Highland Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War

The Wandering Scots Book Club on FaceBook (an educational project of the Council of Scottish Clans & Associations) is starting a discussion about the history of Scots in the American Revolutionary War, I thought that it might be useful to add some further resources to the discussion. Although I have already provided several important Gaelic texts about the revolution in my book We’re Indians Sure Enough, and provided discussion of these and several other items in an extensive article in the online journal eKeltoi, I have since collected further material about Highland perspectives on these events that are lingering in my files. These materials help to demonstrate, amongst other things, how different the Gaelic experience and perspective was from that of anglophone Scots.

It confuses most people to learn that Scottish Gaels were so often zealous in their support of the British Crown during the Revolution, despite their brutal treatment at the hands of the British government in the aftermath of Culloden. There are a number of reasons for their widespread support of the Crown, however, and their fear of joining in the Revolution. The best statement I have yet found appears in a manuscript from North Carolina titled Cape Fear Sketches and Loafer Ramblings, written in the early 1850s based on the reports of eyewitnesses, probably by a lawyer named John Jones.

There were also many Scotch emigrants, who had fled from their country after the battle of Culloden, seeking refuge & peace in our country; that they had suffered so much from rebellion, the very name struck them with awe, and had been so severely chastised by England, that they thought her invincible; and our revolution absolute madness, insuring the destruction of all concerned; altho’ they hated England as their deadliest foe, yet absolute despair induced them to join her, fearing to remain neutral; lest their late rebellion might render them objects of suspicion. They were really subjects for commisseration, and I would throw the mantle of charity over them and their descendants; and it may be further urged in their favour, that they were neither mischeivous nor cruel, rendering our foes such assistance only as they were driven to by hard necessity.

An article appeared in the Virginia Gazette on 23 November 1775 titled “To the Emigrants lately arrived from the highlands of Scotland,” written by a Scot who had taken the side of the American rebels. He tries to convince them not to support the British Crown, or at least to stay neutral. His argument clearly shows that Highlanders had little reason to love or support the central government:

I wish, for the sake of humanity in general, and the royal family in particular, that I could throw a veil over the conduct of the duke of Cumberland after the last rebellion. The indiscriminate punishments which he held out equally to the innocent and the guilty are facts of notoriety much to be lamented. The intention may possibly in some measure excuse, though nothing can justify the barbarity of the measure.

The Gaels had already cemented their loyalty to the British Crown during the Seven Years’ War (1755-63), however, so their continuance to serve in the military is not surprising, especially as they expected that this would help them find favor, and forgiveness, from the British Crown, especially because Scottish Gaeldom had been tarnished with the brush of sedition and treason due to their tendency to adhere to the Stewart cause (ie, Jacobitism).

The biography of the Reverend David Caldwell, who was a minister of the Cape Fear, which was published in 1842, elaborates a bit more on the reasons that so many Gaels were reluctant to join the insurrection:

While a number of the Scotch were as good whigs as any in the country, the majority of them, although they had sacrificed much to liberty in their own country [ie, Scotland], supported the claims of Great Britain in America. For this many reasons have been assigned; but the most cogent were such as the following: The older part of them had felt the effects of British power so much in the land of their nativity, particularly at and after the battle of Culloden, that they dreaded to encounter that power again; their nation had for some time previous shared, as they thought, quite liberally in the royal favor for which, with their characteristic generosity and sense of gratitude, they felt themselves under obligations on that account, though personally beyond its reach; and then all their chieftains, or prominent and influential men had taken the oath of allegiance to King George before they crossed the Atlantic. A venerable and excellent old man who had borne a pretty high commission in the British service during the war, remarked in the presence of the writer, some years ago, that he had sworn allegiance to the king of England, when in London, about to take shipping for America; and he felt himself bound by that oath. The obligation of an oath is one which a conscientious people, like the Scotch, especially when left without proper instruction as most of them were at that time, cannot be easily induced to violate…

This account emphasizes the importance of oaths in maintaining the loyalty of Highlanders and these pledges still survive. As they are in Gaelic, however (as they had to be, given that few Highlanders understood English at this time), they seem to have been entirely overlooked by previous historians. I owe my own knowledge of them to my friend Dr Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart. They were previously printed, without a translation, in D. Wimberly, 1898, ‘The Bighouse Papers’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 23, 8-53 (at 32-4). The oaths are dated 1754, just two years before the first troops left for the French and Indian War, and only eight years after Culloden.

