spoke no English and lived a wretchedly poor agricultural life under their chieftains. Their culture, like their background and poverty, made them resemble the Highlanders of Scotland, and civilized Englishmen regarded them, as they did the Highlanders, as little better than savages.

It was customary still to speak of the four traditional “kingdoms” of Ireland: Munster, Leinster, mostly inside the Pale around Dublin, Connaught and Ulster, only twenty miles across the channel from Scotland.

In Elizabeth’s day Ulster was not distinguishable from the rest of Ireland in region, language, clan rule. Poverty, hatred of the English, illiteracy, or primitiveness. Ulsterman were, like all people beyond the Pale, “wild Irish.”

Elizabeth, realistically reconciled to the fact that Ireland would probably never be pacified by mere force of arms, tried the new method of colonization. She tried transplanting hundreds of Englishmen to form a colony. First driving away the native Irish, then granting these acres to English lords and gentry who would agree to bring over enough English settlers to establish the “plantation.” These are referred to as the Plantations of Ireland. Her experiments were uniformly unsuccessful, in part because the dislocated Irish raided the plantations and in part because they never could recruit enough English to make a strong military force at the same time, they were becoming effective farmers. They did, however, prepare the way for the successful Plantation of Ulster in 1610.

Elizabeth tried to co-op the greatest clan leaders with earldoms, but they resisted, leading a grand alliance of chiefs and clans against the English. Initially failing to crush the rebellion, another English leader mounted a scorched earth campaign against the resisting Irish. Starvation and defeat on the battlefield made the Irish submit just as Elizabeth lay dying (1603). The wars depopulated the region and made the plantation more feasible.

Elizabeth was succeeded by King James VI of Scotland, to become King James I of England. Hugh Montgomery connived with an imprisoned Irish chieftain to share his land. Enlisting another, also from Ayr, who had the ear of the King, they obtained permission from King James to plant the territory with British Protestants. Having now secured their large properties (the Irish chieftain sold his share to the Scots), in 1606 the two Scots began to induce their tenants and other Scots in Ayrshire to come over as farmer-settlers. Since the distance was only twenty or thirty miles and the inducements were great, the risk was worth taking.

Ayr played a pivotal role in the Plantation of Ulster throughout the 17th century, in which a significant number of British people settled in present-day Northern Ireland. The town provided the largest share of colonists from Great Britain, with many colonists from Ayr joining the Earl of Eglinton, Hugh Montgomery's plantation on the Ards Peninsula (particularly around Newtownards), and others going on to settle around Belfast. Today, the Ulster Scots dialect is largely an offshoot of the version of Lowland Scots spoken in Ayrshire. The Ulster Scots dialect is still widely spoken throughout County Antrim and in parts of County Down and County Londonderry, as well as still being spoken in West Tyrone and parts of County Donegal (Donegal becomes the name of their village in Ontario).

Photo of thatched roof stocco house that belonged to poet Robert Burns
Burns was born two miles south of Ayr, in Alloway, in this house built by his father. He lived there until he was seven, then moved with his family when his father sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship.
This illustrates the different dialects over time and place. Click image to see it larger. Auld_Lang_Syne.jpg

An example of the dialect is to pronounce Northern Ireland as Norlin Airlann.

A song heard on New Year’s Eve, "Auld Lang Syne" written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who was born towards the south of Ayr, allows a glimpse of how English was spoken by the Scots at the time they began their immigration to Ulster. The poem’s title may be translated into standard English as "old long since" or, more idiomatically, "long long ago", "days gone by," or "old times". Consequently, "For auld lang syne", as it appears in the first line of the chorus, might be loosely translated as "for the sake of old times".It begins by posting a rhetorical question: Is it right that old times be forgotten? The answer is generally interpreted as a call to remember long-standing friendships. Thompson’s Select Songs of Scotland was published in 1790 in which the second verse about greeting and toasting was moved to its present position at the end.

The former Johnnie Walker bond warehouse in Kilmarnock.

On the southern bank of the River Ayr sits the ramparts of a citadel constructed by Oliver Cromwell’s men during the mid-17th century as they conquered Scotland and sent thousands of Scots to the colonies as slaves.

Kilmarnock is the second largest town in Ayrshire and has the distinction of being the home of Johnny Walker Scotch Whiskey, established by Kilmarnock grocer John Walker in 1855.

The first collection of work by Scottish poet Robert Burns, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect was published by a printer and bookseller in Kilmarnock in 1786. It became known as the Kilmarnnock Edition.

Primary Source:
Leyburn, James G. The Scotch-Irish: A Social History.The University of North Carolina Press, 1962, Chapel Hill