Finding my Scots-Irish ancestors in Bushmills – part 1

This series of three posts set out my research into my Dean and Boyd ancestors who came from County Antrim.

Tracing your Irish ancestors can be extremely frustrating and inconclusive, as anyone who has attempted it will know. This is because so many records of births, marriages and deaths, as well as census records, have been lost. The remaining records are patchy at best. There are many such challenges in tracing my Irish Boyd and Dean ancestors.

My great-great-grandparents were Margaret Dean and Stephenson Boyd. Margaret immigrated to New Zealand with her daughters in 1883, following Stephenson’s accidental death. Margaret settled in Gore and died in 1911 aged 87 years. Margaret and Stephenson came from North Antrim, Northern Ireland, from the area near the small town of Bushmills. Much more than these bare facts has been slow to emerge. I had the opportunity to unravel some of the mysteries when I visited Belfast and County Antrim in 2014.

So, what do we know with any certainty? Margaret Dean and Stephenson Boyd married in 1842 in or near Bushmills in North Antrim and a few years later moved across the water to Lanarkshire in Scotland, a few miles south of Glasgow. The records of neither Margaret’s nor Stephenson’s births do not appear to have survived. Neither has their marriage record. Fortunately though, the location where they grew up, and the families they came from, are hinted at in various records. Bushmills is mentioned, as is Billy, a parish which includes part of Bushmills town.

Both the Boyd and Dean families appear to have been Presbyterian, which indicates that they were Scots-Irish – i.e. their ancestors were part of the settlement of Ulster by Scottish landowners, tenant farmers and farm workers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even today, the area and the accent encountered there have a strongly Scottish feel compared to the southern counties of Ireland. So, apart from being famous for Old Bushmills Whiskey and the Giant’s Causeway, what was Bushmills like in the 1800s?

Main Street Bushmills

The main street of Bushmills, 1930s (Bushmills Historical Society)

Bushmills is a small town of about 1000 people situated near the northern coast of County Antrim, now in Northern Ireland. Billy is a parish covering an area to the immediate south-east of Bushmills. In keeping with all Irish parishes, Billy is divided into a number of small ‘townlands’, including Eagry, Clougher and Magherintendry. The townland boundaries are often marked in the landscape by ditches and streams. The Bush River separates Billy from Dunluce parish to the west and Bushmills straddles the river.

Bushmills town consisted of only 15 houses in 1829, but grew considerably until reaching 251 houses and 1072 people in 1900. These numbers do not include the considerable population that resided on farms in the surrounding districts.

Bush River postcard

Bush River bridge at Bushmills

The Presbytery of Bushmills was established in 1646 and underwent considerable turmoil and dislocation until 1820, when the Rev Hugh Hamill was ordained as minister. Rev Hamill began the meticulous recording of births and marriages in that year, and fortunately for us these registers have survived. The first Presbyterian meeting house in Bushmills town was a small thatched building, which was replaced with a new building in 1829. The building was extensively renovated in 2005. Mr Hamill purchased some land on Straid Road in Eagry townland for his residence. Following his death in 1864, the house was gifted to the congregation as the manse of subsequent ministers.

Useful information about the history of the Bushmills Presbyterian Church can be found at The Bushmills Historical Society has published a collection of photographs of old Bushmills here:

In the next post, I will piece together what I know of my Dean ancestors from Bushmills.

2 thoughts on “Finding my Scots-Irish ancestors in Bushmills – part 1

  1. Hello, I am very interested in your research into Stevenson (Stephenson) Boyd and Mary Dean. Stevenson is my 3x great Grandfather. I have just begun my genealogy research and would love to chat. I am intrigued by your information and photos. Please let me know how to best communicate with you.

    Thank you

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