There are actually three different versions of the oath, apparently corresponding to the degree to which the person was willing to renounce his hopes of a Jacobite comeback and resign himself to the exclusive sovereignty of the Hanoverians. The second oath is the least committal of the three, while the first is the most comprehensive. The texts were most likely written by a Church of Scotland minister, who tended to act in the interest of the central government, and few others were literate in Highland society at that time. The act referred to in oath 1 is probably the 1701 “Act of Settlement”.

The oaths are also very interesting for what they tell us high-register Gaelic (i.e., the form of Gaelic used by bureaucrats and officials) in the mid-eighteenth century. I have not attempted to correct or regularize it in any way, so that you can examine the original form of words. It was spelled in an irregular manner, as the modern standards for Gaelic did not yet exist. On top of that, the old dative case (ending in –ibh) is used regularly, while the plural ending –an standard in the vernacular ‘central’ dialects of the Scotland is not used.

Oath 1:
A-ta sinne na Foi-sgriobhoire gu fior agus gu neimh-chealgach ag Aidmheachadh, agus ag Dimhineachadh ag togbhail Fiadhnais, agus ag Foillseachadh ann ar Coguisibh, ann Labhair Dhe agus an t-Saoghail gur e ar n Aird-Thriath an Dara Righ Seoras, Righ laghail dligheach na Rioghachd-sa, agus gach gu neimh-chealgach a foillseachadh, gu’m bheil sinn ag creidsin ann ar Coguisibh nach bheil Coir no Dlighe air-bith air Crun na Rioghachd-sa, no Tighearnais air-bith eile a bhuineas d’i, ag an Fhear a chuir roimh-e b’e Prionsa Wales re Linn Righ Seamais nach mairthean, agus o a Bhas-san a ’ta ag cur roimh-e gar e, agus a ’ta ag gabhail chuig-e fein Stoile agus Tiotal Righ Shasoin fo Ainm an Treasa Seamais, no Righ Alba fo ainm on Ochta Seamais, no Stoile agus Tiotal Righ Mhoir-Bhritinn. Agus a ta sinn ag Aicheadh agus air ar Mionnaibh Seanaidh ag Diulltadh gach Geill agus Umhlachd dh’a. Agus a ta sinn ag Mionnachadh gu’n toir sinn Fior-umhlachd aghaidh gach Comh-cheangail chealgaich agus gach Ionnsuigh air-bith, a bhitheas ann Aghaidh a Phearsa, a Chruin no Fhiuntais. Agus Gnathaichidh sinn ar n Uile-dhithcheal a leigeil ris agus a nochdadh d’a Mhordhachd agus d’a Luchd Iairleanmhain, gach Ceannairc agus Coimh-cheangal cealgach, a’s Aithne dhuinn ’a bhitheas ’n a Aghaidh-sin, no ann Aghaidh aoin-neach dhiubhsan. Agus a ta sinn gu dileas ag Gealltain gu’n Cum sinn suas, gu’n Coimhid agus gu’n Dion, sinn le ar n Uile-neart Iairleanmhain a’ Chruin ’n a Aghaidh-sin, iodhon Seamas reamh-raite, agus ann Aghaidh gach Dreim air-bith eile, An Iair-lean-mhain a ’ta le Reachd d’an Ainm Reachd chum tuille Crioslachaidh a’ Chruin, agus Daingeachaidh Choraiche agus Saoirse nan Iochdaran nis fearr, sonraichte do’n Bhain-Phrionsa Sophia nach mairthean, Ban-roigh-neadair agus Bain-duic Dhuairichte Hanover, agus do oighreachaibh a Cuirp, air bith dhoibh do’n Chreideamh aith-leasaichte. Agus na Nithe sin uile a-ta sinn gu soilleir agus neimh-chealgach ag Aidmheachadh agus ag Mionnachadh, do Reir nan Ceirtbhriathar sin a labhradh leinn’ agus de Reir Seagha agus Ceill shoilleir agus gnath-aichte nam Briathar ceadna, gun Atharrachadh Seagha gun Seach-rod, gun Saoibh-sheagh, gun diomhair Inntinn. Agus a ta Sinn ag deanamh na’ h’ Athfhaosaid agus na h’ Aidmheil so, ag luadh nam Mionna Seanaidh, ag deanamh an Diulltadh, agus ag tabhairt a Gheallaidh so, gu croidheil, toileach, fior, air Fir-chrideamh Criosluidh. Mar so cuidich leinn’ a Dhia.

