From Highlanders to Tar-Heels: Part 1

The Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Community of the Cape Fear of the Carolinas

(The following blog entry is a summary of a talk about the Scottish Gaelic immigrant community of the Cape Fear of the Carolinas during the eighteenth century, delivered as a public lecture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on Sept 15, 2014.)

Some of the circumstances and general facts surrounding the large-scale migration of Scottish Highlanders to the Cape Fear region of the Carolinas in the eighteenth century are well researched and widely understood, despite the poor and incomplete documentary record of migrants. The basic historical outline is well known: the North Carolina Colonial council granted tax breaks to foreign Protestants for the first ten years of settlement to encourage the “desired type of immigrant” and a group of about 350 Gaels from Argyllshire formed the first colony in 1739. There was very little further migration until the 1760s. Between 1768 and 1774 economic and political pressures in the Scottish Highlands were then so severe that somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Gaels went to North America, a great many of them to the Cape Fear settlement. Although the American Revolution essentially stopped migration to the Cape Fear, it resumed in smaller sporadic bursts until about 1840.


The map above provides the approximate boundaries of the area of Gaelic settlement of the Cape Fear.

The lack of development of Scottish Gaelic Studies in North America, and the general lack of attention to the emigrant experience in Scottish departments of Scottish Gaelic Studies, has meant that the more nuanced aspects of the cultural legacy of this community has received inadequate attention by researchers with appropriate skills. Indeed, scholars in other fields in the American academy have made aggregious errors in glossing over the characteristics of Scottish Gaels, their language and historical experience. Take, for example, the short entry about one of the main centres of Gaelic settlement produced by the North Carolina Language and Life Project of North Carolina State University:


Gaels are here referred to as “Anglo settlers,” an historic and ethnic mis-classification that would have insulted them deeply, which is based on the modern conflation of language and ethnicity. The account also does not represent the linguistic realities of the community accurately at all.

Information about who these people were, what their language and culture were, how they perceived and represented themselves, and what they said about their own experiences, then, is sorely missing even in the hallowed halls of American academia. Of course, the dominance of stereotypes about Highlanders, emanating from Highland Games and Hollywood, does little to enhance popular understandings of this important element in the history of European settlement of North America.

In this short blog entry, I hope to provide an outline of information about the Cape Fear Gaelic community to the end of the eighteenth century and address to some degree the following questions:

  • What was their original ethnic identity?
  • What did they say about what they experienced?
  • What does surviving information tell us about their cultural makeup, mentality, and perspectives?
  • How can we correct inaccurate stereotypes by using their own literary remains?


It is vitally important from the start to emphasize that Scotland is not one nation but (at least) two, using the older sense of “nation” to denote an ethnic group united by a common language, customs, and origin myth. Although there are features which distinguish particular communities within the Highlands (religious affiliation, dialect, variations of vernacular culture, leadership), Gaels perceived themselves as a cohesive ethnic group in Scotland who contrasted with the people of the Lowlands. Self-perceptions of Highland distinctiveness continued in North America for as long as the Gaelic language has survived. The question of language is central, for it is integral to other aspects of Gaelic cultural expression. (See discussion in Newton, Warriors of the Word and “Scotland’s Two Solitudes.”)

The colored area of this map indicates the approximate area of the Highlands, and of the dominance of Gaelic speech in the eighteenth century. It is clearly a significant proportion of the land mass of Scotland.


Gaels themselves framed the loss of the Jacobite cause and the subsequent domination of the Highlands in terms of the centuries-long conflict between themselves, as the original indigenous population of Scotland, and the anglophone usurpers of the Lowlands. Emigration out of the Highlands and into the Carolinas began, however, several years before Culloden from Argyllshire (area 1 on the map above). and hence the origin of the name of their settlement: “The Argyll Colony.” By 1767 the area of heavy outmigration shifted north and west (area 2) and even spread to Sutherland in the far north (area 3) by 1774, one of the few areas with a long tradition of Protestant devotion.

