About 9.2 million Americans claim Scottish descent. When speaking of Scottish ancestry, it is helpful to separate the population into Highlanders, Lowlanders, and the Scots-Irish, as each group has a different origin.

The Highlanders were from the rugged northern hills and mountains of Scotland. They were of Celtic descent, spoke a Gaelic language, lived in associated family groups called clans, and were largely Roman Catholic in faith. They were primarily small farmers and were known for their fearless fighting spirit. Their migration to America started in the early 1700s and increased after the 1745 Jacobite conflict over the British throne, which led to the break-up and weakening of the Scottish clan structure. The Highland Clearances, 1750-1860, also resulted in the displacement of many Highlanders as a result of land reform and massive evictions of tenant farmers.

The migratory route of the Highlanders was generally through Philadelphia and then south to Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. A number also went to New York, where 9% were listed as indentured servants. About 1,200 Jacobite prisoners from the Highlands settled in Cape Fear, North Carolina, following that conflict. The community had grown to 20,000 Scottish settlers by the time of the American Revolution and was known as the “Argyll Colony.” Most of the settlers of the region had come from the Highland counties of Argyll, Arran, Jura, Islay, and Gigha.

Between 1735 and 1741 in the colony of Georgia, 260 Highlanders were recruited and transported by the colony’s trustees to settle on 20-acre plots and to defend the colony’s frontiers against the French and the Spanish. They founded New Inverness on the Altamaha River–this was later named Darien.

The Lowlanders were of Anglo-Saxon descent, spoke English, and were generally Presbyterian Protestants. Most immigrants to America were Lowland Scots who came via Ireland. These Scots-Irish are also referred to as the Ulster Scots. Between 1608 and 1697 about 200,000 Presbyterian Scottish Lowlanders migrated into Ireland, and particularly the province of Ulster, in response to a government-authorized program to colonize the land there, which had been confiscated from members of Ireland’s Gaelic nobility. The majority of these settlers came from the Scottish counties of Galloway, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, and also from the Scottish Borders.

The Ulster Scots began leaving Ireland to settle in North America in the 1700s. About 250,000 Scots-Irish immigrants landed in the America colonies between 1717 and 1775. They often settled on the frontiers to the west and south of the colonies. They were Irish by nationality, but Scottish by heritage.

However, it should be noted that some of the immigrants to Ulster whose descendants went on to the American colonies were actually from England–not Scotland. They were from the English border counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham, and Westmoreland, and had been imported into Ulster as farm laborers along with the Scots in the 1600s. They shared a culture with the Scottish, if not a heritage. The English and Scottish border was a rough and tumble area that had a long history of fighting, violence, and lawlessness. These immigrants came in handy when settling and defending the American frontier in the new territories west of the colonies. In searching for your Scots-Irish heritage, keep in mind that you may actually be descended from an English borderer. Tracing the actual origin of the surname and doing genetic testing can aid researchers in distinguishing the true heritage of a Scots-Irish ancestor.

Next week will cover Scottish records and where to find them. 

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