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):
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.
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.