“That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn
Thou minds me o’ departed joys,
Departed never to return …”
— Robert Burns, “The Banks O’ Doon”
Scotland is roughly the size of South Carolina. The Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland are separated by mountains, and in the 1700s, they also were divided by language; the Highland Scots spoke Gaelic, and the Lowland Scots spoke English. However, the Scottish people were all Protestant.
Ireland also is roughly the size of South Carolina and is divided by four provinces; the Northern Province is Ulster. During the 1700s, the Irish people spoke Irish Gaelic and were Catholic. Queen Elizabeth I, the queen of England and Ireland, died in 1603. The king of Scotland, James VI, then also became the king of England and Ireland. The residents of Northern Ireland in Ulster resisted King James. King James addressed this problem by confiscating the land of Northern Ireland and ejecting the Catholics. He repopulated Ulster with an estimated 200,000 Protestant Scots who had been living in the Lowlands across the North Channel from Ireland. These folks became Scots-Irish, but they were not Irish, they were Scots living in Ireland, and they never assimilated into the Irish culture. The Irish referred to the Scots-Irish as Ulster Scots.
By 1650, the American Colonies consisted of a collection of small settlements along the Eastern Seaboard with a non-native population of about 50,000 people. By 1700, 250,000 non-native people lived in the Colonies, of which only 5,700 lived in South Carolina. An estimated 58,000 lived in Virginia, and none lived in Georgia.
During the 1700s, while the American Colonies were small and growing, the Highland Scots, the Lowland Scots, and the Scots-Irish migrated to America, all for important reasons.
The Highland Scots had the most dramatic reason for leaving Scotland. The Highland Scots relied on the clan system of family and government. They took care of each other, and they had less need for a centralized government. They wore kilts, primarily as a battle uniform. The Highland Scots supported the losing side in a rebellion against the English crown in 1715 and again in 1745. A battle at Culloden Moor in 1746 crushed the Highland Scots. The British government was determined to destroy the Highland clan system forever by killing every person in the Highlands. The punishment for even wearing a Highland kilt was the death penalty.
Most Highland Scots emigrated to North Carolina as family groups. Their ships generally landed at Wilmington, where they transferred their belongings to smaller boats for the trip up the Cape Fear River to Fayetteville. As late as the 1830s, post office clerks in Fayetteville found it useful to speak some Gaelic. Some Highland Scots settled in South Carolina in the Marion County and Marlboro County areas.
The Lowland Scots already spoke English, and they had a much easier time assimilating into the American Colonies. They settled throughout the Colonies looking for economic opportunities. Some immigrants were farmers who had scratched out a living in Scotland on thin soil that sometimes was so rocky that they only were able to raise livestock. Others were educated middle-class professionals who moved to the Colonies to find employment. Many Lowland Scots arrived in South Carolina to join other family members who already had started a new life.
Many early ministers who settled in South Carolina came from the Lowlands, including Archibald Stobo. In 1700, he was returning to Scotland from a failed colony at the Isthmus of Darien (now Panama) when a hurricane sank his ship while he was preaching in Charleston. He stayed and became the preacher at the Meeting House Street Church, and over his lifetime he founded five area churches, including Johns Island Presbyterian Church.
In 1732, a group of Presbyterians moved from “Meeting House Street” Church and founded First Scots Presbyterian Church down the street. Scottish preachers also established churches at Wilton Bluff on the east bank of the Edisto River, at Pon Pon near Jacksonboro, and at Stoney Creek near Yemassee.
Scotland and England agreed to form the United Kingdom in 1707, and the Scots-Irish living in Ireland suffered. The government passed laws to compel them to conform to the Church of England, which was Anglican. Nearly half of the Scots-Irish in Northern Ireland, seeking religious freedom, emigrated to the Colonies.
During the 1730s, the Colonial government in South Carolina created 10 townships as a buffer to the Native Americans, and Gov. Robert Johnson offered free land to anyone who would appear before him to show he was of good character and was able to improve the land. Each township had 20,000 acres and was located on a navigable river. The five townships settled by Scots-Irish were in present-day towns of Kingstree (Black River), Conway (Waccamaw River), Marion and Darlington counties (Pee Dee River), Camden (Wateree River), and Abbeville County (Long Cane Creek). Most of the Scots-Irish settlers in the South Carolina Backcountry came down the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia and Virginia.
