Outlander North Carolina

From Scotland to North Carolina ~ Part 1: Scottish Emigration

January 17, 2018
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!


Traci Thompson is a married mother of two who lives in eastern North Carolina, and is, of course, an avid Outlander fan.  Traci is a Certified Genealogist and Local History & Genealogy Librarian. She is a contributing author for Outlander North Carolina.

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  • Reply Jan Grupp January 17, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Does anyone else this Traci Thompson looks more than a wee bit like Catriona Balfe??

    • Reply Beth Pittman January 17, 2018 at 2:01 pm

      She has been told that, Jan! I’m sure she would be tickled pink to hear it again!

    • Reply Traci January 17, 2018 at 5:28 pm

      Jan, you are my new favorite person LOL!

    • Reply Y. McEwen June 10, 2022 at 5:56 am

      As a Scottish born person and Scottish historian, sorry to say I take exception to your more fanciful notions about my people. The story of emigrants is tainted with over romantic notions regarding highlanders. This is a very complex history, with a variety of factors contributing to Scottish migration,oftern forced, to America and Canada. Our relationship with the New World and the Indignous/Native peoples is also complex, and their are many similarities in our narratives.Outlander is a crude caricature, and does little to advance the true story of my nation. Also, please remove the silly captions on the illustrations and try and view them from Scottish eyes.

      • Reply Traci June 10, 2022 at 8:07 am

        History & migration are absolutely complex. Outlander is historical fiction, not documentary; but it can be very instrumental in raising general awareness & encouraging the further study, exploration, & learning of the real history behind the fiction.

      • Reply Professor Yvonne McEwen June 10, 2022 at 3:22 pm

        I stand by everything I said. You do my country, people and history a great disservice. You make a complex, tragic situation into farce and theatre. Furthermore, I also feel badly about the depiction of Native peoples. They appear to suffer tha same type of stereotype, caricature as we Scots. A media portrayal that is so wide of the mark it is both frighterning and disturbing.

  • Reply Linda Vincent January 17, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    I wasn’t aware that so much immigration took place before Culloden. I thought that it must have been as a result of the battle itself. On our yearly drive from north of Toronto to Florida we have taken to driving through Northern Carolina (if there are no snow storms expected) and was aware of the numerous descendants of the Scots in this state. Thanks for explanation. I look forward to Part Two.

    • Reply Beth Pittman January 18, 2018 at 1:00 pm

      Hey Linda! I didn’t realize it either. I’ve learned so much through Outlander. Stay tuned because there’s a lot more “learning” left to come.

      • Reply Harmony Tersanschi February 28, 2018 at 12:57 pm

        We took a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad earlier last year & the storyteller on the train talked quite a bit about there being many Scots that immigrated to these mountains because the land was so reminiscent of Scotland.

        • Reply Beth Pittman March 2, 2018 at 3:35 pm

          Yes, it is very much like Scotland, I think. That’s how they can film there and it still looks so much like NC. Dang it!

    • Reply Elizabeth Russell March 6, 2020 at 12:00 pm

      yes I think it was because there was not a good living for the people I myself have had some leave for Ireland before Culloden the crofts did not always have fertile ground and most were stoney

  • Reply Sonya Breton January 17, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    I’m a french canadian from Quebec city and my great great grand-mother was a Fraser descending from Augustin Hugh Fraser who came from Scotland. Can you talk about Scottish immigrants who came in Quebec Canada.



    • Reply Beth Pittman January 18, 2018 at 1:10 pm

      Hey Sonya. We would love to address that. Our primary focus for the immediate future, however, is on North Carolina and how it relates to Outlander and vice versa. We probably wouldn’t have time to do any research on this in the immediate future but it might be something Traci would be willing to research and write about later. Thank you for the suggestion.

  • Reply lydia hill January 18, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Traci – I always love reading your blog – chock full of interesting historical information. I joke with hubby that through Outlander, I have now become a revolutionary war buff! I drag him to re-enactments at Brandywine Battlefield and other events throughout Chester County, PA. These days I am always talking/reading about the war (in addition to Diana G of course). I live near Philadelphia and can’t wait to visit the new Museum of the American Revolution in February! I had not realized you are a Certified Genealogist and Local History & Genealogy Librarian – that is so cool! Congrats on a fantastic Blog!

    • Reply Beth Pittman January 18, 2018 at 1:22 pm

      Hey Lydia! Thank you for reading the blog! I have become a Revolutionary War history fan too! My husband and I are planning to go to the new museum in Philadelphia in May. Can’t wait! Traci Thompson, the blog post author, is a Certified Genealogist & Local History & Genealogy Librarian – which is very cool! Me, I’m just an Outlander fanatic who decided to start this blog not know all the wonderful people I’d meet through it! Thank you for reading and commenting, Lydia!!!

