The Royal Colony of North Carolina

The Highland Scots Settlers During the Royal Period (1729 to 1775)

Scots emigration to the colonies soared to 145,000 between 1707 and 1775. Generally poorer than the English, the Scots had greater incentives to emigrate and the union of 1707 (when England and Scotland agreed to form the United Kingdom) gave them legal access to all of the colonies. The growth in Scots overseas shipping also provided more opportunities and lower costs for passage. After a few early emigrants prospered, their reports homeward attracted growing numbers in a chain migration. During a tour of northwestern Scotland, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson saw the locals perform a popular and symbolic new dance called “America,” in which a few original dancers gradually drew in the entire audience.

The Scottish diaspora flowed in three streams: Lowland Scots, Highland Scots, and Ulster Scots.

Assimilated to English ways, the Lowland Scots were primarily skilled tradesmen, farmers, and professionals pulled by greater economic opportunity in America. They usually emigrated as individuals or single families, then dispersed in the colonies and completed their assimilation to Anglo-American ways.

More desperate than the Lowland Scots, the Highlanders responded primarily to the push of their deteriorating circumstances. In 1746, the British army brutally suppressed a rebellion in the Highlands (the end of the Jacobite Rebellion), and Parliament outlawed many of their traditions and institutions. At mid-century, the common Highlanders also suffered from a pervasive rural poverty worsened by the rising rents demanded by their callous landlords. The emigrants primarily came from the relatively prosperous peasants, who possessed the means to emigrate and feared remaining in the Highlands, lest they fall into the growing ranks of the impoverished.

After 1750, emigration brokers and ambitious colonial land speculators frequented the northwest coast of Scotland to procure Highland emigrants. The brokers and speculators recognized that the poor but tough Highlanders were especially well-prepared for the rigors of a transatlantic passage and colonial settlement. Confined to cheap (and often dangerous) lands, the Highland Scots clustered in frontier valleys, especially along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, the Mohawk River of New York, and the Altamaha River in Georgia. By clustering, they preserved their distinctive Gaelic language and Highland customs, in contrast to the assimilation practiced by the Lowland emigrants.

Scottish Highlanders also added to the diversity of North Carolina's settlers. The Highlanders immigrated to America because of the laws enacted by the British that were designed to destroy the Highland clan culture and bring them under British control. The decay of the clan system, change in agriculture, poverty, and unrest made the decision to leave Scotland relatively easy for many Highlanders, and thousands flocked to America in the 18th century.

The first Highlanders arrived in North Carolina in 1729, and settled inland along the Cape Fear River. James Innes, Hugh Campbell, and William Forbs were among the first Highlanders to arrive. When the Highlanders landed in North Carolina, they disembarked at either Brunswick or Wilmington. They then had to travel ninety miles up the Cape Fear River to the Cross Creek area, which was the hub of Scottish settlement. This area is in present-day Cumberland County, North Carolina.

The first large group of Highlanders to settle in the Cross Creek area was a party of 350 from Argyllshire who arrived in 1739. With the Jacobite Rebellion crushed in April 1746 at the Battle of Culloden, many Highland Scots finally wanted out of Scotland and opted to go to the English colonies in the New World. Sure enough, in 1746 another large group arrived in what is present-day Cumberland County, North Carolina.

By 1775, a large body of Highlanders was situated along the rivers on the Sand Hill region of Upper Cape Fear. Most Highlanders settled into North Carolina and became farmers. The Sand Hill region includes Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Lee, Moore, and Scotland counties, most of which were part of the original Cumberland County as it was created in 1754, and all continue to have considerable Highland Scot descendents.


There were two distinct waves of emigration from the Scots Highlands to North Carolina. The first followed the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Many of the Scots who had taken part in the Jacobite Rebellion were pardoned on condition that they would leave the realm - by 1749 more than a thousand had accepted this condition, and of those many found homes in the upper Cape Fear River area of North Carolina.