Scots from all areas have been described as clannish, contentious, hard to get along with, and set in their ways. A prayer from the 1700s said, “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for Thou knows I am hard to turn.” The Scots’ thriftiness was described as “keeping the commandments of God and everything else he could get his hands on.”
President Woodrow Wilson was proud of his Scots-Irish roots. When he received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1907, he said, “The beauty about a Scots-Irishman is that he not only thinks he is right, but knows he is right.”
A South Carolina Scot’s attitude about the American Revolution depended on where in South Carolina he lived and what his experiences had been in Scotland or Ireland. The Anglican Church in South Carolina was state-supported, and the Presbyterian Scots in Charleston did not want to pay taxes to support the Anglican church so they tended to be Patriots; however, the isolation of the Scots in the Backcountry prevented them from having the same feeling about the British that the folks in Charleston felt and thus were more likely Loyalists.
William Tennent was born in the Scottish Lowlands and immigrated to New Jersey in 1718, where he founded a religious school that detractors called the Log College. That school later became Princeton University. William Tennent’s son, William, Jr., also was born in Scotland and his son, William III, was born in New Jersey. William III moved to Charleston, where he became the pastor of the Meeting House Street Church, the church that later became the Circular Congregational Church.
In 1775, William Tennent III, William Henry Drayton, and Oliver Hart traveled the Backcountry, near present-day Columbia, to persuade the Scots-Irish to join the fight for American independence. Two weeks before they arrived at King’s Creek, a mob attacked local resident and Loyalist Thomas Brown for not signing a Revolutionary petition, scalped him, tarred his legs, and held them over a fire. He lost two toes. “Burnfoot” became a foe of the American Revolution and condemned the Patriots as savages during their visit to the Backcountry.
Many well-known South Carolinians emigrated or had parents who emigrated from Scotland or Northern Ireland, including:
John C. Calhoun was the grandson of Patrick Calhoun from Ulster, Ireland, who emigrated to Pennsylvania. Calhoun’s father moved the family from Pennsylvania to Virginia and then to Abbeville in South Carolina, where he became a Patriot in the American Revolution. Calhoun was born in 1782 in Abbeville.
Andrew Jackson’s parents were Scots-Irish Presbyterians who emigrated from Ulster just two years before Jackson was born in 1767. His parents landed in Philadelphia and traveled down the Great Wagon Road to the Waxhaws in South Carolina. The St. Andrews Society of Columbia installed a granite marker at the Andrew Jackson State Park in Lancaster, South Carolina, in 2017 honoring Jackson’s mother, Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson.
William Moultrie was born in Charleston in 1730 to a Scottish physician, a Lowlands doctor who emigrated to the American Colonies to find a job. William, who was educated as a planter, became a general in the American Revolution. Fort Moultrie was named in his honor. He served as governor of South Carolina twice in the late 1700s.
Robert Pringle was a Lowland Scot born in 1702. He moved to Charleston from London in 1725 and became a merchant selling imported dry goods. He cultivated olives and oranges, growing sufficient quantities to export. He became one of the most prosperous merchants in the city.
John Stuart was a Highland Scot born in 1718. He fled Scotland in 1748 and became a merchant in Charleston. He served as a militia captain in the Cherokee War in 1760 and was captured by the Native Americans; saved by the chief, Attakullakulla, he returned to Charleston. He became the royal superintendent in the Indian Department and helped build relations with the Southeast Indians.
Attakullakulla’s cousin Oconostota became the leader of the Cherokees after Attakullakulla died in 1776. Oconostota was well known in South Carolina and was accepted as a full member of the St. Andrews Society of Charleston in 1773.
The St. Andrews Society of Charleston, founded in 1729, is the oldest St. Andrews Society in America, despite what the Savannah Scots think. The Charleston St. Andrews Society was interested in supporting Scots and Scotland and welcomed in membership any man of honor and integrity, of any nation, degree, or profession.
By the Revolutionary War, more than 800,000 people of Scottish descent lived in America, a fourth of the U.S. population. They had become Americans, though some transitioned more easily than others.
South Carolina has a long history of Scots moving here, building homes, raising families, and helping shape the traditions and values of this state. Whether they came by choice from the Lowlands, by military action from the Highlands, or by religious persecution from Ulster in Ireland, people from Scotland have enriched our culture and served as leaders and contributors to the history of South Carolina.