      • Reply Lydia of the Lake January 19, 2018 at 10:09 am

        Hi – nice to hear from you! My apologies – I did not know you are the blog creator! Kuddos to you on a great blog! Have fun at the museum – during our visit in Feb, my folks will be smiling down from heaven, especially my war history buff Dad, who would never have imagined I would be visiting a revolutionary war museum….especially since I was less than amused during our trip to Williamsburg when I was in middle school. Ha Ha! Keep up the great work!

        • Reply Beth Pittman January 20, 2018 at 11:09 am

          Thank you, Lydia!!! It is amazing how we seem to come full circle with our parents and become like them, right? Have fun and I’d love to hear from you afterwards for any pointers. You can send me an email – outlandernorthcarolina@gmail.com. Thanks for reading the blog!

  • Reply Cindy Guida January 23, 2018 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you so much for this Blog and, especially, this subject. In the OL series of Books, we read that some Children were “sold off” to People to be taken with them to the Americas. If so, were there any Papers of Register for them or did they now take on the name of their “owners”, hence losing the connection to actual Family? Are they the Lost Ones of History?

    • Reply Beth Pittman January 25, 2018 at 11:46 am

      Hey Cindy. Thank you for your comment. That is a good question for Traci. I will forward to her. Thank you for reading the blog!

    • Reply Traci January 25, 2018 at 4:26 pm

      Hi Cindy, thanks for your good question! Two interesting books on this subject are Without Indentures: Index to White Slave Children in Colonial Court Records (Maryland and Virginia) by Richard Hayes Phillips, PhD (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2013) and Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and other Undesirables, 1607-1776 by Peter Wilson Coldham (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992). On the subject of records or documentation for such children, the short answer may be, if they were taken, sold, or indentured legally, then possibly; if illegally, then unlikely. Records may be located “across the pond,” or may be located in the colony they arrived in; for example, the Without Indentures book includes information on such children from the colonial court records of Maryland and Virginia. Now, as for names… generally, there would not have been a name change. There are always exceptions, however. As with any historical research, evidence for or against would need to be sought. I hope this is somewhat helpful – please let me know if you have any other questions I can try to help with!

  • Reply Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph.D. February 25, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    Yes, the white slave children, without indentures, did keep their names. I have matched up 1400 of these children with their parents, with a reasonable degree of certainty. We know the real names of these kids, and their approximate ages, as adjudged by the Maryland and Virginia courts, on a date certain, and thus we know their approximate birth years. If the name is unusual enough that it appears only once in the correct time frame in any of the birth or baptismal records in any of the shires or counties from which these kids were taken, then it is probably the same kid. I have the names of 170 white slave ships, as gleaned from court records and shipping records, and I can track their movements, so I do know the ports of departure. I have personally searched, in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Devon, all the parish registers not posted online, to more nearly complete the data set. There are too many unpublished parish registers in London and downstream on the Thames for any one historian to search, and there I must settle for what is online. I have written not one, but three books on the subject, the others being — “White Slave Children of Colonial Maryland and Virginia: Birth and Shipping Records,” and “White Slave Children of Charles County, Maryland: The Search for Survivors.” I have recently discovered even more shipping records, and proof that kids without indentures were brought from Scotland to Philadelphia. Remember, an indenture is a written contract. Children without indentures were transported against their will. Indeed, many of these children were below the age of consent, and could not have signed a valid indenture if they had wanted to.

    • Reply Beth Pittman February 27, 2018 at 10:52 am

      Thank you for sharing your research with us, Dr. Phillips! Very interesting stuff!

    • Reply Traci Thompson March 28, 2018 at 3:25 pm

      Thank you Dr. Phillips for commenting on my blog contribution! I consider your work to be a tremendously valuable contribution to genealogy & historical research and will be purchasing your other books for our library. Please keep publishing! 🙂

  • Reply Children Are Not Infrequently Taken As Slaves – Teaching History's Slender Threads, Including 'What Ifs', Almosts, Alternatives and Turning Points July 25, 2019 at 12:33 am

    […] an indenture is a written contract,” he wrote on the Outlander North Carolina blog. “Children without indentures were transported against their will. Indeed, many of these […]

  • Reply George Carter Jr August 10, 2022 at 4:07 pm

    Interesting, I have researched my ancestry and my distant grandfather, named William Bain, came to Wilmington (Southport) in 1775 with his family from Wick, Scotland. Through a letter, from his grandson, it was stated they were bakers but, due to local economic conditions in the Caithness area, they could not make a living. They eventually ended up in Northeast, TN with direct male descendants to my grandfather, William Roy Bain in Reliance, TN. I had relatives who served in the Revolution and Civil War from the Bains. We were descendants of the Clan McKay.

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