Scottish Americans

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Author: Mary A. Hess
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 8,679 words
Lexile Measure: 1320L

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Page 101

Scottish Americans

Mary A. Hess


Scottish Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Scotland, a country that occupies roughly the northern one-third of the British Isles. A land of considerable natural beauty, Scotland is surrounded on three sides by water—the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Sea to the east. To the south, Scotland shares a border with England. A fault line separates the country into the northern Highlands and the southern Lowlands, the agricultural and industrial center of the country. In addition, there are several island groups offshore, notably the Hebrides, the Shetland Islands, and the Orkney Islands. Deep and narrow inlets known as firths penetrate the coastline of Scotland, while inland are distinctive glacial lakes known as lochs, the most famous of which is Loch Ness, the home of the fabled “Nessie,” a prehistoric creature said to live in the deepest part of the lake. The country's area is 30,414 square miles (78,772 square kilometers), or about the size of the state of Maine.

According to the 2011 United Kingdom census, Scotland's population is 5,254,800, two-thirds of which live in the Lowlands, most near the country's two largest cites—Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and Glasgow. The cities of Dundee and Aberdeen reflect Scotland's major industries, particularly fishing and shipbuilding, and its strong ties to maritime commerce. As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has benefited economically from its use of the British pound. In 2010 Scotland ranked sixth in the world for gross domestic product per capita, with an estimated output of $41,189 per citizen, two spots behind the United States and ten spots ahead of the United Kingdom as a whole. According to the 2009–2010 Scottish Household Survey, 40.9 percent of the population reported having no religion, 33.4 percent belonged to the Church of Scotland, 14.7 percent were Roman Catholic, 7.6 percent belonged to another Christian denomination, and 1.3 percent were Muslim. The majority of Scots identify as white, making up nearly 98 percent of the population; among the Scottish minority ethnic population, Pakistanis are the largest group, followed by Chinese, Indian, and those identifying as mixed heritage.

With the support of the English crown, Scots were among the earliest arrivals to the New World. The first large wave of Scottish immigrants appeared on North American shores in 1652 and was comprised mostly of English prisoners. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scots arrived on North American soil in vast numbers, with immigration peaking in the first decade of the twentieth century. Over the course of the twentieth century, immigration to the United States remained relatively constant, spiking occasionally during periods of economic trouble in Scotland. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Scotland's history of net out-migration reversed; for the first time, the country had a net in-migration, welcoming immigrants from around the world.

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimated in 2011 that 5.56 million Americans were descended from Scottish ancestors, making Scottish Americans the tenth most populous ethnic group in the country. According to the American Community Survey estimates, the states with greatest number of Scottish Americans were California, Florida, Texas, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Ohio. States reporting the highest concentration of Scottish Americans were Maine, Vermont, Utah, and New Hampshire. However, American Scots have largely been absorbed into the broader population and can be found throughout the nation.


Early History The earliest recorded history concerning the Scots comes from the Romans, who controlled southern Britain in the first century CE. In 84 CE the Romans defeated the tribal armies of Scotland in battle but were unable to conquer the people. In an attempt to isolate the fierce “barbarians,” the Roman emperor Hadrian built a massive stone wall, the remains of which are still visible traversing northern England just south of the Scottish border. By the 600s, four tribal groups had emerged: the Angles of the Southeast, related to the Germanic tribes settling England at the time; the Britons of the southwest, a Celtic people related to the Welsh; the Picts, also Celtic, who dominated the Highlands; and the Scots, a Celtic group that settled the western islands and coast from nearby Ireland. Christianity, brought by missionaries such as St. Ninian and St. Columba, spread slowly among the tribes beginning in about 400.

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Following the Viking invasions of the 800s and 900s, the four tribes gradually united under Scottish kings such as Kenneth MacAlpin, who brought the Scots and Picts together in 843 and is often called the first king of Scotland. His descendants succeeded in gaining limited control over rival kings and the feuding clans (groups of families related by blood). Eventually, the Scots gave their name to the land and all its people, but the kings often ruled in name only, especially in the remote Highlands, where local clan leaders retained their independence.

