Outlander: The real Highlanders of North Carolina
The move to the former British colony made was made by thousands of Scots who left their homes behind as they faced spiralling rents, insecure tenancies and the fallout of the breakdown in the clan system
Today, a granite boulder can be found among the shops, offices and restored historic buildings of Fayetteville to commemorate the thousands of Highland emigrants who moved to North Carolina.
The memorial in Fayetteville, earlier known as Cross Creek, pays tribute to the ‘settlement of the Upper Cape Fear by the Highland Scotch’.
The Argyll Colony was the first colony of Highland Scots to settle in Upper Cape Fear in 1739.
They were the first of a mass movement of Scots to the area with around 20,000 people, mostly from the lands held by the Duke of Argyll, arriving in the eight years before the American Revolution.
By the 1770s, Highland Scots comprised one-third of the population of that region which over time became known as “Valley of the Scots” with people from Arran, Jura, Islay and Gigha readily found here.
Emigration records show that the majority of those leaving for North Carolina headed over the water to meet up with families who were already living there.
Royal governor Gabriel Johnston, a former professor at St Andrews University, encouraged 360 Highland Scots to settle in the area with a ten-year tax exemption later offered as an incentive.
The new little town of Wilmington proved to be an attractive draw to Highlanders as well as the countryside beyond.
Historian Jim Hunter, emeritus professor of history at the University of Highlands and Islands, in his book A Dance Called America, The Scottish Highlands, the United States and Canada, wrote of land being offered to new emigrants for no more that “the few shillings it cost to have a holding formally surveyed and registered with the colonial authorities”.
As rents on estates in Scotland rose, Highlanders were transforming themselves into landowners in North Carolina with thousands of low-cost acres, Professor Hunter said,
He wrote: “It was little wonder, given such advantages, that these new arrivals should have immediately set to work with an energy and enthusiasm which Highlanders back home were often said by their many critics to lack entirely.”
Cattle herds were soon grazing on the pastures of North Carolina, with trade in beasts, salted beef and hides allowing the new community to prosper.
Trade in timber, turpentine, beeswax, barrel staves, cotton and tobacco followed.
The area also became home to around 1,200 Jacobite prisoners following the 1715 and 1745 risings with some sentenced to ‘simple transportation’ and others ordered to live a life of indentured servitude.
Among those to leave Scotland for North Carolina were Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh and his wife Flora, who famously helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from Scotland dressed as a woman following his failed 1745 rising.
The MacDonalds left Skye in 1773, taking “what was getting to be a well worn route between Skye to the Cape Fear River Country of North Carolina,” Professor Hunter wrote.
In 1774, the MacDonalds made a temporary home on a plantation owned by relatives, also of the name MacDonald, who had emigrated from Cuidreach on the island three years earlier, according to the account.
The following year, the relatively well-off couple bought a plantation and house and moved in their children and their belonging shipped over from Skye.
MacDonald of Kingsburgh was of the tacksman class back home and sat high up in hierarchy of the clan system. In return for land, the tacksman was expected to offer services to the chieftain as and when required.
With the breakdown of the clan system and the forfeiture of estates following Culloden, the tacksman lost his role and status.
However, their fighting and leadership powers made this class of Highlander a natural recruit for the British Army who started to expand its force in the colonies given agitation over colonial rule.
With shots fired at Lexington near Boston on April 19 1775, a moment signalling the start of the American Revolution, Allan Macdonald, who had lived in North Carolina for less than six months, was offering his support to the loyalist side, Professor Hunter said.
His close associate from Skye, Alexander MacLeod, joined him with both men described as ‘men of worth and good character’ who had the ‘most extensive influence over the Highlanders here’ by the governor of North Carolina, according to the account.
The governor suggested that MacDonald and MacLeod could raise 3,000 men to counter the growing rebel activity in the colony.
The British Army was to seize on the potential offer of support among the Highlanders and sent two of its men , Donald MacDonald and Donald MacLeod, to North Carolina to raise a regiment of fighting men to secure the colony and its neighbours for the Crown.
Around 1,500 men, far fewer than anticipated, enlisted.
Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh was among those imprisoned following the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge when he took control of a loyalist force during the encoutner and returned home to Skye after independence was declared on July 4, 1776.
Hunter wrote: “Allan and Flora aspired now only to return as soon as possible to Scotland. And back to Skye they were eventually to go. Thus was, however, most untypical of emigrants to North American from the MacDonald family’s homeland.
“Innumerable other Scottish Highlanders would warm to this continent in ways which the Kingsburgh tacksman and his wife never did quite understand.”