The personal interest of North Carolina Royal Governor Robert Johnston, a Scotsman, in his fellow countrymen and the liberal policy of the Assembly in remitting the taxes of Scots immigrants for ten years made North Carolina the principal objective of Highland Scots emigration toward the middle of the eighteenth century.

The earlier migration has long had its proper place in North Carolina history, but the greater proportions, and also less generally appreciated, was a second migration, which began in the 1760s and lasted until the beginning of the American Revolution. Its proper background was the change wrought in the social condition of the Highlands by the policy of the British government after the Jacobite Rebellion, especially the abolition of the traditional Highland costume and measures which greatly weakened the clan as a political and social institution.

First was a change in land tenures. Prior to 1745, it was customary fo the clan chiefs to mortgage or lease the land, the mortgaged properties being known as wadsets, the mortgagees as wadsetters. The leased property was known as tacks and the lessees as tackmen. The wadsetters and tackmen rented the land to subtenants and by this system lessees and mortgagees acquired wealth.

With the abolition of heritable jurisdictions and military obligations that followed the Rebellion, the chiefs sought power in new directions and began to exploit the land. To this end they extinguished the mortgages and leases held by the wadsetters and tackmen and rented directly to the subtenants at higher rates. Thereupon the former lessees and mortgagees turned their eyes to American, where they hoped to establish landed properties with dependent tenants. A propaganda for emigration was carried on - clubs and societies were formed to finance this cause.

A second cause contributing to emigration was the condition of the laborers and small farmers in the Scots Highlands. Throughout the eighteenth century the Highlands were overpopulated. Agriculture and the arts did not prosper. Upon such a background sheep raising was introduced, which threw thousands of agricultural workers out of employment and caused the eviction of small tenants.

Here, then, there was a body of Scots willing to colonize - men and families without employment and without hope of a livelihood because of the transition from unprofitable agriculture to pasturage. To them the propaganda of the former wadsetters and tackmen made a deep appeal. And, their migration was regarded with favor by the new class of renters because a decline in the number of laborers and small cultivators, it was believed, would result in a lowering of rents.

On the other hand, the lordly proprietors believed that emigration would be replaced by an increase in rents because the emigrants would be replaced by renters from the south who were accustomed to paying better rates than had prevailed in the Highlands.

A third cause contributing to the unrest and emigration was a crisis of the linen trade, which around 1770 met with severe competition from Ireland. A result was unemployment in the towns of Scotland in general, but moreso in the Highlands.

The social conditions resulting from these economic influences were deplorable. The land was full of people without employment. Crime, especially petty theft, was prevalent.

The proportion of the second large emigration from the Scots Highlands can only be approximated. The number going to America from 1763 to 1775 is generally estimated at around 20,000 - in addition, many went to the Lowlands and elsewhere. Conservative observers were alarmed at the possible results of this emigration. Too much money was being withdrawn from Scotland and the steady removal of skilled mechanics, it was feared, would in time give America an advantage over the mother country in manufacturing.

It was also feared that the Scots, with grievances in mind concerning conditions in Scotland, would strengthen the radical element in America. In fact, the British government became alarmed and in September 1775 instructions were sent to the commissioners of the customs to all customs officials to give no clearance papers to vessels carrying emigrants bound for the American colonies.

North Carolina was the favorite objective in the second, as well as the first, Highland Scots emigration. Fifty families left the Highlands for North Carolina in 1768; 100 more families left in 1769; six vessels with 1,200 emigrants sailed in 1770; and between1771 and 1775, 1,050 Highland Scots undertook the voyage to North Carolina.

While this migration was at its peak, and unknown author, using the pseudonym "Scotus Americanus," published in pamphlet form Informations Concerning the Province of North Carolina Addressed to Emigrants from the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland in 1773, and it sets forth very briefly the grievances of the Highlanders and at considerable length extols the attractions of North Carolina to potential colonists.



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