In 1066 Norman invaders from France gained control of England. Powerful new English rulers such as Edward I (1239–1307), who was called “the Hammer of the Scots,” gained influence over the Scottish kings and helped shape culture in the Lowlands. Still the Scots resisted English dominance, often allying with England's enemy, France. However, over time the English and Scottish royal houses became closely connected through marriage. On the death of the English queen, Elizabeth I, in 1603, her cousin James VI, already king of Scotland, ascended the throne of England as James I. The Catholic Stuart monarchs faced trouble in both England and Scotland as the religious disputes between Catholics and Protestants wreaked the land. While rebellions continued in Scotland, the union of Scottish and English crowns marked the beginning of an increasing bond between Scotland and her more powerful neighbor. The Treaty of Union (1707) formalized the political connection by incorporating Scotland's government into that of England. This created the United Kingdom and laid the foundation for the British Empire—to which the Scots would contribute greatly in coming centuries.

Political turmoil continued in Scotland during the 1700s with rebellions led by James Stuart (son of James II), who was backed by France and Spain—England's Catholic enemies. The most important of these “Jacobite” (from Jacobus, Latin for James) campaigns occurred in 1715 and in 1745, when James' son Charles also surprised Britain by invading from Scotland. These failed attempts engendered a vast body of romantic legend, though, particularly around the figure of Charles, called “Bonnie Prince Charlie” or the “Young Pretender” (claimant to the throne). The Jacobites found more support among the fiercely independent Highlanders, who had remained largely Catholic, than among the stern Protestant Lowlanders. The Scots retained their distinctive character, however, even as they contributed to Britain's prosperity and worldwide power.

Modern Era The modern history of Scotland mirrors the trajectory of many western European nations. In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution arrived in Scotland; first textiles and later steel, mining, shipbuilding, and engineering all propelled Scotland to the forefront of the world economy and made the region one of the most industrialized places in the world. However, such industry was not immune to the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. After World War I, global need for mining and heavy industry declined. Unemployment, combined with housing shortages and widespread health concerns associated with the Industrial Revolution contributed to a mass migration of Scots to destinations around the world. Scotland endured a net population loss throughout that decade, despite rising birth rates. Boom times returned with the beginning of World War II as Allied forces relied on Scotland's industrial production to provide ships, weapons, and engines. Today, Scotland maintains a business-friendly economic environment, but the technological sector has replaced heavy industry as the driving economic force. Rather than shipbuilders at the docks, there are electronic technicians and software designers in “Silicon Glen” (Scotland's version of Silicon Valley).

Nationalism has also come to define modern Scottish history. Since the eighteenth century, Scotland has worked to distinguish itself politically from England. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, however, that Scottish secession from the United Kingdom was put into motion. The Devolution Referendum of 1979 polled Scottish citizen support for the Scotland Act of 1978, which proposed a Scottish Parliament independent of the United Kingdom Parliament. Despite failing to earn requisite votes, Scotland only had to wait twenty years before the UK Parliament passed the Scotland Act of 1998, paving the way for the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and establishing an executive power. For Scottish nationalists the next step is independence. Yet the continued devolution of Scotland's government from the UK is not inevitable. Polls in early 2013 showed that 47 percent of Scots opposed independence and 38 percent believed the country would be worse off as an autonomous nation. Arguments against independence include concerns of diminished international influence and economic instability, while pro-independence Scots believe a smaller government would be more manageable and want to see Scottish interests supersede those of the UK. Citizens are scheduled to vote in a referendum set for late 2014.


One of the first colonies with a predominantly Scottish population was in Nova Scotia (which translates as “New Scotland”) in present-day Canada; it was founded in 1629 by Scotsman William Alexander. Several small British colonies with high concentrations of Scottish immigrants were established in the early seventeenth century in New Jersey and the Carolinas, at East Jersey in 1683 and Stuarts Town in 1684, respectively. These colonies were primarily for Quakers and Presbyterians who were experiencing religious persecution by the Church of Scotland, which at the time was Episcopalian.

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Although some Scots were transported to America as prisoners or criminals and were forced into labor as punishment, many voluntarily settled in America as traders or as tobacco workers in Virginia. Many Scots emigrated to escape the political persecution of the Jacobite sympathizers, combined with economic hard times in Scotland. Throughout the late eighteenth century, roughly 40,000 Scots arrived in the United States. Scots emigrated in groups, which reflects their early organization in clans. They became a significant presence in the New World, settling in the original colonies with a particularly strong presence in the Southeast. Toward the turn of the century, increasing numbers of Highland Scots arrived in the South—founding Darien, Georgia, and populating the Upper Cape Fear area of North Carolina—while Lowland Scots settled in the Lower Cape Fear region. This presence remains strong today, as the American South provides a hub of Scottish history and heritage preservation; in fact, North Carolina has one of largest concentrations of people of Scottish descent. Additionally, Scots were strongly represented in the push westward as well, and their participation in military campaigns was significant.

