From Highlanders to Tar-Heels: Part 2

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 nineteenth and early twentieth century, delivered as a public lecture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on April 6, 2015. For part one of this talk series, please see this blog entry.)

A Picture Speaks Louder…

Modern cliches and stereotypes have obscured the culture and historical legacy of the Scottish Gaelic immigrants of North Carolina, but this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, even a century ago the descendants of the original immigrants were busily remoulding their own image in order to present themselves as mainstream, Anglo-Saxons worthy of the racial dividends of whiteness.  And it is these processes, as much as other factors, that have served to make the story of Scottish Gaels in the Carolinas (and in fact, all of North America) virtually invisible in the present.

This is well illustrated by a picture of female students of the newly formed Flora McDonald College in approximately 1915. These young women were described as the “May Day Scotch Dancers” in this image (originally from this webpage):


Let’s parse this image, assuming that it is intended to give us some specific messages. The young women are arrayed in tartan skirts, their arms in the pose of Highland dancers. Clearly they are meant to embody their Highland heritage. In the center of the image is a maypole, thus asserting the continuity of ancient traditions. Off to the right is an automobile, an innovative piece of technology asserting modernity. The message is thus that Scottish heritage lives strongly in the present.

There are serious problems with accepting this symbolism at face value, however. Highland dancing does not have an ancient lineage: it is primarily a nineteenth-century genre that was imported from Scotland to North America (i.e., this was not a tradition brought by immigrants and practiced continuously to the day when this picture was taken). Furthermore, women only began to be allowed to perform and compete in public Highland dance competitions around the turn of the century. The costume worn by the women also represents a recent import of symbolic ethnicity from Scotland (the sash in particular was a late addition).

Most troubling, however, is the maypole. There is absolutely no evidence any use of the maypole in the calendar customs  of Scottish Gaeldom (or of any of the insular Celts, for that matter). The maypole was, instead, a Germanic ritual symbol: or at least, this is what the late nineteenth-century folklore revivalists believed. The reason why the descendants of Scottish Gaels were adopted the elements of Germanic symbolic ethnicity in the early twentieth century should become clearer through the course of this article.

A Socio-Linguistic Profile of Cape Fear Gaeldom

The biography of a Baptist minister from the Highlands who arrived in 1807 attests to the strength of the Gaelic language at the beginning of the nineteenth century:

…preaching and singing in the Gaelic language was indispensable for many years in the churches throughout the Scotch 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.

In another account from 1829, the town of Fayetteville was said to be such a strong bastion of Gaelic speech that even public servants needed to be able to speak the language (and presumably read and write it):

The number of these Highlanders and their descendants, who still retain almost exclusively their native language, is so considerable, that a clerk who understands Gaelic, forms a necessary part of the Post-office establishment.

There were clear signs of the decline of Gaelic by 1846, however, and the growing dominance of English:

The influence of this language has been great upon the Scotch settlements in Carolina. There have been some disadvantages attending it, and the language is fast passing away. But for a long time it was a bond of union, and a preservation of those feelings and principles peculiar to the Scotch … change has been so gradual in putting off the Gaelic, and adopting the English, that the people of Cumberland have suffered as little, from a change of their language, as any people that have ever undergone that unwelcome process.

This quote suggests that the transition was gradual from generation to generation. By this time, of course, Gaels had been settling in the Cape Fear for over a century. Still, the author remarks on the power of language to embody and facilitate social cohesion and to transmit cultural values.

An immigrant language (or a language threatened by the growing dominance of another) needs to have a domain in which it has a special value or function, and in many communities religion provided such a haven and purpose. Although growing numbers of the younger generations born in America came to speak English, the older generation remained more comfortable in Gaelic for a considerable time. Ministers attempted to cater to both audiences by providing two services each Sunday, one in Gaelic and the other in English.

Religion, likewise, provided the main if not only impulse for producing written literature among the Gaels of the Cape Fear (although, as I showed in the previous blog, there was obviously a prolific strain of oral literature being actively produced). A writer for a local newspaper noted some of the literary products of the Gaelic community, some of them apparently printed in North Carolina itself:

But they had also in their possession small books, written by Godly pious men, as follows: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; translated into Gaelic, sermons several small books, containing spiritual songs. One of those small books, written and published by Padruig Grannd, in Scotland, and reprinted in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, by William Hunter in 1826, now lies before the writer. It is a book of only 77 pages, and has eighteen spiritual songs … The Bible, the Psalms of David, sacred hymns and spiritual songs, sermons, Pilgrim’s Progress, all of them in their Gaelic language. The emigrants, or many of them, had all these in their possession. (The Robesonian October 8, 1925)

