Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 16: The Scots in the US

The 1706 ordination of John Boyd at the Old Scots Meeting House, Freehold, New Jersey, marked the first presbytery meeting and the first known Presbyterian ordination in American. Not all early church leaders were Presbyterians, however; in Virginia, the first president of William and Mary College was James Blair, pioneer and subsequent architect of Scottish influence upon the Colonial Episcopal Church.

An expanding empire needed a steady supply of soldiers for one thing and the Scots supplied whole regiments from the Highlands for this purpose; it also needed settlers and administrators. Everywhere the British Empire spread, Scotsmen played leading roles in its administration. They were truly Britain's empire-builders (and as the example of Scottish-born John Paul Jones shows, they could also play leading parts in its dissolution). Though people of German stock predominated in the colonies by 1790, it is estimated that 260,322 people of Scottish descent were living in the United States, about 9 percent of the total population. After the Germans came the English, then the Scots. (Scotch-Irish constituted about 6 percent of the total).

The role of the Glasgow merchants in the expansion of the tobacco trade of the southern colonies was crucial. Many factors contributed to their pivotal role: many men in the trade were senior partners in Glasgow companies; they provided money and men for the clearing of the forests and the planting of tobacco inland. Between 1750 and 1765, Glasgow merchants gave their rapidly-growing city predominance in the British tobacco trade, making it one of the leading commercial cities in Europe. Tobacco was Scotland's first big business; it stimulated shipbuilding, encouraged manufacture for colonial markets and helped the Scottish banking system become one of the strongest anywhere.

It may surprise many to read that the majority of Scots who settled in the New World were fiercely loyal to the Crown. The Act of Union had cemented the two kingdoms together mainly through their Royal families, but one reason for the American Scots loyalty to the royal family was their strong attachment to clan and country. Scotland remained ever in their hearts, and Scotland was part of the United Kingdom. Closely bound to their friends and fellow Highlanders at home, the expatriates fought for their national heritage. Of the loyalists who fought for the King, Scots comprised l9 percent. At war's end, over 30,000 loyal Scots left for Canada where their influence on the development of that country was enormous.

One of the most well known loyalists was Flora MacDonald, who had helped Charles Edward (disguised as maid Betty Burke) escape in 1746. Flora was captured by fellow Scot Captain John Fergusson "the scourge of the Highlands" imprisoned on a British ship and later paroled from the Tower of London. She became something of a celebrity. Her company was eagerly sought by London's leading citizens and literary men, no doubt all agog at her tales of the Bonnie Prince. In 1774, she emigrated with her husband Allen MacDonald and their seven children to North Carolina. As ardent loyalists, they were not alone in the American south. Between 1764 and 1776, during the hard years of famine and recriminations following Culloden, more than 23,000 Highlanders had emigrated to the American colonies. They tended to settle with their fellows and retained the ways of clan life.

Perhaps it was suspicion of the local authorities and new ruling classes that made the MacDonalds loyalists. In any case, they joined a large group of fellow Scots at Cross Creek (now called Fayetteville). When the royal governor of North Carolina called for volunteers to fight for King George III against the rebel Americans, he found a ready source among these Highland expatriates. Allen MacDonald raised the Royal Highland Emigrants Regiment. His troops were decimated by gunfire before they could charge in an ill-advised engagement at Moore's Creek that was so eerily reminiscent of Culloden. Following their defeat, the clan's property was confiscated, the family consequently left for British-held New York City and later Nova Scotia. Flora eventually returned to her beloved Isle of Skye, where she died in 1790.

Other Scottish-American regiments were more successful. Included were some raised in northern New York State where Highlanders led by William Johnson had been clearing the vast, uninhabited wilderness. After the Revolution, many moved to Quebec, where Glengary Highlanders continue to be proud of their McDonnell ancestors. Historians are fond of pointing out that today there are probably more descendants of the Highland clans in North America than in Scotland.

Chapter 16: The Scots in the US continued