As a booming Scottish population outpaced job availability, substantial numbers of Scots also immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century to work in industry. Throughout the twentieth century, immigration to the United States would rise when economic conditions in Scotland worsened; this was especially true during the 1920s, when an economic depression hit Scotland particularly hard. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, Scots continued to migrate to the United States, but never again with the same volume. Since 1960, immigrants from Europe have accounted for only 12 percent of the total foreign-born U.S. population. By the twenty-first century, the majority of immigrants arriving in the United States were from Asia and Latin America. According to the American Community Survey's estimates for 2011, among the 5.6 million Americans reporting Scottish ancestry, the vast majority (97 percent) were born in the United States. The states with the highest numbers of Scottish Americans included California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.


While the majority of Scottish citizens speak English, the language of the land was once the Celtic-derived Scottish Gaelic. In 2001 it was estimated that roughly 60,000 Scottish citizens still spoke the language. These speakers are primarily located in small pockets of the northwestern part of the country, additionally where a variation of this branch of Gaelic persists in some isolated communities in Nova Scotia, Canada.


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American Scots or other interested learners can take Scottish Gaelic classes in several U.S. cities such as Seattle or San Francisco. A traditional Scottish Gaelic expression–Alba gu bràth (meaning “Scotland until judgment,” or “Scotland forever”) has become a catchphrase among contemporary America Scots. A sign of pride in one's heritage, the phrase gained popularity when it was featured as a rallying cry in the 1995 film Braveheart, about Scottish folk hero William Wallace.

Excepting recent immigrants, Americans of Scottish ancestry rarely share the characteristic burr (a distinctive trilled “r”) that defines Scottish English. However, linguists who have studied Appalachian accents have found continuity in usage and idiom that can be shown to originate in Scottish phrases. Occasionally remnants of the Scottish idiom survive in words such as “dinna,” which means “don't,” as in “I dinna ken” (I don't know), but this is increasingly rare as even isolated mountain hollows in the South are penetrated by mass media and its homogenizing influence.


Christianity is the predominant religion of Scots and Scottish Americans. The majority of Scottish citizens belong to the national church, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, affectionately called “the Kirk.” Although the Church of Scotland was an austere entity, not given to large churches or displays of wealth in the home nation, it gradually gave way to grand affirmations of material success in the United States. Today most Scottish Americans belong to Protestant denominations, and the Presbyterian Church still plays a significant role in American religious life. The stirring hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” (1864) exemplifies the Scottish heritage reflected in today's church: “Onward Christian soldiers / Marching as to war / With the Cross of Jesus / Going on before!” Written first as a children's hymn, it became a favorite in Protestant churches.


Throughout the significant immigration periods of American history, particularly the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cultural norms pressured new arrivals to repress ethnic identity markers in order to appear more “American.” Additionally, many Americans detached themselves from strict cultural boundaries by moving away from enclaves and by marrying partners from other backgrounds. As white, Protestant Europeans, this process was particularly easy for Scots. On the whole, the assimilation of Scottish immigrants occurred long ago and has proven to be thorough in American society. Having the benefit of arriving early in U.S. settlement, speaking the local tongue, and appearing in droves, Scottish immigrants played a significant role in shaping American culture. Yet a sense of nostalgic “symbolic ethnicity” eventually led to a resurgence of Scottish Americans' interest in their ancestry and genealogy in the mid-twentieth century. Such interest in ethnic roots tends to be romanticized, and some Scottish citizens consider American notions of Scottishness to be out of touch or incongruous with real life in contemporary Scotland.

Traditions and Customs There is a cliché about “the wandering Scot” that contains an essential truth—that Scottish people have both a wanderlust and a strong affection for Scotland. This attachment can be seen today in the celebration by Americans of their Scottish roots, which often means both a consciousness of ethnicity as well as taking a journey to discover their ancestral heritage. Many genealogical firms in Great Britain and Ireland specialize in helping these Americans trace their ancestry. Insignia such as a family crest, an article of clothing displaying a traditional plaid pattern (called a tartan), or an interest in traditional customs are all demonstrations of pride in Scottish ethnic identity.