One of the key resources that deserves special consideration in reconstructing this history is the song-poetry composed by the people who experienced these things. Particularly because these were composed and transmitted by people living in an oral-dominant society (where only a few of the élite were literate in their own language), snapshots of these texts, in constant flux due to the nature of oral tradition, were only periodically captured, sometimes far from their original places of composition. Gaelic literary remains, therefore, are like a restless kaleidoscope produced by communities reflecting and refracting artifacts of layers of each other’s experiences as they constantly fragment and relocate across countries and continents. Gaining a complete picture of any communities experiences and literary record would entail searching the oral archives and written records of communities in the US, Canada and Scotland in order to complement and complete the evidence left in any single site. (See further discussion in Newton, “In Their Own Words” and “Unsettling Iain mac Mhurchaidh’s slumber.”)

Language and Identity

Language is not only a means of transmitting and negotiating culture, it is a powerful symbol of the identity of that culture. This was as much true of the Gaels of the Carolinas as for any other ethnic group. When Finlay MacRae, a Jacobite soldier who survived Battle of Culloden (1746), emigrated to the Cape Fear (c.1770) he was said to have “cherished such a hatred of the English, in consequence of the atrocities of the Duke of Cumberland, that he would never speak the English language, but spoke only Gaelic as long as he lived.” Thus, the portrayal of Gaels as “Anglos” by the North Carolina Language and Life Project (shown above) is entirely misinformed.

Although many of the upper ranks of Gaelic society were bi-lingual by necessity of needing to engage in political and economic matters with the anglophone ascendency in Britain, hardly any of the lower ranks of the Highlands spoke English. This was true in many regions into the late nineteenth century and beyond. Leaders of the Argyll Colony petitioned the Presbytery of Inverary in 1739 to provide them with “a clergyman that can speak the Highland language since from that country all our servants are to be, many of which cannot speak any other language.”

As the mass of Highland migrants spoke no language but Gaelic, the colony was strongly Gaelic in orientation, at least during the lives of the first generation of settlers. In the biography of a minister who arrived in 1807, it was written: “preaching and singing in the Gaelic language was indispensable for many years in the churches throughout the Scotch [Cape Fear] region. Many of the old Highlanders could scarcely speak a word in the English language, and could not at all follow a regular discourse in it.”

There was a lingering memory of how distinct these early Gaelic colonists were to the anglophones who witnessed their arrival. Even if it is somewhat exaggerated, it has echoes of an earlier Gaelic source:

“It is said that upon the arrival of so unusual an importation at Wilmington the authorities, struck with the dress and language of the newcomers, required Macniel to enter into a bond for their peaceful and good behaviour. Perhaps the war-like spirit of the Celtic race struck the Wilmingtonians with such terror as led to the demand of the bond. Our intrepid countryman managed to evade the demand and ascended the Cape Fear with this band of his countrymen. …” (Weekly Raleigh Register 1860)

Gaelic Literature about Carolina Migrations Composed in Scotland

The nature of the Scottish Gaelic literary tradition has often been misrepresented. Literatures in the Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland are the earliest native voices to emerge in Western Europe. Due to the expansion of an anglophone empire that imposed its own language and culture on those which it conquered, the Celtic languages of Cornwall, Ireland, Man, Scotland, and Wales were not able to develop in the modern era with the support and patronage of their own national institutions as other European peoples were able to do. Instead, only a small number of the professional élite – usually churchmen – were able to acquire and foster learning in these native tongues. And, as a result, most verbal arts continued to be practiced within an oral tradition, only occasionally getting committed to writing due to the interests and concerns of particular people at particular times. Despite the large amount of oral song-poetry and narrative that must have been composed by and about Scottish Gaelic communities in the Carolinas, only a few pieces have survived, mostly recorded and archived elsewhere.

