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The Scots of Virginia
Horace Edward Henderson

The Scots of VirginiaAccording to British historian James Anthony Froude, “No people so few in number have scored so deep a mark in the world’s history as the Scots have done. No people have a greater right to be proud of their blood.” 

As this book reveals the Scottish people of Virginia, namely the Scots from Ulster in Ireland, were the people most responsible for the articulation of the principles of individual human rights which became the foundation for the demands for American independence and for the formulation of the values and principles outlined in the constitution of the United States of America. 

Horace Edward Henderson begins his account of The Scots of Virginia with the origins of the Scottish people who may have been among the first descendants of the early Celts who crossed over the original landbridge to the British Isles from Europe following the retreat of the Ice Age. Subsequent Celtic waves forced the earlier Celts up into Scotland which eventually evolved as an amalgamation of indigenous Picts with Irish Scots, Angles, Saxons, Norsemen and Normans. Scotland as a nation, however, did not occur until about 843 AD after the Irish Scots had brought over Christianity and the Gaelic language when Kenneth Macalpine ascended the throne of the Picts. Although the Romans occupied most of Britain, they had little influence upon Scotland itself since their area of occupation mainly concerned only England and Wales. Historians claim that the settlement of the Nordic people throughout Britain was the “definitive event” in the history of the British people and was much more important than the Roman occupation or the Norman conquest. Most of Britain had been mainly settled by the Angles and the Saxons who came from Denmark and Germany and until the 10th century, after much mixing of numerous races, generally the people inhabiting the British Isles were considered to be predominantly Nordic. Then, when the Normans invaded England in 1066 they were considered to have been “the most highly organized continental state of the day.” The History of Scotland itself covers a difficult period of almost 800 years of conflict and suffering as the people of the north struggled against poverty and warfare for survival. Fortunately, early Scotland was ruled by a succession of able kings who succeeded in advancing the progressive development of the Scottish society. Most importantly, their independent church and Celtic character successfully resisted the extension of the Anglo-Saxon culture into Scotland. Consequently, Scotland was largely transformed into its unique character, as we know it today, by the introduction of feudalism, the reform of the church, the plantation of burghs, and by effective governmental control. Furthermore, Nordic customs and cultures were substantially replaced by Norman influences when the more civilized and peaceful ways of the Normans crossed the Scottish borders and became an influential part of Scottish society and religion. However, the Scots remained a poor and undeveloped nation of limited opportunities until the end of the 18th century. 

For many years after the Normans had conquered Saxon England, and as aggressive incursions raged across the borders of England and Scotland while relations fluctuated between peace and conflict, the major influence on Scottish Celtic civilization was Norman whereas it had been Saxon for the English. During this period, characterized by continuous wars on the continent, conflict continued between the Scots and the English across the borders between them until finally the Scots were defeated in the definitive Battle of Culloden in 1746. Meanwhile, England had advanced into a great power which soon surpassed the other countries of Europe in progress towards a civilized society while Scotland suffered particularly from weak leadership by ineffective kings. Furthermore, the geography of Scotland had created two peoples as different as two separate nations since the cultures of the Lowlanders and the Highlanders were as different as the two languages they spoke - Scottish and Gaelic. Generally, all Scots were considered to be an independent and quarrelsome people who, when not fighting the English, fought each other. There were constant political disagreements among the Scottish barons and endless struggles to gain political power while warfare raged on and off between Scotland and England between numerable treaties. In the meantime, the Reformed Church of Scotland began to exert its influence, John Knox and the Reformation brought about enlightenment from the Dark Ages, England and Scotland became strong allies, and the future unity of the two nations was underway. After the defeat of the Irish in Northern Ireland in 1603, the English took possession of the six northern counties of Ulster and James (I of England, VI of Scotland) proclaimed that the lands would be granted to lords and gentry from England and Scotland who would agree to develop their colonization. Few English gentlemen were interested but the vast majority of Scots lived in the non-mountinous areas of an impoverished country in which the people could barely grow enough food to survive. So the Scottish Lowlanders quickly seized the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and the settlement of Northern Ireland (Ulster) essentially became a migration of Scottish Lowlanders. 

The residents of the Highlands, however, played no role in the the Plantation of Ulster. By the mid-1700’s almost 100,000 Lowlanders had settled in Ulster and by their hard labor and perseverance in the development of their woolen and linen goods they prospered. But soon the Presbyterians had been denied civil and military offices, others were excommunicated, and they were required to pay tithes to support Anglican ministers. But the plantation of Northern Ireland had become “a brilliant success,” and Ulster had far exceeded the rest of Ireland in development and prosperity. But soon imports “to any country whatsoever” of their prospering woolen goods, cattle raising and linen industries were prohibited by the British government. As if that was not enough, King James attempted to replace the Presbyterian Church with the Episcopal Church. After centuries of fighting the British in Scotland, more restrictions and discriminations were offensive, and since a return to Scotland was out of the question, the new thriving colonies in America became their logical destination. And many thousands of Scottish Protestants made the decision to depart for America. 

In “The Great Migration” between 1600 and the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776 it is estimated that as many as 400,000 Ulster Scots left Northern Ireland for America. Many of them had to become indentured servants in order to pay the 10 pounds cost for passage to America. And generally, upon arrival the immigrants quickly took the “Great Wagon Road” westwards out of Philadelphia. 