The most significant way in which Scottish Americans connect with their heritage is through participation in regional Scottish clubs and societies. Groups such as the Chicago Scots promote community by fostering contemporary Scottish American culture through lectures, festivals, and institutes like the Scottish American Hall of Fame. These societies also uphold Scottish traditions, support genealogical study, and facilitate travel to Scotland. Present throughout the United States, Scottish societies provide a new iteration of the clan social structure. Rather than close family ties, however, American Scots are bound to one another through a sense of shared history and identity.

Scots enjoy large “gatherings of the clan,” which celebrate their heritage and offer opportunities to meet others who share membership in the clan. The Highland Games are one way Scots can celebrate their culture. Originating in Scotland in the early nineteenth century, several countries with substantial Scottish immigrant histories have generated their own Highland Games. In the United States, such events can be found in most states with a large Scottish population (such as New York and Michigan). The games feature sports such as “tossing the caber” (in which men compete to toss a heavy pole farthest) and the hammer throw. Bagpipe music is a very important part of this celebration, as it is at any celebration of clan identity. Dancing, displays of traditional crafts, and other events are also included in the festivities. North Carolina hosts the biggest gathering at Grandfather Mountain each July. Campbells mingle with MacGregors and Andersons, while enjoying Scotch whiskey and traditional cuisine.

Cuisine Main Scottish staples are oatmeal, barley, and potatoes. Oatmeal is made into porridge, a thick, hot breakfast cereal traditionally seasoned with salt. Barley is used primarily in the distillation of Scotch whiskey, now a major source of export revenue. Potatoes (“tatties”) are most often eaten mashed. There Page 105  |  Top of Articleis also the traditional haggis (a pudding made from the heart, liver, and other organs of a sheep, chopped with onions and oatmeal and then stuffed into a sheep's stomach and boiled). This unique meal, served with tatties and “a wee dram” (small portion of whiskey), has taken its place with the tartan and the bagpipes as a national symbol. Scots also enjoy rich vegetable soups, seafood in many forms, beef, oatcakes (a tasty biscuit), and shortbread (a rich, cookie-like confection).

Few of these traditional dishes survived the journey across the Atlantic to become staples in the United States, but some elements of Scottish fare, like potatoes, are indispensable for American grocery shoppers. Shortbread cookies are such a common treat for contemporary Americans that one can easily purchase them pre-made at any grocery store. One of the most recognizable and lasting impacts on the American diet by the Scots is not frequently associated with Scotland: fried chicken. Scots had long been frying chicken in fat, and early settlers in the American Southeast propagated this cooking method, eventually leading to the dish's identification with Southern American traditional food. In general, though, the contemporary Scottish American diet reflects mainstream American food preferences.

Traditional Dress The famous Scottish kilt, a knee-length skirt of a tartan pattern made of wool, was created in the eighteenth century by an Englishman named Thomas Rawlinson. Older kilts were rectangles of cloth, hanging over the legs, gathered at the waist, and wrapped in folds around the upper body. The blanket-like garment served as a bed-roll for a night spent outdoors. Aside from the kilt, fancy “highland” dress includes a sporan (leather purse on a belt), stockings, brogues (shoes), dress jacket, and a number of decorative accessories. The plaid is a length of tartan cloth draped over the shoulder and does not properly refer to the pattern, which is the tartan. Women's fancy dress is simpler, though elegant, consisting of a white cotton blouse, perhaps with embroidered patterns, and a silk tartan skirt. Her version of the plaid, a tartan also in silk, is hung over the shoulder and pinned in place with a brooch. This finery, like the tartans, is mostly an invention of the modern age but has become traditional, and it is taken quite seriously. The tartan shows up elsewhere, commonly on ties, caps, and skirts—even on cars and in the costumes of young “punk rockers” in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Today, Scottish Americans most frequently sport kilts and clan tartans on formal occasions, for sporting events, or for national holidays.

Traditional Arts and Crafts Like many early American settlers, Scottish immigrants participated in folk crafts that were first and foremost purposeful and practical for frontier life. Gatherings called “quilting bees,” which allowed women to enjoy each other's company while creating a patchwork quilt—were the essence of thrift. Various small pieces of fabric were

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1 cup butter

1 cup sugar

3½ cups flour

Preheat oven to 300°F.

Cream butter and sugar. Then add flour, ½ cup at a time. Mix well and knead thoroughly. Add more flour if needed.

Pat the dough into a round, square, or oblong pan. Prick with a fork all the way to the bottom.