The earliest surviving Gaelic source related to Carolinas is in an unpublished MS held in Nova Scotia. It is the transcription from family oral tradition of a song-poem relating to the fate of the scions of the MacDonalds of Keppoch following the Battle of Culloden. Chieftain Alexander MacDonell was killed in action, his hall at Keppoch was destroyed by government troops and his sons Iain Òg (“young John”) and Domhnall Glas (“Pale Donald”) were banished as Jacobite rebels to Carolinas. I hope to publish an edition and translation of this entire piece in the near future, but for now the handwritten notes to the song in the manuscript will have to suffice:

“A song after Culloden after the horrid Duke of Cumberland burnt Keppoch House, and the two sons of Both-Fhionntainn were sent into exile to South Carolina. The two were married and have many descendants in that land today.”

This demonstrates not only the lingering interests that distant relations in other far-away colonies continued to nurture, but their ability to somehow glean information about them well before Google and other internet search engines were available.

Following in chronological order, one of the next songs was composed by Iain mac Fhearchair MacCodruim (aka. “John MacCodrum”) of North Uist about the 1769-73 migration from the Clan Donald estates to North Carolina. A short excerpt provides a sense of the duress which the motivated the peasantry to depart their old homes:

“you must sail away and it is not your desire to do so … Because [the landlords] will not allow you to live in the lands that are familiar to you, it is better to leave willingly than to sink into slavery…”

“[the landlords] are of the opinion that you no longer belong to the soil … they have lost sight of every obligation and pledge that they had with the men who reclaimed their land from their enemies.”  (the poem is given in full in Newton, We’re Indians Sure Enough, 88-93)

Poet Domhnall MacMhathain of Sutherland composed a poem comparing Scottish Gaels to those who fled in Noah’s Ark. Although his poem is undated, it was probably commenting upon the migrations that left Sutherland in 1774. It was printed in Scotland in a book of religious hymns in 1816. MacMhathain goes on to liken Scottish Gaelic emigrants to the Jews enslaved in Egypt, adding:

“…Landlords are enslaving their people at this time; evicting and forcing them to go to a land that will do good for their children…” (the poem is given in full in MacDonell, The Emigrant Experience, 20-27)

Gaelic Religious Literature

Most of the texts composed in Scottish Gaelic that survive from the Carolina colony are religious in nature. Although a great many song-poems, anecdotes and oral narratives must have been in circulation in Gaelic in the Cape Fear community, clergymen formed the majority of the few people who had had the privilege of receiving education in their native tongue and their interests were more spiritual than secular.

The earliest surviving printed sermons in Gaelic from anywhere were published not in Scotland but in North Carolina! The sermons were delivered orally to the Raft Swamp congregation in the autumn of 1790 and printed in Fayetteville in 1791. The resulting booklet was meant to be used in both the United States and Scotland, being dedicated to congregations in Scotland, in Raft Swamp (Robeson), and Long Street (Cumberland). It contains three long prayers and two sermons, having been intended for use in private religious practice as well as public religious services. The author, Dùghlas Crawford, was a native of the isle of Arran in Scotland and was clearly a capable Gaelic writer. The printers in Fayetteville were equally capable of dealing with the language. This work is an early manifestation of Gaelic evangelical movement and illustrates the transition from the dominance of orality in Gaelic culture to more widespread acquisition of literacy in the vernacular tongue (see discussion in Meek, “The pulplit”).

Highlanders tend to be depicted as either a backward peasants stubbornly clutching on to ancient customs and beliefs, or else stark and austere Presbyterians stamping out all earthly pleasures with puritanical zeal. While neither stereotype captures reality completely, it should be noted that while many Highland emigrants to the Carolinas came from nominally Presbyterian areas, communities were rarely orthodox in a modern religious sense. They instead experienced evangelical revivals and conversions in North America that changed the nature of religious belief and practice tremendously.

In a biography of the Rev. Daniel White (a Scottish Gael who immigrated to the Cape Fear in 1807), it was stated: “The Scotch people there were sparsely settled, ignorant, rarely hearing preaching of any kind … here surrounded by a people wandering in the mazes of superstition – believing in witches and ghosts … but they were the people of his native land …” While this portrayal may exaggerate the unorthodox nature of the spiritual beliefs of parishoners in order to vaunt his achievements in converting them, it is certainly true to state that older indigenous cosmology and customs lingered long in Gaelic consciousness.

