Friday, July 17, 2009

La Rochelle and the Ulster-Scots

My brother Graeme (plus his wife Judith and their two children Kyle and Julia - pictured above) is just back from a holiday on the west coast of France. He met up with a Scottish relative of ours (who was also in the area on holiday with his family) at La Rochelle.

According to the tourist brochure Graeme brought home with him, La Rochelle was known as "the stronghold of Protestantism" or "the Geneva of the Atlantic". It has a Protestant history museum too.

The Ulster-Scots connection is that the mighty Robert Blair nearly went to La Rochelle instead of coming to Ulster. Blair's autobiography records that he was visited in Glasgow around 1622 by a Monsieur Basnage, who was there to raise money for the beseiged French protestants, and then offered Blair a job: "...he told me he had heard well of me... encouraged me... that I would come to France, where I would be very welcome... assuring me that I should no sooner come but I should have a place in a college to teach philosophy till I learned the French language, that so I might serve in the holy ministry there..." Benjamin Basnage was the pastor of the French protestant church at Carentan / Quarentin. 300 odd years later, Carentan was within the American sector of the Normandy landing beaches of Utah and Omaha.

Blair later writes of being clearly led by God to go instead to Ulster "... I found myself bound in spirit to set my face towards a voyage to Ireland; and yet was not persuaded, for all this, to desire to settle there, loathing that place, and hankering still after France...".

It was a Jonah-like moment in his life, but eventually, in 1623, he did sail from Ayrshire to Carrickfergus, and then travelled to Bangor - where he turned the fledgling Ulster-Scots colony in east Ulster into a forge which shaped the identity of a people that lives on to this day.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jack for letting me know that John Welsh, the son-in-law of John Knox and father of Josias Welsh of Templepatrick, also spent time in La Rochelle.