Religious services can be powerful emotional experiences both because of the spiritual content and because of the associations with family and community. When Rev. John C Sinclair extended his services in 1860 to a nearby community that had not had a Gaelics-speaking minister for a decade, people were visibly moved:

The Gaelic language is spoken in its purity by many in these counties, and in both my churches I preach it every Sabbath. On last Sabbath I assisted at the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper in a congregation 40 miles distance from my home; and preached and served a table at which upward of 150 had taken their seats, who have not heard a sermon in the language of their childhood for the last ten years. Many a tear was shed during the service, many a warm shake of hand, such as a Highlander can give, was given and many a blessing was bestowed upon your correspondent at parting with the warm-hearted people. The Rev. Colin MacIver, a native of Stornoway, Lewis, was the last preacher who could preach in Gaelic till I came to the state two years ago. He died in this town in 1850, much respected and regretted by his countrymen in North Carolina. (Weekly Raleigh Register October 24, 1860)

Still, the evidence is that already by the time of the American Civil War, Gaelic was increasingly marginalized and English the dominant language among the younger generation. A Scottish visitor to the Cape Fear in 1868, the Rev. David Macrae, noted:

Gaelic has almost entirely died out in the settlement. For some time it was the common language. The early settlers taught it even to their negro slaves; but English seems now universal. I met with very few who could either read or speak the Gaelic: thought many had been more or less familiar with it in childhood. One lady gave me a very old Gaelic psalm-book which she had often heard her mother read aloud in the old sing-song fashion by the fireside. … I was told that in some parts of the settlement which I had not the opportunity of visiting, Gaelic is still understood, and cherished by a few enthusiastic Highlanders with a romantic attachment.

In 1872, Rev. John C. Sinclair, in very a dispirited tone, notes that by that time Gaelic no longer enjoyed the support of religious institutions and that the loss of the language brought in its wake a loss of cultural traits and practices:

The old race is gone and their descendants have given up, in a great degree, the customs and manners of the old Gaels. The ancient Celtic language is nearly dead, except with the few families who arrived within the last thirty years. … There is no Gaelic preached in the Carolinas now, and not likely to be in the future.

Still, languages sometimes linger among communities, families and individuals after they appear to be dead elsewhere. A report in a North Carolina newspaper in 1901 appears to describe the surprising survival of Gaelic in at least one locale:

There is a section of Harnett county, distant about twenty miles north of Fayetteville, where the Gaelic language is as commonly spoken as English. The negroes in that section speak Gaelic as well as the white people. It is to be regretted that a language as comprehensive as the Gaelic should die out. A sermon preached in this language can be understood by the most ignorant and unlettered person who is familiar with the Gaelic speech.  … In my younger days, family worship was conducted in Gaelic. Gaelic Bibles and confessions of faith were used and on Sundays two sermons were preached, the first generally in English and the second in Gaelic. In my younger days, heard was at Galatia church in Cumberland county in 1860, when the Scottish assembled from far and near, “from over the hills and far away,” to hear a sermon in their native tongue. There are more places than the one mentioned in Harnett where the Gaelic is spoken. Within three years past I have seen young children at play in western Cumberland addressing each other in the language of their ancestors.  (The Semi-Weekly Messenger [of Wilmington], August 13, 1901)

Another newspaper printed a similar portrayal of the persistence of Gaelic a week later:

If a Scotch Highlander were to visit a certain section of Harnett county he would be tempted to believe that he was still in his own country. The Gaelic language is spoken by the people of the section in question almost as much as the English. It is said that when the Cape Fear section was first settled by the Scotch the English language was seldom heard. Parents in this particular section taught it to their children, consequently it is still in use. Even the negroes speak it. (Statesville Record & Landmark August 20, 1901)

Older people reminiscing about their younger days frequently mention the ubiquity of the Gaelic language and Highland traits. Take, for example, these comments from Lumberton in 1903: “The Colonel always spoke of the remarkable hospitality of the people in those days, and that the Gaelic was almost universally the spoken language. All salutations to an arriving guest were in Gaelic …” (The Robesonian [of Lumberton] July 31, 1903)

In all of these accounts, the language is noted as a social bond and badge of cultural identity, and its import in transcending racial boundaries is commonly remarked upon. Regardless, by the second decade of the twentieth century, many local comments seem to declare the language essentially dead. For example, a local of Maxton describes a visit in 1911 from an old friend and their reflections of days of old:

Mr. Chisholm and family spent a day with us recently. I asked him if he recollected his grandmother, who was a native of Scotland (and one of the “blessed Macs”). He told me he did not, then I gave him my impressions of her, as my early recollection recalled her … She spoke her native Gaelic tongue and could use the English only brokenly, which made it interesting to me. I am sorry that the Gaelic language has become extinct in these parts, but I know of no one at all now … (The Robesonian [Lumberton] February 16, 1911)

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the last fluent speaker of Gaelic was probably a Mr. Prevatt of Lumberton who died in 1931: “The elder Mr. Prevatt spoke the Gaelic language and read in Gaelic, and his old Gaelic Bible is still in the possession of his grandson here.” (The Robesonian June 29, 1931)

What is immediately notable about this is that “Prevatt” is not a Highland name: it was clearly the case that the language was strong enough in the community to integrate non-Gaels and facilitate their learning the language and culture (most likely through maternal bonds). It should be noted, however, that as late as the 1980s, fragments of Gaelic were recorded from Malcolm and Lauchlin Shaw of Harnett County, even though they had imperfect knowledge of what they meant. (See discussion in MacDonald, “Cultural Retention.”)

The documentary sources sometimes offer occasional glimpses of the social pressures that worked against Gaelic and the linguistic transitions from Gaelic to English. In an historical account about late nineteenth-century Fayetteville, for example, it was noted:

The language was sometimes understood by individuals who never spoke it. One Sand Hills lady would occasionally have a caller spend a day in conversation during which the visitor would never speak an English word – and the hostess never speak a word in Gaelic!

This seems to describe one person who was an active Gaelic speaker with a passive knowledge of English who could converse with an active English speaker with a passive knowledge of Gaelic. As time went on, however, knowledge of Gaelic became more rare, but those who valued their ancestral heritage mourned the loss of it. When Lachlan Campbell of Barbecue Creek appeared to be nearing the end of his life (apparently in the later nineteenth century), his friend Gilbert Shaw of Flat Branch came to keep him company.

Gaelic accents, coupled with the use of certain spirits offered in hospitality to fortify him against the effects of a long, cold drive, inspired Mr. Shaw to begin singing old hymns in Gaelic for the edification and entertainment of his invalid friend. Meanwhile, Dr. McCormick arrived … “Mr. Shaw, you come now and spend the night with me. …” [said the doctor.]  “No, I’ll have to stay here and visit Cousin Lachlan,” he said, his voice breaking, “It will not be long before there’ll be nobody left to sing the old songs in Gaelic.”

Keeping the songs going was tantamount to asserting the survival not only of these people but of their culture and their identity. Formal institutions pressed the de facto privilege of English and interfacing with governments and representatives of the law almost invariably required a knowledge of English. In 1813, for example, Alexander MacMillian wrote to University of North Carolina Board of Trustees concerned that his fellow Scots could lose their property because they had not taken the oath of naturalization (see Gibson, Scotland County, 42).

Educational institutions automatically reinforced the primacy of English and even before they left Scotland most Gaelic speakers had taught to defer to the superior status of anglophones in formal domains. A group of Cape Fear Gaels went out to Wayne County, Mississippi, in the early nineteenth century, and apparently the school that they established was run by Gaelic speakers and initially catered for the language:

The first school was established about 1812. The Gaelic language was spoken exclusive among the settlers, and was also taught in their school. This language remained the vernacular until the early [18]20’s, when other settlers arrived, some of whose children knew English alone. For the sake of the English speaking children the teacher then forbade the further use of Gaelic in the school room. Having been discarded in the school, the Gaelic language soon fell into disuse except to a limited extent among the older people. …

Similar pressures were said to have a negative impact on the last strongholds of Gaelic in North Carolina, as an account from Poe’s Bottom relates: “According to my grandmother, the family spoke Gaelic in public and at home until the State of North Carolina decided in 1906 that only English would be taught in public schools. She was a Highlander from Cumberland County.”

Racialism and Identity

The legacy of slavery meant that power and privilege in North America were largely defined in racial terms. To access this privilege Gaels not only needed to assimilate linguistically, they needed to place themselves within the bounds of whiteness and emphasize their racial credentials. Notions of the Manifest Destiny of the Anglo-Saxons dominated the nineteenth-century United States (as they other regions of British influence) and anti-Celtic sentiment was commonplace. Take, for example, the 1898 manifesto of People’s Party of North Carolina: “Neither this State nor any other State will ever be governed and controlled by any but the Anglo-Saxon race as long as that race shall dwell in it.”