At first, the Scottish immigrants were welcomed by the Pennsylvanians but when the Quakers lost control of the state assembly, land patents were refused and the Scots became “squatters.” After settling and filling the unoccupied western frontiers of Pennsylvania the Allegheny mountains directed their heavy flow southward into the Great Shenendoah Valley of Virginia. As a frontier protection against incursions by the Indians, the Scot settlers from Ireland (Scotch-Irish) were welcomed to Virginia which immediately became their favorite destination. They quickly filled the Valley and rapidly fulfilled their classic role as the pioneers of the Appalachian frontier as the adventurers and explorers who opened up the American west. Their protective presence at the frontier soon enabled the Virginia colony to become the strongest and most prosperous colony in America. 

By and large, most of the Scots who came to America directly from Scotland did so for business purposes, retained their Scottish citizenship and intended eventually to return home again. Since tobacco rapidly became the largest economic asset of the Virginia colony, Scottish factors gained control of the trade and greatly increased their numbers in the Old Dominion. Consequently, most of the Lowlander merchants settled in the port and coastal centers of the Virginia colony. As the number of Scottish tradesmen greatly increased they became more prosperous and economically influential. Few Highlanders, however, came to the colonies although there was a substantial settlement in North Carolina which was within the early Virginia trade area. But as the American Revolution approached, the factors from Scotland generally returned home and the Highlanders generally sided with Britain during the war and fought either with Britain or against the Scotch-Irish patriots at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Consequently, neither the Scottish Lowlanders nor the Highlanders, who generally supported the Crown during the Revolution, had any substantial influence upon the struggle nor upon the evolution of the American democracy. 

The onrushing influx of up to 300,000 Scots from Ireland continued to flow through Pennsylvania, soon filled the Valley of Virginia, crossed over eastward and occupied much of the Piedmont section of the state then on down into North Carolina and further south. Quickly and happily, the immigrants had built their log cabins, erected their Presbyterian churches and enthusiastically undertaken their new life in the free world of challenge and opportunity, and they quickly established orderly and permanent communities which became great assets to the state and nation. Soon the outcome of the French and Indian Wars (1689-1763) was largely won by their courage and sacrifice which gained the future American possession of vast areas to the west. The Scotch-Irish were hardworking, thrifty and self-sufficient settlers whose communities thrived and quickly spread throughout western Virginia. It was their adventuresome and resolute spirits who relentlessly expanded the American frontier both westward and northward providing Virginia its claims to Mississippi to the west and to Canada to the north. In fact, both Lewis and Clark who opened up the Northwest to the Pacific were Scotch-Irishmen. And it was Scotch-Irishman Richard Henderson from Virginia whose Transylvania Company employed Danial Boone to explore the vast lands to the west. And throughout the early years of their settlement, the Scotch-Irish frontiersmen had provided an effective defense against the Indians which had enabled the largely English settlers and planters to prosper and live in peace. 

Soon new counties were formed, local governments and laws went into effect, schools and churches grew rapidly, and the Presbyterian churches began to exert their influence. By the time of the Revolution, there were twenty-three Presbyterian churches in Augusta and Rockbridge counties alone some of which still stand today. In fact, the Presbyterian Church which grew so rapidly throughout the colonies had become a Scotch-Irish institution that would have great influence in the formation of the founding principles for the cause of freedom and the justification for rebellion against the oppression of the American colonists by the British government. 

By the time of the Revolution, Virginia had the largest population and it ranked as the most important colony both politically and economically. The largest concentration of Scottish people in America was in Virginia and they played a highly important role in helping Virginia to attain its position of pre-eminence in the new world. But it was not the “aristocratic” planters or gentry in Virginia that lit the first sparks for independence and freedom from Great Britain. It was the Scotch-Irish of Virginia who were the Champions of Liberty and Independence in America. The first calls for individual human rights came not from those who were well-off and prosperous in America but by those who had suffered for centuries from the aggressions, prejudice, harassment and discrimination of the British first, in Scotland, then in Northern Ireland and lastly, in Virginia. And it was not in the privileged sanctity of the Anglican churches or the hallowed halls of the Capitol at Williamsburg where the first cries for freedom rang out in America - but in the roughhewn Presbyterian churches of the Virginia frontier where the earliest calls for freedom were proclaimed.

The fact was that the overwhelming majority of the planter gentry with English blood in Virginia had little sympathy for the initial demands for independence from Britain, much less for any radical ideas about the democratic equality of men. The Scotch-Irish have often been called “the first political radicals in America.” The frontier-spirit of taking justice into one’s own hands, the independent individualism, the competitive spirit to win whatever the obstacles, and their almost ruthless determination to progress that became well-established parts of the American character, are generally considered to have come from Scottish traits. While most Americans of English descent either opposed independence or were non-commital, the majority of the patriotic continental troops were Scotch-Irish. In fact, a Presbyterian loyalist was unheard of.

On the other hand, thirty regiments of English-Americans fought against the patriots with the British forces. Actually, the number of American Loyalists in His Majesty’s army “exceeded in number the troops enlisted (by Congress) to oppose them.” It is estimated that 20,000 Americans fought with the British forces during the Revolution. In fact, George III called it a “Presbyterian war,” many in Britain referred to it as “the Presbyterian revolt,” and the British Prime Minister said, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

And finally, most of the Scots who had come directly from Scotland to America, either went back to Scotland or fled north to Canada. Conclusively, it was the Virginian patriots of Scottish origin who first articulated the demand for liberty and independence which brought freedom and democracy to the United States of America. They also gave America its distinctive characteristics which have made it the most powerful nation on earth based upon its unparalleled spiritual and economic strength. And nowhere in America were these unique Scottish characteristics more in evidence, and of greater influence, than in Virginia. Truly, the Scots of Virginia were America’s greatest patriots!

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