Post by Contributing Author, Traci Wood Thompson
We all love the fact that Diana chose to send Jamie and Claire to North Carolina. Undoubtedly, Diana made this decision due to her research findings; any investigation into Highland Scot emigration will reveal North Carolina as a major destination. But why did they come, and why did they choose NC?
First, let’s explore the circumstances that set the migration in motion. There were many of them! The following information is from Douglas F. Kelly’s Carolina Scots: An Historical and Genealogical Study of Over 100 Years of Emigration (Dillon, SC: 1739 Publications, 1998), Chapter 2, “Winds of Change.”
The first catalysts were changes in estate management and farming practices. The old Highland way of farming was unfortunately somewhat inefficient, but this was not considered very important, as long as it could sustain large numbers of clansmen to form potential armies. But over time, as the clan patriarchs aligned themselves more with the English, the Scots aristocracy became more like English landlords, and a “fewer people and more money” mindset dominated.
The result of this change was a social restructuring. Traditionally, middlemen, or “tacksmen,” gathered the rents for the clan chiefs and kept a certain amount of the profit (we see Dougal filling this role in Outlander.) As more money was needed, the chiefs raised the tacksmen’s rent, which burden was then passed on to tenants. Then, a movement to get rid of the tacksman position altogether occurred; this was to give land leases directly to tenants, with the entire rent payment going to the chief. While probably a sound financial move, many found it to be “a shocking abrogation of the time-honored kinship system; an undercutting of the values of extended family” (p. 53). While the raising of the tenants’ status was supposed to be a benefit, this was ruined by other factors coming to play at the same time.
One big factor was sheep. Large-scale sheep farming was introduced to the Highlands in the latter third of the 18th century. As the idea took hold of land as a means of revenue, not just to support the clan, landowners found that sheep were more profitable than tenants. English demand for wool helped fuel this change. By the 1770s time period, 136 persons on board the ship Jupiter bound for Wilmington, NC, gave displacement by sheep as a major reason for their emigration.
Forced and complete displacement was not the norm originally. Due to a rise in the kelp industry, many tenants were relocated to the coast to work there, while their former homes were used for sheep pastures. Resentment at being moved around still prompted many to emigrate. When the kelp industry went under, tenants were then forced out, an event known as the Highland Clearances. The Clearances do not play a large role in the emigration to North Carolina, however; these events came later, from 1800-1820, while the major migrations to NC came in the 1730s to the 1770s from the other problems discussed.
On to these other problems…the next factor at work was a depression in cattle prices. We see and hear in Outlander a bit about the importance of cattle to the Highland culture. “Cattle were, after all, the lynch-pin of the Highland economy. There was usually little else to pay the rents…and a sharp fall in price or a severe winter…could be disastrous to tenants – and lairds.” (p. 63.) Low market prices and disease and death in cattle are seen in the records from the 1730-1740 time period, a time of massive emigration from Scotland to NC.
Another change beginning around the 1750s was a steady population growth. It is speculated that this was spurred by the introduction of potatoes and kale into the Highland diet; with a healthier diet, more children survived, and the effects of disease lessened. (Thanks, Claire!) Unfortunately, population growth in a country with limited land, a shaken societal system, and an economic depression led to high unemployment. “Problems of low wages, high rents, and unemployment are frequently mentioned as the main reasons for which Highlanders were emigrating to North Carolina…” For example, “John McBeath Aged 37, by trade a farmer and shoemaker, married, hath 5 children from 13 years to 9 months old. Resided last in Mault in the Parish of Kildonnan in the County of Sutherland, upon the Estate of Sutherland. Intends to go to Wilmington in North Carolina; left his own country because crops failed, he lost his cattle, the rent of his possession was raised, and bread had been long dear; he could get no employment…” (p. 66.)
Despite the Battle of Culloden serving as a plot device in Outlander to begin the movement of the characters toward emigration, whether voluntary or forced, in reality this event was only an indirect cause. Emigration to Carolina was well underway by the late 1730s, before Culloden, and rebel soldiers who were exiled to the colonies did not come to Carolina. The battle certainly was the final blow to the already-changing clan system in the Highlands, with the end of the clan chiefs’ judicial power, disarming, banning of Highland dress, etc. As Kelly says, “Hence the failure of ‘the ‘45’ did not by any means start the process of disintegration, but it certainly strengthened and in a sense institutionalized it.” In other words, “it reinforced the process of social and economic changes which were causing such major upheavals.” (p. 70.) Although there were undoubtedly some Highlanders in NC with “Jacobite sympathies and displeasure at the continuing union of Scotland and England,” “Governor Gabriel Johnston denied in 1749 that any Jacobites lived in the colony.” (p. 71.)
So, as we see, the major reasons that the Highlanders left Scotland were more social and economic than political. The social was “particularly hard because of the innate conservatism of this Highland populace: To persuade a peasantry to abandon an age-old method of cultivation is seldom easy…not least because of a wide-spread and justifiable suspicion that the proposed change would not be for the better.” (p. 61.) The economic obviously created a pressing need to seek opportunities to make a living elsewhere, in order to keep families from starving.
Next time, we will explore the question, why North Carolina. What questions do you have regarding Scottish emigration to America? Please post them in the comments. And as always, thank you for reading Outlander North Carolina!