Search This Blog

"Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" Michael Pollan.

Contact me via email at :

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Maine is a state of stunning beauty: seascapes that take one’s breathe away, with snow capped peaks cradling its western border with New Hampshire. The short summer of big blue skies and warm sun almost makes up for a winter that sometimes feels like it won’t quit. It has always afforded an ample but hard won existence to those who call it home. Here in South Portland, Maine, the 19th century world that was created consisted of a stable agrarian landscape-market gardening occurred where the land was flat, fertile, and somewhat less of the pile of the rocks associated with a glacial moraine-otherwise it was grazing land for dairy cattle and the occasional sheep or two-dotted with tiny industry-centric villages. Fisherman and sardine canneries at the coast, the railroad further inland, and a rolling mill in Ligonia. In the pre-electric winter, ice cutting was a major and lucrative industry.

The layers of history that can be found here are flat out fascinating but often tinged with frustrating. Scotch- Irish research can be like trying to identify a gossamer layer of plaid. The link between the English West Country and Maine is fairly clear. The first English colonists in this area were associated with Robert Trelawney’s fishing station at Richmond’s Island- a small dot off the coast of Cape Elizabeth. It represented a dramatic shift in the placement of the English fishing fleet that occurred during the late 16th and early 17th century. The forerunner of this New World fishery had been an Icelandic fishery that was based in a set of seaports on England's north-eastern and Scottish coast. After English ships were banned from Icelandic waters by the Danish, the south-western seaports of England’s "West Country" rose in importance because they were ideally situated to exploit new fishing grounds that had been discovered on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1630, Robert Trelawney, a merchant ship owner and two other Plymouth based merchants obtained a “land grant” to establish a “plantation” on Richmond Island in the Gulf of Maine. This was the beginning of the English settlement that became Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland.

John Winter had been a Plymouth mariner and in 1633 was employed as plantation manager. Winter settled on Richmond Island and brought his wife and daughter from England in 1636. Trelawney initially employed around 60 men, all coming from the parishes neighboring the River Yealm in Devon, east of Plymouth. Many of these men signed three year fishing contracts and some stayed on afterwards. Learning as the plantation developed, in addition to fishing, this group built a farm on the mainland, grew crops, raised cattle on the Scarborough Marsh meadows and an abundance of pigs. They also began lumbering operations- exporting wooden staves for making barrels. They engaged in shipbuilding too, employing a number of house and ships’ carpenters, including Plymouth shipwright, Sampson Jope. Winter’s son-in-law, Robert Jordan, took over the supervision of the island fishery after Winter’s death and many of their descendants still live on land that was included in the original Trelawney grant. Trelawny died soon after the English Civil War and conflicts with Spain and Holland during the 1650s disrupted the fishery so deeply that the great English fishing fleet had declined by 1660.

There are many hints of interactions between Maine and Ireland and the Scottish borderlands. They are hard to ferret out but this is where a gossamer layer of plaid can be found, if you look for it. Robert Trewlawney was in the process of developing plantations in Ireland and Maine simultaneously in the 1620’s and 30’s and that there were many interactions and interconnections that are only now becoming visible from history.

Some hints:

There was an active English fishery in Ireland. English fishermen had been fishing for herring, cod, hake and ling in Irish waters from at least the 15th Century, if not before. In the 1530’s a huge fleet of Devon boats regularly returned with considerable quantities of Irish hake. In 1600, Devonians were still fishing the Irish coastal waters with as many as 2,000 English migrant workers fishing out of the Munster plantations on the south west coast of Ireland. These fishermen had a long tradition of fishing off the Icelandic coast, but during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, fishing in this area steadily declined for political and economic reasons. Iceland was a state of Denmark, which disputed the right of English fishermen to fish the Icelandic waters. This political fracas came at the same time as the English were finding the economics of fishing better in the waters off the coast of North America, where larger catches of fish could be found.

The town of Scarborough was given that name because, when seen from the oceanside, Black Point looks exactly like the coast found at Scarborough on the north eastern coast of England. This practical knowledge seems to come from the experience of seamen who had been involved in the North Sea and Icelandic fisheries- that then transferred to Maine. It seems highly likely that, when northern fishery opportunities declined, Scottish and borderland fisherman moved to where work could be found-the West Country ports of Devon and Dorset and the plantations in Ireland.

In the correspondence between Robert Trelawny and Richard Winter, reference is often made to Trelawny’s Irish endeavors. Goods and people seems to have flowed between the two plantations. Irish stockings and other woven goods and foodstuffs are sent to Richmond’s Island. People noted as either Irish or Scot, like David Thompson, mix and intermingle with the fisherman that are designated as West Country folk until you look at where they were born. The early settler Thomas Skilling seems to have been born in Ayr before emigrating to Maine with the fishery. Other Skilling relatives spent 80 years in County Down of Ulster before following Thomas to Maine in the 1718 migration.

Others, especially as time goes on and the Scotch Irish arrive in Maine in significant numbers, became marked as Puritans and supposedly English which is based solely on which town in New England they are born in, without any concern for where their parents came from! Many of those in the second and third generation migration from Massachusetts up into Maine actually had Scotch-Irish ancestors. And, even more confusing-a Knox inspired Presbyterian who was forced to became a Congregationalist by the tithe-tax system [or pay double taxes] also acquired the Puritan moniker along with a seat in the pew.

This pervades much historical research-I recently read an excellent article about a Scottish settlement in Vermont where the author noted that the wives that were married into the community had come from a certain town in Massachusetts and were creating a Creole and Anglified society. In fact, if she had added just one generation to the research she would have found that the Scots were marrying Scotch-Irish lasses and got along just fine due to cultural affinity and not creolization.


  1. As a descendent of Robert Jordan, born and raised in South Portland, I found this post to be fascinating. Great research! Wonderful blog!

  2. As an Ulster-Scot that loves everything to do with the traditional Ulster kitchen, and its history, I too am delighted to discover this blog.

    Was the Knox you referred as 'Knox-inspired' John Knox or Henry Knox, the Revolutionary Hero? I understand the latter was of Scotch-Irish parentage, and became a large land-owner in Maine.