We the undersigned do truly and sincerely avow, and affirm and bear testimony, declaring in our consciences, in the presence of God and the world, that King George II is the supreme ruler, the lawful and rightful king of the kingdom, and each do declare sincerely, that we believe in our consciences that there is no right to the Crown of the Kingdom, or any lordship that belongs to (the kingdom), (that should be claimed by) the man [i.e., Prince Charles Edward Stuart] who alleged that he was the Prince of Wales during the time of the late King James, and since his [James’s] death, he is making that claim, and is taking for himself the style and title of the King of England, under the name James III, or the King of Scotland, under the name James VIII, or the style and title of the King of Great Britain. We renounce him — by the vows of the Synod — and refuse to surrender to him or defer to him. We do swear that we will truly renounce every seditious association and every attack which is against his [George’s] person, crown or dignity. And we will do our utmost to submit to him and to reveal to his Majesty and to his representatives, every treason and seditious association that we know of which would be against him, or against any one of them [his representatives]. And we do devotedly promise that we will keep up and preserve and defend, with all of our might, the representatives of the Crown against the aforementioned James, and against any other group, the Representative who (has?) the Act titled “An act for declaring the rights and liberties of the subject, and settling the succession of the Crown”, especially the late Princess Sophia, Electress and Duchess of Hanover, and to her corporal heirs, who have gone to the Reformed Faith. And all of these things we do clearly and sincerely profess and promise, according to these very words that we have declaimed, and according to the clear and usual sense and meaning of these same words, without any alteration of meaning, without wandering, without falsity, without any secrets of mind. And we make this vow and acknowledgement, speaking the oath of the Synod, making the renunciation and taking this promise, in earnest, willingly, and truly, by the true Christian faith, so help us God.

Oath 2:
A ta sinne na Foi-sgriobhoire gu neimh-chealgach ag gealltain, agus ag mionnachadh, gu’m bith sinn dileas agus fior-umhal do Mhordhach an Dara Righ Seorais, mar so cuidich leinn’ a Dhia.

We the undersigned do sincerely promise and vow that we will be loyal and truly obedient to his Majesty, King George II, so help us God.

Oath 3:

A ta sinne na Foi-sgriobhoire ann an Neimh-chealgaireachd ar Croidhi, ag radh, ag Aidmheachadh, agus ag Foillseachadh gur e Mordhachd an Dara Righ Seorais amhain agus gun Amharus, Aird-Thriath laghail na Rioghachd-sa, comh-mhaith ‘de Jure.’ Is e sin, Righ do brigh Corach as ‘de Facto.’ Is e sinn ann an Seilbh agus ann an Gnathachadh an h’ Aird-riaghail.

