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Raymond Campbell Paterson
Scotus Americanus

"Laugh, son …and keep going"

When Dr. Samuel Johnson visited the Hebrides in 1773 in the company James Boswell, his friend and biographer, both men were set to glimpse a way of life about to change forever. Rack-renting and emigration were now an established part of the Highland scene. Ever since the failure of the last Jacobite rebellion in 1746, the clan system had been dying by degrees. Benevolent clan chiefs had turned into rapacious landlords, determined to extract as much income as possible from their tenants. Rather than accept the new realities, many turned their eyes to the west, to the promise of freedom and prosperity held out by the Americas. A new fever had gripped the land. On the evening of 2 October 1773 Boswell recorded in his Journal:

In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Skye has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to show how emigration catches, till the whole neighbourhood is set afloat.

The people of Skye were, of course, not the first Scots to be excited by the prospect of the western passage; but emigration before the mid 1700’s had been a trickle: now it was a torrent. People were on the move, from the Lowlands as well as the Highlands. The trailblazers had been the Presbyterian communities of Ulster-the original pioneers-the descendants of Lowland Scots who had settled in the north of Ireland in the early seventeenth century. Later, as the Scots-Irish, they were to acquire an almost legendary reputation in North America.

A hundred years after their original settlement in Ulster, the Scots-Irish, faced with the kind of rent rises that were later to descend on the Highlands, and with the hostility shown towards Presbyterianism by the Anglican Church of Ireland, launched themselves into a second wave of migration, crossing the Atlantic in specially chartered ships. Almost from the beginning some of their Scots cousins had been caught up in this process. It had been the practice of young men from Argyllshire to cross over to Ulster in search of seasonal employment. Now they went on to ‘…join the emigrants which now go annually in great shoals from the north of Ireland to America.’

Although mainland Scotland was generally free of the religious discontent that troubled the people of Ulster, it was soon assailed with the same kind of economic woes that acted as a spur for migration, as Boswell and Johnston were quick to note. Boswell was told by one man from Glenmoriston that seventy men had left the area that year and that ‘…he himself intends to go next year; for the rent of his farm, which twenty years ago, was only five pounds, was raised to twenty pounds. That he could pay ten pounds and live, but no more.’

Apart from occasional accounts like this there are few insights directly into the minds of the eighteenth century migrant. However, in 1774, customs officers in Leith gathered statements from people waiting to sail for America on the Batchelor. Among others is that of William Gordon of Sutherland:

Saith that he is aged sixty and upwards, by trade a farmer, married, hath six children, who emigrate with him, with the wives and children of his two sons John and Alexander Gordon. Resided last at the parish of Clynne in the County of Sutherland upon lands belonging to William Baillie of Rosehall. That having two sons already settled in Carolina, who wrote him encouraging him to come there, and finding the rents of lands raised in so much, that a possession for which his grandfather paid only eight merks Scots he himself at last paid sixty, he was induced to emigrate for the greater benefit of his children being himself an old man and lame so it was indifferent to him in what country he died. That his circumstances were greatly reduced not only by the rise of rent, but by the loss of cattle, particularly in the winter of 1771. That the lands in which he lived have often changed masters, and that the rents have been raised on every change…All these things concurring induced him to leave his own country in hope that his children would earn their bread more comfortably elsewhere.

Although this early migration from Scotland was - unlike the later version - voluntary rather than forced, it was still accompanied by a good deal of bitterness by people who had an ancient attachment to the land. Something of this spirit was captured by the Gaelic poet John MacCodrum, the bard of Sleat, in his Song of the Fugitives:

That did ravage MacDonald, it despoiled Morar, it
Wasted Knoydart, it wounded Clan Ranald: the going of
The young ones, the going of the great ones, the going of
The brave ones who would repay at time of pursuit; chiefs
Will be alone and their shoulders left without protection,
Without strength or support when oppression rears its head:
Your foes gleefully trampling you under their boots;
Oppressors will be strong when there is no one alive to deny them.

Depart now, my lads, to a country without want-set
Your backs to the land that has waxed excessive in rent for
You-the country of milk, to the country of houses, to a
Country where you may buy land to your will, to a country
Without scarcity, without blight or limit, where you will
Amass more than will last during your days: ‘tis the wise
Manly soldier who would escape with his life and not stay
On the field when he saw overwhelming odds.

Look around you and see the nobility without pity for
Poor folk, without kindness to friends; they are of the
Opinion that you do not belong to the soil, and though
They have left you destitute they cannot see it as a loss; they
Have lost sight of every law and promise that was observed
By the men who took this land from the foe; but let them
Tell me whether they will not lose their right to it, without
Means of saving it, when you go into exile.