Both the geographical isolation and the linguistic distinctions of the Highlands served to separate it from the culture and developments of the Lowlands. The Synods of Argyll and Glenelg complained in 1755 to the Scottish General Assembly about “the distressed Situation of their Bounds by the want of Preachers having the Irish [i.e., Gaelic] language.”

The chance survival of a tiny charm sheet from the Cape Fear illustrates the continued belief in and use of magic by at least some Gaels. It is only a small, folded paper held by the North Carolina Archives and History in Raleigh, associated with Dùghall MacPhàrlain of Moore County. It is written in Gaelic but the non-standard orthography influenced by English literacy has made the “decryption” of the text challenging. It was recently deciphered and analyzed by Ronald Black, who notes that it is “…not merely the only Scottish Gaelic charm known to have survived from the New World. It may well be the only Scottish Gaelic charm to have survived from the eighteenth century in the form of a functioning artifact rather than as a scholarly transcript.”

The charm’s text recalls Gaelic founder saint Colm Cille (Columba), repeatedly invokes the magic number nine (three times three), and makes references to the sìthichean (fairies). It is consistent with the motifs in other surviving Gaelic charms, and certainly indicates that not all Highland emigrants were strict Presbyterians in the modern sense.

Gaelic Literature of the American Revolution

The Scottish Gaelic communities of the Cape Fear were divided by the American Revolution. In general, those who had been in the colony the longest were more likely to side with the rebels, and those who had most recently arrived were more likely to side with and fight as Loyalists (to the British Crown). It’s been estimated that the population was split about in thirds, with one segment attempting to avoid taking sides and engaging in the conflict altogether. There is a great deal of political commentary in Gaelic about the Revolution, especially in song-poetry, although much of what survives comes from sources in Scotland (see Newton, We’re Indians Sure Enough and “Jacobite Past”).

Probably the most interesting Gaelic literary survival from the Cape Fear is a lullaby to a young daughter. Although it has been attributed in some in the past to Iain mac Mhurchaidh, I have recently examined several surviving variants (from Scotland and Nova Scotia) and determined that it was composed by an immigrant mother, probably during the Revolutionary War. The text conveys anxiety about the family’s circumstances, and remarks on the alien customs in the colony and the unfamiliar flora and fauna of an unknown environment. It also notes the liminal status of Gaels on the geo-political “frontier,” and alludes to the anglophone perception of Gaels (in the company of Others) residing on the cultural boundary between barbaric and civilized. (See Newton, “Unsettling Iain mac Mhurchaidh’s slumber”).

There is also a very interesting first-person historical legend about a Highlander named Iain MacArtuir who settled in the Carolinas. He fought as a Loyalist when the Revolution occured and was imprisoned. He escaped with wife and returned to Western Isles to tell the tale (in Gaelic), which seems to have remained in oral circulation until transcribed and published in 1961. This tale seems to have evaded previous scholarly attention. I hope to deal with it at a future date.


Here, by way of summary, are a few of the conclusions that emerge from this research.

The Scottish Gaelic community had its own language, culture and ethnic identity. It saw itself as distinct from “Anglo-British” culture, even though the forces of assimilation were to close in on it during the nineteenth century in the Carolinas.  Members of the community produced Gaelic literature but the remains that survive are few and most survive elsewhere (in Canada or Scotland); these are, however, crucial bits of evidence for reconstructing cultural features and the communal experiences of the Carolina Gaels.

Even though immigrants brought aspects of traditional Gaelic culture and cosmology with them, these were eroded by the evangelical movement that swept through British North America in the early nineteenth century.