Agus air an Adhbhar Sin, a ta sinn gu neimh-chealgach agus gu dileas ag gealltainn agus ag Ceangal oirn-fein gu’n Coimhid agus gu’n Dion sinn le ar Croidhe agus le ar Laimh, le ar Beatha agus le ar Maoin Pearsa agus Aird-riaghail a Mhordhachd ann Aghaidh an Fhir sin a Chuir roimh-e gu’m b’e Prionsa Wales re Linn Righ Seamais nach mairthean, agus o a Bhas-san, a ta ag Cur roimh-e gur e, agus a ta ag gabhail chuig-e fein Stoile agus Tiotal Righ Shasoin fo Ainm an Treasa Seamais, no Righ Alba fo Ainm an Ochta Seamais, agus ann an Aghaidh a Luchd leanmhain, s nan uile Naimhde eile, a bheir Ionsuigh dhiomhair no fhollas air Aimh-reite no Ais-sith a thogbhail ann Aghaidh a Mhordhachd ann nan Seilbh agus ann nan Gnathachadh sin.

We the undersigned, in the sincerity of our hearts, do say, do vow and do declare, without any reservation, that his Majesty King George II is the only legitimate supreme ruler of this Kingdom, as good as de Jure. That is to say, the King whose right is de Facto. He is in possession of, and control of, the central government.

And for that reason, we do sincerely and loyally do promise and bind ourselves, that we will defend with our hearts and with our hands, with our lives and with our personal wealth, his Majesty’s central government against that man who alleged to be the Prince of Wales during the life of the late King James, and since his death, alleges that he is, and takes for himself the style and title of the King of England, under the name James III, or the King of Scotland, under the name James VIII, and against his followers, and all of those who are enemies, who make secret or public attack in order to create chaos or inflict damage against his Majesty, who is in possession and control of that.

Select Bibliography

Michael Newton. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Saorsa Media, 2001.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Keith Sanger says:

    Interesting but is there a record of how many people actually swore to each version? Those serving soldiers of all ranks who were serving in the government army prior to 1745 and deserted to the Prince’s force would have already sworn an oath to serve King George which they seemed to have no problem with breaking. Having read my way through quite a large number of ‘Attestation forms’ for regiments raised between 1770 to 1800 where the forms clearly state that the recruit being sworn in was a protestant it is obvious that such matters were often fudged as many certainly were not.

    1. Thanks, Keith. I don’t know of any such records, or even why one would be used rather than another.

  2. Geoffrey May says:

    good article . And for most colonists , neutrality simply wasn’t on offer .neutrality simply meant they would be robbed plundered and harassed by both sides , the civil war aspects are usually brushed over by histories fixation on battles . I first got a sense for this reading the letters written by veterans following the 1832 act of Congress , granting pensions , veterans were asked to write an account of their service to receive pensions ( btw , these letters are written in very unstandard English, ) and most who applied had taken part in campaigns against their Tory neighbors in small skirmishing and raiding , not the formal battles of the history books. Another aspect of Gaelic “loyalty” might also be connected to Catholicism . The rhetoric of the rebels was based on the enlightenment and monarchy was often compared to Popery. I suspect this had a lot to do with Quebec’s resistance to Arnold’s mission , and may have played a larger role in the revolution than generally acknowledged.

  3. Bill Currie says:

    I’m wondering how much a pension had to do within the loyalty of those Gaels who actually fought for the British during the revolution. I recall reading somewhere that Flora MacDonald’s husband was clear about serving his former enemy only to gain a pension.

  4. Nick Kane says:

    Hey Michael. I’ve gotten around to read some of your articles the past couple weeks. It’s nice to see some fresh breathe coming back into this topic. It seems we’ve used most of the same sources, which isn’t surprising considering the small amount that exist, but you hit a lot more points than older authors. I see that you’ve used poetry as a primary source to describe the sentiments on loyalism and the war. Have you found any from lower class Highlanders? I’ve yet to come across any more sources for the common Highlander’s perspective, I think you’re route with Gaelic poetry might be a way to go with future studies. Besides loyalists, what have you come across with Highland Patriots and neutrals? In some muster lists I have found Highland last names, but very few, and it has been said that most of the NC Highlanders actually stayed neutral through out the war.

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