The loss of the Highland chief was a gain for the enterprising governors of colonial America. In Georgia, James Edward Oglethorpe, made particularly effective use of Highlanders as a frontier militia, serving against the Creek and the Spanish. Gabriel Johnston, the governor of North Carolina, and himself a Scot, was also eager to encourage the settlement of Highlanders, a large party of whom landed at Wilmington in 1739, having sailed from Argyll. Johnston encouraged these people to settle in the valley of the Cape Fear River. As the years passed the Highlanders established such a dominant presence in the area that even the local slaves spoke Gaelic.

For people who had for centuries farmed land that belonged to others, a whole new prospect was opening up: they could buy their own land cheaply, especially on the frontier, and plant the kind of crops that best suited their own needs. British victory over France in the Seven Years War - known in the Americas as the French and Indian War - increased the prospects for successful migration still further. In the period from 1763, the year the wars ended, up to just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, it is estimated that as many as 25,000 Scots, from both the Highlands and the Lowlands, sailed for America. In a single day in June 1773 no fewer than 800 people left Stornoway, having completed their arrangements for a voyage to North Carolina. Emigration had now become such an established part of the Scottish scene that some serious concerns were starting to be raised in official circles. In June 1774 The Scots Magazine warned that the passion for emigration would soon turn the country into a ‘grass park’ and a resort for ‘owls and dragons.’

Neither official concerns nor the warnings of the Edinburgh press made any difference to people reacting to changing economic conditions at home and new opportunities abroad. Something of the mood amongst potential migrants is captured by a pamphlet published in 1770 by an author who identifies himself only as a ‘Minister of the Gospel.’ It was inevitable that people would seek to escape when the rewards of their labour continues to diminish:

The relief I mean is in the wide and pleasant fields of North America, lately added and secured to the dominions of our mild and gracious sovereign. And dare any man say that such a large accession of territory to the empire of Britain hath not been purposely provided by divine providence to those who are so ill-used and so much born down in this country.

In America, the author continues, the land was fertile, easily available and cheap. There was no restriction on hunting and fishing; no limitation on grazing cattle, and no burdensome taxes to trouble the newcomer.

Reports of this kind were almost certainly supplemented by more personal accounts sent home by relatives who had already made the crossing. Robert Gordon, a native of Fife, and formerly a ship’s surgeon, described his own circumstances six years after settling in Virginia:

My situation in this colony is tolerable and we live in the most plentiful country in the world, for all necessaries of life; for our estates consist chiefly in land and nigros; which nigros make grain in plenty to raise all necessary provisions within ourselves, as also a great deal for export; which returns us rum, sugar and molasses from the Caribee Islands and wines from the other islands; and the tobacco, made at the same time by these slaves, returns us from England all necessary appearrel for ourselves and slaves…I beg pardon for this tedious description of our country, but did thousands in Scotland know it they would desire banishment never to return.

Most migrants from Scotland had, of course, little interest or opportunity- to acquire slaves, but had to make way for themselves by their labours alone. Among these people was a man known simply as Andrew the Hebridean, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1770 with only £12; four years later he had acquired property worth $640. Such another was John McMillan of Campbeltown in Argyllshire, who immigrated to America with his five sons and three daughters ‘for freedom of religion.’ It took him six weeks – an unusually swift passage-to reach New York; but this was only the first stage of an epic journey. From New York the family travelled on to Pennsylvania, and from thence down the Ohio River to Cincinnati, eventually settling in Scotland Township, Illinois. Consider also the case of Jimmy Douglas, born on board ship in the early 1800’s, who eventually made it as far west as Arizona, where he was caught up in an ongoing struggle with the Apache for the right to establish a home in the Santa Cruz Valley.

For William Gordon, Andrew the Hebridean, Jimmy Douglas, and thousands of people like them, the first - and greatest - peril to be faced was the journey itself. Even in the best of conditions it could take up to twelve weeks to make the Atlantic crossing in eighteenth century sailing ships; and conditions were seldom of the best. Seasickness was a constant companion, as was disease. John Harrower, a farmer from Orkney, was one of the first to keep a diary of his experiences. Here is what he records for 11 March 1774:

The wind blowing excessive hard and very high sea running still from the westward. At 8pm was obliged to batten down fore and main hatches, and a little after I really think there was the odest shewe betwixt decks that ever I heard or seed. There was some sleeping, some spewing, some pishing, some shitting, some farting, some flyting, some blasting their leggs and thighs, some their liver, lungs, lights and eyes. And so far to make the shere the odder, some curs’d Father, Mother, Sister and Brother.

