Thursday, 6 January 2011

Cattle men from Scotland? The Eslers at Dalways Bawn

In 1860, two James Eslers (father and son) were living beside each other a few fields away from Dalways Bawn. James Esler, senior, was in the home-townland of the Dalways at Bellahill as a byresman. He held his small thatched cottage from one of Marriott Dalway's main tenants - Alexander Hart. James Esler, junior, was similarly stationed nearby, but as he was in the townland of Dobbsland, and a Dobbs' tenant, he may have been a cattle hand at Castle Dobbs.

These Eslers were part of an extended family group (all spelled
Essler in the 1860 Land Valuation) that were involved as cattle drovers, dealers and steaders at the Whitehead and Islandmagee end of the Commons cattle trail between Ballynure and Scotland. My earlier post "The Big Picture: Eslers and the 'Scotch' Cattle Drove Roads of mid Antrim", August, 2010, has the details of these Eslers and the more numerous group in mid Antrim that handled the Portglenone to Scotland cattle trail via Ahoghill and the port of Larne.

But where did these Eslers come from? They were all lowland Scots, arriving in east Antrim in the 17th century as horse and cattle drovers, and small hill farmers 'servicing' the cattle trails, according to family tradition. (My own great-grandfather was another James Esler from a hill-farm in Ballybeg, near Ahoghill).

In 1666 we get our first glimpse of the Antrim Eslers in the Hearth Money Rolls, prepared as a tax on all householders with a fixed chimney in their house. They then spelled their name
Assler, Asslar or Ashler, but appear to be absent from the small Parish of Kilroot, which includes the townlands of Dobbsland and Bellahill. In practice, the names on this list don't include the landless, labouring classes, only farmers and landowners, and so although we do have a Mr Richard Dobb, a Mrs Dalway, a Mr Alex Dallway and a David Hart (an ancestor of Alexander Hart in 1860, and a descendant of the Capt. Hart who first settled here with John Dalway in the reign of Elizabeth I) the absence of an Assler/Esler from the 1666 Hearth money roles is not significant. But in the adjacent Parish of Templecorran, we find a James Asslar in 1666. This Parish covers the land between Ballycarry, Dalway's Bawn and Whitehead (where the 100 acre farm of William and David Essler controlled the land behind the port of Whitehead in 1860). There were no other Asslers in east Antrim in 1666, not even in Islandmagee where the farms of Patrick and Andrew Essler were in 1860.

Apart from this 'Whitehead' James Asslar, there are only 4 other Eslers recorded in the Hearth Money rolls for 1666 for Antrim. Three of these were living near the port of Larne: In the Parish of Kilwaughter we have
John Ashler in Ballyhampton townland on the Agnew estate close to the port, and William Ashler on the nearby Agnew demesne. These names were both spelled 'Asler' on a repeat listing of 1669. A Thomas Ashler was living somewhere south of Larne, in either Inver or Glynn Parish in 1666. Family tradition has it that three Esler brothers came from Scotland in the 1600s and settled in three different parts of mid and east Antrim, giving rise to all the Antrim Eslers. If this is correct, then the main original settlement seems to have been at Kilwaughter near Larne, on the estate of the Agnews of Kilwaughter Castle and Lochnaw Castle near Stranraer in Scotland. The only other Esler in the 1666 Hearth Money Rolls is John Ashler at Rathkeen in the Parish of Rathcavan. This is on the upland between where the Braid and Glenwhirry river valleys run down to Ballymena, and where 'Eslertown' and the main concentration of Eslers survive along the Portglenone to Larne cattle trail.

So, if the '3 brothers' story is true, it seems that the first and main settlement of Eslers was at Larne, and the secondary settlements were at Rathkeen near Broughshane in mid-Antrim, and Whitehead/Ballycarry in east Antrim.

This gives us a real clue to the Scottish roots of our Eslers, for the Agnews of Kilwaughter Castle were from immediately across the North Channel at Lochnaw - between Portpatrick and Stranraer. And Portpatrick was the port of entry for the enormous cattle trade from Donaghadee in county Down, and the beginning of the major Galloway Cattle Drove road to Carlisle. In A.R.B. Haldane's book, "The Drove Roads of Scotland", he states that between 1786 and 1790, over 55,000 head of Irish cattle were imported into Portpatrick, and in 1812 as many as 20,000 were landed. His map of the drove roads of Scotland shows the sea link for this trade between Donaghadee in county Down and Portpatrick.

Here then is a short abstract about the Agnews of Lochnaw and Larne (Kilwaughter):

Lochnaw Castle
In 1375 "The Agnew", Lord of Larne, went to Ireland with Edward Bruce, younger brother of King Robert the Bruce where he had been invited by the Irish Lords to help rid them of the English and rule in their place. Agnew stayed with Edward in Ulster for three years while he attempted to establish his power.

Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw was granted the lands and constableship of Lochnaw Castle in 1426. In 1451 he was appointed Sheriff of Wigtown, an honour still held by direct descendants today.
During the 15th century the Clan Agnew rose to power however this was under the powerful Clan Douglas. When the Douglases fell from the Kings favour the Agnews in Galloway in fact benefited. However this then brought them into many conflicts with the Clan MacKie and the Clan MacLellan.
16th century
In the 16th century during the Anglo-Scottish Wars Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, was killed at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547 in fighting against the English.

Sir Patrick was MP for Wigtownshire from 1628 to 1633, and again from 1643 to 1647. He was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia on 28 July 1629. He died in 1661 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Andrew, who had been knighted in his father’s lifetime and who was also returned as MP for Wigtownshire. He was created Sheriff of Kirkcudbright as well as Wigtown in the 1650s, when Scotland was part of the Protectorate with England. He married Anne Stewart, daughter of the first Earl of Galloway.
The fifth Baronet, another Andrew, married a kinswoman, Eleanor Agnew of Lochryan, the union producing no fewer than twenty one children.

So the Agnews were known as "Lords of Larne" from the 14th century when they first visited east Antrim with Edward the Bruce! Their Kilwaughter estate was granted in the 17th century as part of the Ulster Plantation of lowland Scots, and by 1659 Kilwaughter Parish had the highest proportion of "Scotch" inhabitants of any Parish in Ireland (over 90%). It may well be that the first Eslers came with the Agnews from their Lochnaw estate near Portpatrick - or maybe they were continually moving west, "sourcing" cattle back along the drove routes from Dumfries and pioneering the western extension of this deep into county Antrim. This is well worth somebody chasing up on the ground in Scotland! But certainly our Eslers at Dalway's Bawn were part of something bigger as far as the cattle trade with Scotland is concerned. One thing is sure - the Esler story is the classic Ulster-Scot story.


  1. Interesting as always, Philip. Do you suppose that Spiro Agnew, Nixon's vice-president, was some relation to the Agnews mentioned in your article?

  2. Gorges,
    I checked out Spiro Agnew, but was disappointed to learn that his father was Greek, and changed his name from Agkniou to Agnew! Well, I don't know what his politics were, so maybe I should be glad?

  3. Interesting that Sir Patrick Agnew was named Baronet of Nova Scotia in 1629, more than 100 years before the Canadian province received that name. To what territory would "Nova Scotia" have referred?
    My family and I spent a pleasant day in Stranraer in 2004...

  4. Gary,
    I really didn't know that about Nova Scotia - it is really interesting as Sir Patrick Agnew was the one who settled in Ulster and built Kilwaughter Castle.
    Got the following info on the title:

    In America in 1621 there was a New England, a New France, and a New Spain. An enterprising Scot, Sir William Alexander of Menstrie who made made a Knight in 1609, attracted the attention of King James (VI of Scotland and I of England), who held court regularly at nearby Stirling, when he proposed that it might encourage development of a New Scotland if His Majesty were to offer a new order of baronets. The King liked the idea. After all, his creation of the Baronets of England in 1611 and the Baronets of Ireland in 1619 had raised £225,000 for the Crown.

    At Windsor Castle on September 10, 1621 King James signed a grant in favour of Sir William Alexander covering all of the lands ‘ between our Colonies of New England and Newfoundland, to be known as New Scotland ’ (Nova Scotia in Latin), an area larger than Great Britain and France combined. On October 18, 1624 the King announced his intention of creating a new order of baronets to Scottish ‘ knichts and gentlemen of cheife respect for the birth, place, or fortounes ’, James I died on March 27, 1625 but his heir, Charles I, lost no time in implementing his father’s plan. By the end of 1625 the first 22 Baronets of Nova Scotia were created and, as inducements to settlement of his new colony of Nova Scotia, Sir William offered tracts of land totalling 11,520 acres ‘ to all such principal knichts & esquires as will be pleased to be undertakers of the said plantations & who will promise to set forth 6 men, artificers or laborers, sufficiently armed, apparelled & victualled for 2 yrs ‘. Baronets could receive their patents in Edinburgh rather than London, and an area of Edinburgh Castle was declared Nova Scotian territory for this purpose. In return they had to pay Sir William 1000 merks for his ‘ past charges in discoverie of the said country ‘.

    Looks like this is a significant discovery, Gary, many thanks, and worth a study on its own?

  5. Very interesting - So Nova Scotia was an idea long before it was an actual place. The territory of Acadia (and especially what is now Nova Scotia) was under French control until 1710 with the siege of Port Royal by the British. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) confirmed British control, but British settlers were outnumbered by French Acadians until the United Empire Loyalists arrived during and after the American Revolution.