The late nineteenth-century saw more political unrest in Ireland as continued resistence to British rule took new forms. Anti-Irish prejudice spread easily to anglophone settlements in North America and some people went so far as assert that people of Celtic (or Irish) racial descent were as unable to govern themselves (politically, socially, or emotionally) as people of African origin, as did William Thomas in his 1901 The American Negro:

What are the negro’s qualifications for such leadership as a movement of this sort implies? It is an observed fact that negro and Celtic leadership is susceptible to the weakness of ungovernable desire; that both acknowledge but slight amenability to wholesome restraint; and that, in the case of each, inconsiderate zeal has wrought irreparable injury to the race which it represents. (See further discussion in Newton, “Celticity in the Old South.”)

Like so many other aspects of life, the ability to govern was defined in racial terms. In order to bolster their qualifications for empowerment in public life, Carolinians of Scottish descent highlighted their supposed racial affinity to Anglo-Saxons. Race is, after all, not a biological reality but a social construct that can be manipulated to further the agendas of specific groups. It is no surprise, then, that in 1928 Angus McLean (a descendent of the Cape Fear Gaels), then Governor of North Carolina, unveiled a monument to the Scottish Gaelic colonists of the Cape Fear, describing them as “a branch of the great Anglo-Saxon family.”

This, then, helps explain why folkloric elements from Germanic cultures are evident in the photograph at the beginning of this essay which are supposed to depict Highland identity.

At the same time, of course, a popular set of symbols had been developed and packaged in Scotland to represent the ancient past, symbols rooted in the antiquities of the Highlands but co-opted to serve the purposes of providing a colourful and distinctive set of markers to all regions of Scotland: Highlandism. It is perhaps ironic that these symbols gained greater purpose and emotive expression as cultural practices and content – such as language – faded due to the assimilative pressures of anglophone society in both Britain and North America.


These influences were certainly present in the Carolinas, and in Cape Fear itself. One such example is the town now known as “Ivanhoe.” Originally named “Corbett’s Ferry,” the popularity of Walter Scott was such that the town was renamed in 1890 from the title of his novel Ivanhoe.

The growing divergence between the romantic nostalgia bathed in Highlandism and the reality of the anglophone assimilation of the Cape Fear community is well illustrated by the failed attempt to settle Highlanders in 1884. At the time, the North Carolina Department of Agrilcuture was trying to reinvigorate the flagging agrarian economy in the state, having relied over much on slave labour. Some lingering connections to Scotland remained in the Cape Fear, not least through religious institutions, and an immigrant scheme was concocted to bring in poor Highland crofters to fill these vacancies in these parts of the Carolinas. This not only served the purposes of Highland landlords who were keen about ridding themselves of “excess” population, some organizers of the scheme (particularly Miss Margaret MacLeod from Dundee) saw an opportunity to profit themselves in the process.

One of many advertisements (and copies of advertisements) promoting the scheme can be seen here, printed in a September 1883 issue of the Scottish American Journal (published in New York). McEachern has a very essentialist view of Scottishness, expecting that “racial traits” will make Highland immigrants not only prosperous but compatible with the pre-existing population of the settlement.


Such expectations were not met, however. In the only scholarly investigation of this episode, William Caudill writes:

Within a few months, the majority of the emigrant Scots had left the old Highland settlement of the Upper Cape Fear region in dissatisfaction. … Much of the ‘authentic’ Highland identity which the Scottish-American leaders in North Carolina may have believed themselves to possess, and may have hoped to re- invigorate in their communities through a new influx of Highland emigrants, had been eroded by the passage of time and inevitable cultural assimilation.  … The failure of this effort also demonstrated that the Scottish-Americans of North Carolina’s old Highland Settlement had indeed become assimilated as Americans.

The memory of Scottish origins lingered well after generations of descendants born in the Carolinas lost touch with the language and culture of their ancestors, of course, and some have attempted to maintain connections between Scottish immigrant communities all over North America. In 1914 the annual assembly of the Scottish Society of America convened in Fayetteville, and its president, Dr James A. Macdonald (editor of the Toronto Globe) delivered an address which drew on the rhetoric of racialism to outline the supposed characteristics of Scottishness. He deliberately blurred the lines between the the anglophone and Gaelophone divisions in Scottish life and culture, and attempted to elevate them all by riding the coat-tails of Anglo-Saxon imperialism:

… the ties that bind the United States and Canada are not merely the threads of common blood that run through our population. There are also the stronger ties of a common civilization, a common history and a common international interest.

