Why Did Highlanders of Argyll Emigrate to America, 1725-1775?

scotmapsmMost of my Scottish ancestors emigrated from either Argyll or the islands of the Hebrides to North Carolina in the 1700s. They traveled in extended family groups, settled near each other as Lumber River Scots, and rarely married outside the Scottish clans of the region.

Not until some 150 years after their Atlantic crossing, well after the American civil war, did the Lumber River Scots finally dare to marry outside the Scottish clans of North Carolina. I never thought of my grandfather and his siblings as cultural mavericks. But they were the first generation of Scots in my family to marry spouses of English, not Scottish, descent.  It took four generations for the brutal repression of the Scottish Highlanders by the British to be generally forgotten by Scottish descendants in America.

And how brutal was this repression? The Highlanders were stripped of their very identity. To act Scottish — to speak Gaelic, to wear a kilt and a tartan, to play the bagpipe, to dance the fling — was outlawed in Scotland. If your clan gave any inkling or hint of supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Jacobite cause, your clan chief could be stripped of his estate or killed. Rents were hiked so high that financial survival was nearly impossible.

In Scottish Highlanders on the Eve of the Great Migration, 1725-1775; The People of Argyll, summarized on Geneological.com, David Dobson explains. This great migration resulted from the breakdown of social and economic institutions in Scotland, he writes:

“Under the pressures of the commercial and industrial revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, Highland chieftains abandoned their patriarchal role in favor of becoming capitalist landlords. By raising farm rents to the breaking point, the chiefs left the social fabric of the Scottish Highlands in tatters…

“Once in North America, the Highlanders tended to be clannish and moved in extended family groups, unlike immigrants from the Lowlands who moved as individuals or in groups of a few families. The Gaelic-speaking Highlanders tended to settle on the North American frontier, whereas the Lowlanders merged with the English on the coast. Highlanders seem to have established “beachheads,” and their kin subsequently followed. The best example of this pattern is in North Carolina, where they first arrived in 1739 and moved to the Piedmont, to be followed by others for over a century. Highlanders from particular counties in Scotland, moreover, settled in particular areas in the colonies; for example, those from Argyll tended to emigrate to North Carolina, to upper New York, and later to the Canadian Maritimes.”

“The social breakdown was intensified by the failure of the Jacobite cause in 1745, followed by the British military occupation and repression that occurred in the Highlands in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. In 1746, the British government dispatched about 1,000 Highland Jacobite prisoners of war to the colonies as indentured servants. Later, during the Seven Years War of 1756-63, Highland regiments recruited in the service of the British crown chose to settle in Canada and America rather than return to Scotland.”

Dobson also points out that the genealogical records of Scottish Highlanders tend to start in the 1700s, or after the American Revolution of 1776, much later than those of Scottish Lowlanders and the English.

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