A Wee Bit O’ Scottish History in Virginia

A Wee Bit o’ Scottish History in Virginia

(Written for the 2008 Virginia Scottish Games Program)

By Kristin Laing

 Early 1600s Scotland. The Lowlanders are unwanted and have nothing. Their lands are barren from years of over-farming. Unwanted by the Scottish, they are not Highlanders, clansmen wearing family tartans or speaking Gaelic. Unwanted by the English, they are Protestant Scots, living along the border between Scotland and England, suffering centuries of persecution by the English. Unwanted immigrants in America, even when they arrive by the hundreds of thousands, they are compared to the Goths and Vandals that invaded the Roman Empire by American colonists. And you can be sure that the American Indians don’t want them.

They are used throughout history. The English use them to push out the Catholics from Northern Ireland. They are sold on fertile lands and the possibility of a better life. But their welcome runs out when the English change their minds about them occupying Ulster province. They bear no allegiance to the Anglican Church or the English so punishment is exacted, restrictions are imposed, taxes and rents are raised. The Huguenots are threatening invasion. Years of drought sucks the region dry. Life MUST be better in America.

Initially, things are better in America. They funnel in through Philadelphia and begin to experience unparalleled freedom. But when the Quakers lose their place in assembly, they soon find similar treatment from the English running the 13 Colonies. Even their own kind use them in America.  Secretary of the Province James Logan, a Scots-Irishman, sees an opportunity to protect his cities and settlements from Indian invasion by placing this hearty breed of fighters along their borders. He gives them, the immigrants that are now considered squatters, land north and west in the Allegheny Mountains, which they rename Donegal as they begin to settle.

They consider themselves Irish, but that changes in the mid 18th century when the Potato Famine brings a new migration of Irish to the shores of America. The term Scotch Irish is introduced to distinguish the Ulster Presbyterian emigrants of Scotland from the new influx of Irish escaping starvation.

Soon, they are solicited by others with the ulterior motive of protection against the American Indians.

The Great Wagon Road heads south when Royal Governor of Virginia, William Gooch grants William Beverly the right to 118,941 acres. Benjamin Borden, a Quaker, gives 1,000 acres to John McDowell along the James River west of the Blue Ridge. Col. James Patten, ancestor of Gen. George Patton, obtains 100,000 acres on the New, Holston, and Clinch Rivers in Southwest Virginia, drawing the Scots-Irish settlements further South into the Shenandoah Valley, where they find lush, fertile lands. They are used as human shields against the invading Indians, and they don’t care because they are finally able to live in freedom. They continue to move south as far as modern day Tazewell, Virginia and even into North and South Carolina.

It is said that the Scots-Irish were the first political radicals of America. After thousands of years of persecution at the hands of the English, anti-loyalist sentiment from the Scots-Irish eventually leads the colonies into the Revolutionary War. Matthew Thornton, George Taylor and James Smith, all Scots-Irish, are among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the frontier expeditions that led to the expansion of modern day America were done by Scots-Irish, including Lewis & Clark and the prospector who hired Daniel Boone.

The effects of the Great Migration can still be heard and seen everywhere in Virginia. Alexandria is named after John Alexander, the Scot who bought the land previously owned by Robert Howson, an English ship captain, for 6,000 pounds of tobacco. The city became a major trade center for Scottish and English merchants, and persists today as a hub of Scottish heritage.

Dumfries was also established by Scottish merchants who settled near the Dumfries tobacco warehouses. It was a prosperous harbor whose shipping rivaled the port of New York.

Prince William County is named for Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the second son of George II. He was nicknamed ‘the Butcher’ after English troops under his command rampaged across the Highlands, shooting and bayoneting thousands of Highland Scots, burning their farms and stealing their cattle.


Loudoun County is named for John Campbell, the fourth Earl of Loudoun, a Scottish nobleman who came to America as commander in chief of the British forces during the French and Indian war.  He was known to enjoy his wine, and was a good farmer, but not a very good leader.


More than a third of the presidents of the United States of America are descendants of the Scots-Irish, as recently as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, as far back as Andrew Jackson and James Polk.


Sky Meadows was named after the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the home of Sir Robert Hadow, the British Counsel General in Washington DC. Hadow took up residence here during WWII.


The term Scotch-Irish, or Ulster Scots, was widely used to describe the Lowland Scots that migrated to America via Ulster Province, Northern Ireland during the 18th Century. Some historians describe these immigrants as Ulster Irish, or Northern Irish. It is true that many sailed from the province of Ulster as part of a much larger flow which drew from the lowlands of Scotland, the North of England and every side of the Irish Sea. Many scholars call these people ‘Scotch Irish’. The expression is American, rarely used in Britain and much resented by the people to whom it was attached. Those of Scottish heritage and origin today consider the use of the word ‘Scotch’ to be a descriptive for whisky and terriers, not people. Of Scottish origin, we prefer to be called Scots or Scottish, of Great Migration heritage, Scots-Irish.


The Scots-Irish of the Great Migration fully integrated into American society. The log cabins they built to live in during those early years of survival, continue as a symbol of mountain living in the hills and mountains of the Blue Ridge. Their original dialect can still be heard in country music as well as in the mountains of Virginia, North and South Carolina. Many of their roots appear in the way they lived and live today, but they do not celebrate their Scots-Irish heritage the way many Scottish-Americans do today.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the people who immigrated to America, came to this country to be American. They kept many of the elements of their culture that distinguished them one from another, but they wanted to be a part of the melting pot, they wanted to be American. This has changed in recent decades, as Americans have begun reconnecting with their cultural and ethnic heritage, seeking out the origins of their families and traditions. It is in that vein that the Scottish Americans have embraced their clan history, research their family trees, and identify with the history of Scotland, through music, dance, athletics and stories long forgotten. It is with that passion for our Scottish heritage that we honor our roots through the Virginia Scottish Games & Festival.