Kilts on the Cape Fear

highland games NCThe most interesting thing about the Highland Scots who began arriving in Cumberland County, North Carolina in the 1750s is how quickly they were corrupted by the Americans.

They came by the thousands, rowing 90 miles up the Cape Fear river in log canoes.  Most of them came from the western islands, the large majority from the Isle of Skye.   They came because of the modernization of the highland economy in the years following the defeat of Bonny Prince Charlie, modernization that dramatically increased agricultural production while throwing thousands of displaced tenants into beggary.

They were led by their tacksmen, a class of cultivated merchant-aristocrats whose role had formerly been to collect taxes on behalf of the lairds, to raise armies as needed by the lairds, and to manage the purchase and sale of the black cattle that constituted the primary wealth of the Highlands.  They brought with them well-honed mercantile instincts,  a poweful sense of clan loyalty, and a good deal of hard cash—a commodity desperately scarce in the Carolina Piedmont.   They were merchants, artisans, and entrepreneurs.  If one Scot did not have enough money to build a sawmill, he might pool his resources with some of his clansmen in order to build it together.  There was no Regulator Rebellion in Cumberland County, and no need for one.

And they came as monarchists.  Many of them had, in fact, fought on the side of the English against Bonny Prince Charlie.  Those who had fought for the Prince had no interest in overthrowing the monarchy – they merely wanted their own king to rule them.

It took less than a generation for these ideas to change.  In the words of one Loyalist official, the new arrivals   “imbibed all the American popular principles and prejudices.”  Shortly before the Revolution, Alexander MacAlester was writing to his brother in Scotland that “We did Expecte this new parliament would repeile those pernisious acts which will bring American to meare slavery.  If they should be put in Execution all the Colones is unanimously agreed not to receive them one any terms.  They are fully Determined to fight to the last before they will give up ther most valuable priviledg which is ther liberty.”  The delegates from Cumberland County to the 3rd Provincial Congress in 1776 were five early Scottish settlers, including the same Alexander MacAlester.

The assertive independence of their new neighbors, and the opportunities offered to enterprising men by the still undeveloped Carolina frontier, were powerful enough to transform their understanding of their society and themselves.  It was only the last group of immigrants, arriving on the Cape Fear at the beginning of the 1770s, who were willing to follow their Loyalist leaders into a doomed battle for the preservation of the old order.

Pictured: the Grandfather Mountain Parade in modern North Carolina.  The Highlanders’ story is told in Duane Morris,  The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776.

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