What kind of Scottish American are you? Highlander or Lowlander? East or West Coaster? Midwest Jock, Redneck or Hillbilly?

By Mark Connolly

For the descendants of Scottish Americans it can be difficult to identify exact origins because there are three primary groups of Scots in America’s formative years who spread far and wide.

Yankees, Southerners & everything in between

Their political and religious beliefs, cultures and life experiences very often differed from one another. But their common glue lay in freedom of thought and action, as well as contempt for corruption and power undeserved or abused. Your family background will give you wonderful clues to which group/s your ancestors came from and why they ended up in America. 

Take a look at the descriptions below and decide whether they feel familiar in your family.

Highlanders: These are the people of ‘Outlander’. Ancient clans that lived in Scotland’s most mountainous and inaccessible region. Descended from a group of tribes known as the Caledonian Confederacy that fought off the Romans. They formed the first Scottish State in the 9th century after uniting with settlers known as Scotti who brought Christianity from the north of Ireland.  By 1038 their kingdom included all of mainland Scotland. Over time, power moved further south to lowland Scotland but highland society and culture remained distinct from the rest of the country. Most highlanders remained Catholic and Gaelic speaking long after the rest of Scotland became Protestant and spoke Scots- a form of English similar to the difference between Dutch and German. After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in the late 18th century, highland society collapsed and its people scattered worldwide. Most emigrated from the late 1700s to late 1800s by force or necessity. The area around Cape Fear had their largest pre-revolution settlement and those who stayed likely joined the patriot army. Many – but not all – of the next major group of highlanders arrived with the British Army. They overwhelmingly moved to Canada from places like Georgia, The Carolinas and New Jersey after the revolution. In the mid-to-late 1800s another group of highlanders would arrive in the biggest numbers yet. They were the first to arrive defeated. They had much more in common with the Irish than their fellow Scots from the Lowlands – who helped defeat their ancestors at Culloden. A generation or two of impoverishment after defeat meant either joining the British army or taking your chances in a new country. Those who didn’t subscribe to Britain, settled in established Irish communities in places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and then fanned out across the West. They were Catholic, had been dispossessed of their land a generation or two earlier, and shared legitimate personal grievances with the rest of Britain.

St Patrick’s Day, Chicago

In North America – particularly in the United States – Highland Scot and Catholic Irish fused into a hybrid culture that is often seen as one and the same despite huge differences in historical experience.

Stirling Castle, former home of the Scottish Royal Family, marks the boundary between Highland and Lowland

Lowlanders: Occupants of a fertile rift valley with the Highland mountains to the north and the Southern Uplands bordering England to the south. They focused on continental Europe for trade, setting up significant free trade colonies from Flanders to Poland, but their economy repeatedly suffered due to English blockades and the relentless cost of repelling invasions. Their centuries long military alliance with France helped, but in truth the French gained more; the Scots prevented the English focusing on their wars in France, while French support often failed to arrive for Scotland when most needed. From the earliest times they were defended by fortresses built on three volcanic plateaus spread from west to east across the middle of the country. These became the centers of the Scottish State from the 11th to 18th centuries, particularly the castles of Stirling and Edinburgh. They had four universities by the late 1400s and Europe’s first public education system from the 15th century onward. Poorer lowlanders, including many women, were literate unlike many of their counterparts in England, Ireland and continental Europe. Scottish emigrants brought their education system to America and helped the United States displace Scotland as the most literate country in the world by the mid 1800s.  The earliest lowland settlers were Presbyterian prisoners or indentured servants sent to the English colony of Virginia after defeat in the civil wars of the mid 1600s. They were Scottish Covenanters who often identified each other by wearing red kerchiefs around their necks, hence the term ‘redneck’. Their American descendants would very likely have been patriots, unlike many lowland Scots who arrived after the creation of the British State in 1707. Lowlanders from the major trading centers in the middle of the country (central Scotland) brought their industry and free trade ideas to many a northern state in the late 18th century. They settled largely from Maine to New York, and from New Jersey and Maryland to Pennsylvania.   The largest concentrations of central lowland Scots surnames today are in the northeast, northwest and California. A century later Scots from the more conservative and religious southern portion of the country began to arrive after land prices in southwest Scotland skyrocketed.  The region’s surnames are still well represented from Idaho down to Texas. Many of their descendants are Baptists or Methodists. Florida is another place with strong Scottish connections. Highlanders who protected Georgia moved south after helping defeat the Spanish. The long used – and not always derogatory – nickname given by English soldiers to their Scottish counterparts is ‘Jocks’ – Jock being the diminutive form of the name ‘John’ in Scotland.  The name stuck in its American form as the Scots moved out West.

Ulster Scots – Scotch Irish  Descendants of Scottish Lowland families primarily from the south of the country. Like the Highlanders, they were famed for their blood ties and tight-knit clans. In Scotland and England families on both sides of the border were known as Border Reivers.  They were expert light cavalrymen who manned the frontier between Scotland and England for countless centuries. When they weren’t fighting each other off, they were fighting neighboring clans or even rival kin.    When peace finally arrived after close to 8 centuries of near constant war, they were sent across the water to Ireland to protect protestant colonists against native Irish attacks.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland the Border Reivers rapidly proved their worth; those who stayed became part of a group known as the Ulster Scots. Their descendants are the reason Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. Many left for America from the late 1600s to the mid 1700s with a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment. The British government failed to protect them from a massive increase in tenant farmer rents or provide adequate military support against an increasingly violent native rebellion that targeted their families.  Their traditional role followed them to the American colonies where they became the primary military strength of the patriot army. In future years they were the main reason the West was won- manning the U.S. cavalry when in uniform and strong enough to withstand native attacks when not.  Some of their descendants live in the Appalachians, but the greatest numbers are spread out across the West. In Ireland they were supporters of the Dutch protestant William of Orange- King Billy as he was known by his supporters. William and his largely protestant Scottish and Ulster Scot army defeated the Catholic dominated army of the deposed King James made up of largely Irish and Highland Scots. Their rural dwelling descendants in America are dubbed ‘hillbillies’ because of this connection. 

As you can see Scotland, like the United States, was forged by many peoples who shared a strong sense of community while accommodating widely diverse beliefs.

The great ‘Scottish’ idea is that freedom is only freedom if it applies to all.

cum non sit Pondus nec distinccio Judei et Greci, Scoti aut Anglici
(“there is neither bias nor difference between Jew or Greek, Scot or English”)

Declaration of Arbroath to Pope John XXII, 6 April 1320

Of course this freedom of thought and action can court disaster based on over confidence; individually and collectively.  The United States, like Scotland, can be something of a Jekyll and Hyde but obviously on a far greater scale.  Robert Louis Stevenson took his inspiration from the split personality of his native Edinburgh; its forward-thinking creative genius only matched by the horrors of its dark underbelly.  Light after all cannot exist without darkness.

In exploring your Scottish ancestors, you take a journey down one of humanity’s longest and most enigmatic roads. In the process you might just understand yourself that little bit more.  

Good Hunting