In 1773 the Hector brought almost 200 Highlanders from Wester Ross to Novia Scotia, a voyage of some ten weeks. During the journey there was an outbreak of smallpox and dysentery, which carried off eighteen children. Provisions rotted and the drinking water grew a green mould. In the same year the Nancy from Sutherland lost 81 of its 250 passengers, including 51 children, before docking at New York. John MacDonald of Glenaladale, recalling his own experiences, was later to offer some sensible advice to an unnamed correspondent:

If you go in summer, that is in advance of May, you may reasonably lay your account with a long passage from the westerly winds, and the vessel being constantly put out of trim by the people: the full allowance of water is rather more necessary than the provisions, and the distribution of water should immediately be put under regulation from the moment of going on board. The health and cleanliness of the passengers should be looked after for as long a time as possible before embarking. It is a serious thing to bring any putrid disease on board, it being enough that they will be but too subject to the same at any rate from being crowded in too narrow a passage, upon salt victuals, bad weather and too rare ventilation…The ship should not be overcrowded with numbers and in all good weather they should be much on deck to ventilate below…

The early phase of emigration, before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, had, for the most part, been very well regulated, and a great many of the passengers had enough in the way of personal wealth to offer a reasonable prospect of success in the New World. It was the second great wave of migration from the 1840’s onwards that brought in its wake some of the real horrors. By this time those who wished to migrate had almost nothing in the way of personal resources, and could thus only afford the very cheapest passage. For the most part this involved taking a berth on vessels that had brought lumber from North America, whose skippers were looking for a paying cargo for the return journey. With no attempt at regulation by a government that had lost all interest in what was now perceived as ‘surplus population’, these ships - uninsured and uninsurable - underwent the most elementary conversion to allow them to carry passengers. People were crowded in to makeshift berths in conditions - it was alleged - even worse than those that had previously been experienced on slave ships. John Ronaldson, a flax heckler from Fife, sailing from Greenock to New York in 1852, began a letter to his wife - ‘I can get no liberty to write for people jumping over my back, and you must excuse the shortness of this scrawl.’

Some of the less scrupulous captains, contracted to supply provisions, were quick to employ seasickness, the first great hazard, for their personal profit. John Mann, who sailed from the Clyde in 1816, records that it was a common practice to feed the passengers on the first day with porridge and molasses in order to induce nausea, and therefore make it less likely that they would seek to draw their rations thereafter. Disease and death were commonplace on these ‘coffin’ ships. Robert Cromar from Aberdeenshire kept a diary of his passage in 1840, recording a number of burials at sea:

Sunday 26th…Child belonging to one of the passengers died in the afternoon and rolled up in the fashion of the dead at sea…Monday 27th…The child put overboard at half past five in the morning, none on deck but the child’s father, two of the passengers and a seaman. I was too late of getting up to see the funeral ceremony but one of the sailors told me that the corpse was merely laid on one of the hatches and turned overboard into the sea without any ceremony whatever than a hearty curse from the captain to one of the sailors for not turning the hatch in the proper way. I thought he might have left the cursing alone until the corpse was out of sight at any rate. The child’s mother appears to be very sorry about it but no word nor appearance among the passengers of such circumstances taking place.

Alexander Monymusk, also from Aberdeenshire, made the crossing in 1846 with his pregnant wife and seven children. His wife died during the voyage, as he later wrote to his relatives still in Scotland:

I take up my pen to acquaint you with the dreadful affliction that has befallen me in the death of my wife…She grows ill as we left the point of the pier with sickness and continued to grow worse as we went further on. Some days she is a little better and able to be on deck, and often we did flatter ourselves she would soon be better, but the weather grew bad and she was taken with dysentery which reduced her to great weakness, when one dreadful night she was taken with the pains of labour. There was two midwives on board and she was safely delivered of a female child…alive but very small…It lived the next day and through the next night or morning, when it died…My wife was still in a fair way on Sunday, but that day she grew worse, ere about nine o’ clock at night, when her soul took its flight to that pure land where there will be no more sorrow nor trouble and where I long to follow. Oft since then I have lain beside my poor children and looked back to many happy nights we have spent together, never, never to be recalled. The children do not feel their want-it is me alone that does suffer, but their time will come. I often wish that we would be driven against some rock, that we might all have the same grave.

Rats, seasickness, illness and death were constant companions. Once disease took hold there was no escape in the overcrowded and unhealthy conditions below decks. One captain remarked that ‘the fear of death when it takes possession of a crowd on board ship is beyond the power of words to describe. Silence is the prevailing note. The boldest holds his breath.’ Beyond the fear of contagion, shipwreck was also a constant threat. Even when lifeboats were provided-installed by the insistence of Parliament-they were intended for the better off cabin passengers only- a division revealed in a newspaper description of a wreck in which ‘twenty souls and 240 emigrants were lost.’