In all that is most distinctive and most dominating in our life these two countries are one civilization. … these two English-speaking nations, in the great institutions of their life have been moulded and inspired by what may be called the Anglo-Saxon impulse. It is often more Celtic than Saxon, and in these Southern States represented by this Scottish Society, the Anglo-Celtic type has been preserved purer and freer from taint, either in blood or life, than can be found outside of Canada elsewhere in all the American Hemisphere.

Why did the Scottish Society of America choose to meet in Fayetteville that year? The society was lending its support to fund-raising efforts aiming to endow and create Flora MacDonald College, as the conclusion of his talk shows below. The college was in fact opened in 1915; some of the early students are probably featured in the photograph shown at the beginning of this blog.


Shortly thereafter, a Gaelic activist in Scotland (Ms. Juliet MacDonald of Culabhaile, Lochaber), wrote to the North Carolina branch of the Scottish Society of America, imploring them to go beyond Highland tokenism in the college’s makeup:

May I suggest that, to be worthy of its name, the language of the heroine – the Gaelic – should have a part in the curriculum? There can be no feeling of nationality without language and this is the day of the revival of the tongues of smaller nations. Why not begin with our beautiful Celtic music in Gaelic songs and I have no doubt teachers are plentiful with you.

Ms. MacDonald was precocious in her call for linguistic revitalization, especially in the context of marginalized communities, but she was overly optimistic about available Gaelic skills amongst teachers.

Probably the only academic in a North Carolina university who ever showed any interest in Scottish Gaelic was Professor Urban Holmes, Jr., who was Kenan Professor of Romance Philology at the University of North Carolina from 1925 to 1966. He taught himself the language well enough to write a short Gaelic essay in 1953 about the history of Scottish Gaelic in North Carolina. He remarked enthusiastically:

Gaelic songs are so compelling they cannot be forgotten… ‘Highland Call’ written by Paul Green was put on at the theatre in Fayetteville during the winter. …a number of the females at Flora McDonald college in Red Springs who take an interest in Highland matters danced at the festival. … But alas! the Gaelic language made no appearance. We hope that it won’t be long before there is evidence in Fayetteville of the reading and writing of the language that is as ancient as Ossian. (The original essay is reprinted in Kelly and Kelly, Carolina Scots; this is my translation)

Thus, Holmes himself comments on the beauty of the language and its music, but was disappointed with the insufficient will of the descendents of the Cape Fear immigrants to make a concerted effort to go beyond the tokenism of Highlandism and tartanism. Despite the support offered for the study and development of dozens of other languages and ethnic identities at the region’s universities, this, unfortunately, remains the state of Scottish Gaelic to the present in the Carolinas.


Scottish Gaels were a precocious exemplar of a marginalized European minority who were able to acquire the racially-bounded privileges of whiteness in North America by conforming to the standards and norms of anglophones. Forms of symbolic ethnicity (tartanism and Highlandism) offered compensations and sublimations for the loss of their ancestral Gaelic language and its associated traditions.

These issues have been inadequately researched and articulated due to the lack of Gaelic Studies as a scholarly endeavour in North American academia. While popular forms of Scottish identity are celebrated in the Carolinas and elsewhere (particularly Highland Games), they too indulge heavily in symbolic ethnicity and have little to do with the culture of the original Highland immigrants but are extensions of Highlandism imported in the nineteenth century.

NOTE: In my talk, I also spoke about people of African ancestry who spoke Gaelic and engaged in Gaelic music, and the importance of such figures in Gaelic folklore. I have covered that topic in other blog posts, such as this one and this one.


Caudill, William. “Gone to Seek a Fortune in North Carolina: The Failed Scottish Highland Emigration of 1884.” Dissertation for Master of Arts in Folklore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009.

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].

Foote, William. Sketches of North Carolina. 1846.

Gibson, Joyce. Scotland County Emerging, 1750-1900. N.p., 1995.

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

MacDonald, James. “Cultural Retention and Adaptation Among the Highland Scots of Carolina.” Dissertation for PhD in Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1992.

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

Mills, Kaththea. “Stories from Poe’s Bottom.” Argyll Colony Plus 16.1 (2002): 46-48.

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.

— “Celticity in the Old South.” CrossRoads: A Journal of Southern Culture (2006): 137-49.

— “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.

— “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Oates, John. The Story of Fayetteville and the Upper Cape Fear. 3rd ed. Fayetteville Women’s Club, 1981.

Wilkins, Jesse M. “Early Times in Wayne County.” The Mississippi Historical Society 6 (1902).


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Deagh sheanchas, a Mhìcheil.

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