The Revolutionary War fragmented and weakened the Gaelic community of the Cape Fear, particularly because so many of its customary authority figures remained loyal to the British Crown and relocated elsewhere, leaving the remaining community with insufficient leadership. Nonetheless, the community remained connected to a trans-Atlantic network that spanned Gaelic settlements in Scotland and North America for several generations.

NOTE: I wrote an earlier essay in 2006 which provides another view of the early history of settlement. It can be found at this webpage.

Go forward to Part Two at this link.


Black, Ronald. “ ‘The Nine’: A Scottish Gaelic Charm in the North Carolina State Archives.”  The North Carolina Historical Review 84 (January 2007): 37-58.

Dunn, Charles. Highland Settler: A Portrait of the Scottish Gael in Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Island: Breton Books, reprint 1991 [1968].

Kelly, Douglas and Caroline Kelly. Carolina Scots. Dillon, S.C: 1998.

MacDonell, Margaret (ed.). The Emigrant Experience, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Meek, Donald. “The pulpit and the pen: clergy, orality and print.” in The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850, ed. Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf, 84-118. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Meyer, Duane. The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961 [1957].

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

— ‘In Their Own Words: Gaelic Literature in North Carolina.’ Scotia 25 (2001), 1-28.

— “‘Vain, hurtful, lying, worldly tales’: Creed, belief, and practice in the life of Argyll Highlanders, in Scotland and America.” Argyll Colony Plus (2003).

— “Jacobite Past, Loyalist Present.” eKeltoi (2003).

— ‘Gaelic Literature and the Diaspora’, in Susan Manning, et. al (ed.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, vol. 2, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2007), 353-9.

Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.

– “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity and Culture in North America.” In The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Sex, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond, edited by Jodi A. Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan, and Heather Parker, 215-33. Guelph: Guelph Series in Scottish Scottish Studies, 2011.

— “Unsettling Iain mac Mhurchaidh’s slumber: The Carolina Lullaby, authorship, and the influence of print media on Gaelic oral tradition.” Aiste 4 (2014), 131–54. (online here)


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Denice Sharpe says:

    Sent link to Gaelic consultant for Starz Outlander for background research. And thank you for pointing out that The Scots immigrants were their own group, distinct from the English, as where the Germans and the (now) Czechs.

  2. Micheal McEvoy says:

    Have you looked at the Highland migration to Selkirk’s Colony, later known as the Red River Settlement, in what is now Northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba?
    There is some things about the impact on the establishment of Manitoba, but not much on their influence in North Dakota or Northern Minnesota.

    1. Yes, of course. Unfortunately, there’s hardly any surviving literary trace of these events and experiences in the Gaelic record and that’s what I use as the basis of my analysis.

  3. Akerbeltz says:

    Is the text Raft Swamp sermon available somewhere?

    1. Unfortunately not, to my knowledge. At one point, Donald Meek was working on an edition of it. That’s one thing that the Visiting Lecturer at UNC should push to have done, with a digital commentary.

      1. Akerbeltz says:

        So Donald has a copy then? 🙂
        But agree that it should be generally available. Sadly there’s always money for bombs but not digitising historical archives…

  4. Deborah Kline says:

    My grandfather, Hubbard Fulton Page, born in 1873 in the Cape Fear region, several generations American but he still wrote some of his poetry partially in Gaelic and with Highland themes and stories to preserve the Scottish heritage of the Cape Fear region. He was criticized in his time for writing in an archaic style but now it’s a treasure – a tribute to long forgotten Cape Fear Scottish heritage. He has two books – one is called “Lyrics and Legends of Cape Country” the other “The Threshold.” There are a few of his books still around – mostly owned by family members.

  5. odubhain says:

    I am keenly interested in Carolina Scots as my own ancestors lived in the Cape Fear and Black River areas, Two of my grandfathers fought at Moore’s Creek, having their plantations nearby and being members of the militia. I would love to better understand why the Scots under MacDonald were attempting to unite with Cornwallis in Wilmington. How they could embrace English rule when in a new world is a key to understanding 18th century Gaelic culture and experience. The forces at play must have been soul rendering.

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