Making matters even worse, these unfortunate people were often under the power of brutal crews and equally brutal captains. One emigrant manual, published in 1851, warned its readers that they would be as entirely captive in their vessels as Africans in a slave ship, that the emigrant ship was scarcely less horrible for filth, foul air and corrupt food, and that the slaver had a greater money interest in keeping his cargo alive. But still the people came, in eagerness and desperation; in the Highlands they were sometimes simply forced onto ships by landlords eager to rid themselves of a burden. Herman Melville, the writer, was among the many to take note of the horrors of a passage in steerage for people who were:

…stowed away like bales of cotton and packed like slaves in a slave ship; confined in a place that, during storm time, must be closed against both light and air; who can do no cooking, nor warm so much as a cup of water; for the drenching seas would instantly flood the fire in their exposed galley on deck. We had not been at sea one week, when to hold your head down the hatches was like holding it down a suddenly open cesspit.

Those who survived this ordeal - and only the very strongest did - soon faced other perils and challenges. Many knew nothing about conditions in America; nor did they understand, as it was once observed, that ‘a man may possess twenty miles square in this glorious country and yet not be able to get a dinner.’ Many were easy prey for unscrupulous speculators, who sold the more marginal lands - sight unseen - to the unsuspecting, in a way that recalls the experiences of Charles Dickens’s fictional Martin Chuzzlewit:

We happened to meet a Scottish family returning from Canada to Columbus, Ohio, who had been decoyed away in that manner with a lot of land for nothing - but which they found to be a complete swamp. When they got there, the wife and children were nearly tormented to death by mosquitoes - no road to their shanty - no friends within a considerable distance - nothing to be bought, and many other misfortunes we have not repeated.

Success depended on good luck as much as good judgement. A favourite Scottish prayer, according to the Americans, was ‘O Lord, we do not ask you to give us wealth, just show us where it is.’ For those who pushed on to the frontier life could be particularly harsh, with people setting up temporary homes in sod huts and wigwams, in the Indian style, as well as the legendary log cabin. One account of a Scottish settlement in Oklahoma recalls that ‘in the early years they lived in sod huts or makeshift homes built of local materials. They worried about crops, weather and money and most of all their children, who died at an alarming rate.’ Days were filled with endless labour, as one Iowa settler, talking about his neighbour, joked - ‘He disna’ work a’ nicht… When he gets through wi’ his chores at twelve o’ clock he leans up against a tree, takes a wee nap, an’ he goes on again.’

However, success, when it came - if it came -, could be remarkable, especially for those who showed a certain amount of caution about pushing too far into the dangerous interior. A group of Paisley weavers, who left Scotland in 1844, avoided hardship by settling in Sullivan County, close to city of New York, instead of pushing westwards like most of their fellow countrymen. Though not by training and background accustomed to the farming life they set to work clearing the land. Crops were planted to provide for their own needs with sufficient surplus available to be transported to the markets of New York. A traveller found that fifteen years after their arrival in Sullivan County the weavers were producing five crops of grain, vegetables, peaches, grapes and watermelons; that they lived on land free from fever or ague and had spring water and fuel in abundance, so that they were ‘as independent as the wealthiest man in Christendom, with few anxieties about the future, and, as one of them declared to us, they never work more than 4 out of the 12 months.’

For those who pushed on to the west success did come, though often at a very high price. In later life, Mattie Ellen Buchanan, the descendant of a Stirlingshire family, recalled her own experiences on seeing an early film of a wagon train:

The overland part of this trip was one of almost continual hardship…it was almost a wilderness…food and fuel were scarce - mud everywhere. I now sometimes wonder how we got through such an experience and came out alive, whole and well.

As the years passed Scots, both in family groups, clans and as individuals, continued to make their mark on the development of the United States of America. John Bradbury was one of the first to visit the Missouri valley, later writing Travels in the Interior of America in 1809, 1810 and 1811 as a guide for prospective immigrants. Scots reached Illinois at an early stage, and are to be found amongst those who developed the settlement of Chicago. Scots started to arrive in Texas in the late 1840’s; and in 1839 Alexander Forbes, living in Tepic, Mexico, published a history of California, in which he strongly recommended the colonisation of that province. Although less prominent than the Scots-Irish, with whom they are often confused, Scots, from both the Highlands and the Lowlands, were prominent as farmers, traders, soldiers, explorers, investors and industrialists, bringing from their own country an ancient tradition of courage in the face of adversity.

It might be as well to conclude this article with a word of explanation about the quotation used at the outset. In 1884 a family by the name of Mackenzie were making their way across the Rocky Mountains to begin a new life in Colorado. It was the tail end of winter, with drifts of snow still plentiful, though melting in the spring sun. At one point eleven year old Jim Mackenzie fell into a pool of icy water. His father put him on the wagon to dry off, attempting to raise his dampened spirits by telling him to ‘Laugh, son…and keep going.’ It’s a simple story that has as much resonance as Robert Bruce and the spider; and it seems to me that no better epitaph can serve for the epic tale of Scotus Americanus.

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