Bake in oven for 45–60 minutes. Shortbread should be slightly darker, but not brown. Retain a piece of raw dough for comparison.

sewn together in patterns to create a beautiful and utilitarian bed covering. Today many of these quilts are treasured by the descendants of the women who made them. Quilting is a popular craft that has enjoyed an ever-widening appreciation both as a hobby and folk art; quilts are often displayed in museums, and one of the best collections can be seen in Paducah, Kentucky, home of the American Quilting Society. Another traditional community activity is that of the barn raising and the subsequent dance—a tribute to the pioneer spirit that built America. Neighbors cooperated to erect barns and celebrated their hard work with fiddle music and a square dance late into the night. These gatherings helped shape community in rural areas such as the Midwest and the West.

Dances and Songs There is considerable Scottish influence in the field of country and folk music, directly traceable to the Scots ballad—a traditional form in which a story (usually tragic) is related to the listener in song. The ballad (e.g. “Barbara Allen”) originated as an oral tradition and was brought to the southeastern United States by immigrants who preserved the form while adapting melody and lyrics to suit their purpose. Instruments, especially the fiddle and harp, have been transformed into unique-sounding relations such as the hammered dulcimer, pedal steel guitar, and electric mandolins, and they are the staples of today's country music, particularly bluegrass, which emphasizes the heritage of country music in its traditional origins in Scotland and Ireland. Contemporary line dancing also evolved from ancient Scottish ritual dances by way of square dancing. The square dance began with reels and other dances enjoyed by the nobility and transformed to the present popularity of line dancing. Today's “Texas Two-Step” and “Boot-scooting” are lasting relics of these traditions.

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The most distinctive feature of the kilt is its pattern; frequently (and erroneously) referred to as plaid, this pattern—the tartan—is comprised of a combination of crisscrossed, multicolored stripes. Many clans claim their own unique tartan pattern, but the most popular patterns refer to military groups and other institutions. Some Scottish Americans identify with a particular tartan, often choosing their pattern based on allegiance. Yet, plaid patterns have become so commonplace in everyday wear such that many non-Scots may not even realize they could be sporting centuries-old clan insignia.

The musical sound perhaps most closely associated with the Scots is the unmistakable reedy drone of the bagpipe. Historians hypothesize that the bagpipe may have originated in the ancient Middle East or the Iberian Peninsula, but since the mid-sixteenth century the instrument has been associated with the Scottish Highlands. Although several varieties of bagpipe exist across numerous cultures, the Great Highland Bagpipe is most familiar to contemporary Americans. The bagpipe is comprised of four main parts: the blowstick, a wooden rod that forces air into an animal-hide bag; the bag compresses air and passes it into the chanter, a notched tube the piper manipulates to regulate notes or chords; air then emerges from the drones—or protruding sticks—to produce the musical tones. Historically bagpipes have been used in ceremonial contexts which continues today where Americans hear the distinctive instrument in settings like weddings, funerals, military rituals, and in parades.

Holidays Most Scottish holidays are those celebrated throughout Great Britain; however, two holidays are unique to Scotland: Scottish Quarter Day, celebrated forty days after Christmas, and the commemoration of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, on November 30. Scots throughout the world share in the celebration of St. Andrew's Day. A sentimental holiday is the birthday of poet Robert (“Robbie”) Burns, celebrated on the poet's birthday, January 25, and called “Burns Night.” The event is marked by a traditional “Burns Supper” meal, consisting of haggis and accompanied by recitations of Burns' poetry, memorial speeches highlighting his continued relevance, and performance of Burns' most memorable work, “Auld Lang Syne.” Unique to American Scots is the relatively new holiday of National Tartan Day. The first celebration of Tartan Day occurred in New York City in 1982 as a commemoration of the repeal of an act banning tartan wearing. In 2005 a proposal to make April 6 an annual day of celebration of Scottish Heritage was passed by Congress. In the 2010's, this holiday is marked by parades and festivals throughout the United States.

Health Care Issues and Practices Health concerns are primarily determined by economic factors, and especially by location. Having found, for the most part, economic security due to generations of residence and the economic advantage of an early arrival in the United States, many Scots are insured through their employers, are self-employed, or have union benefits. The great exception is in Appalachia, where poverty persists despite the initiatives of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson's “War on Poverty” in the 1960s. The dominant industry of the area, coal mining, has left a considerable mark on the health of Scottish Americans. Black lung, a congestive disease of the lungs caused by the inhalation of coal dust, disables and kills miners at a high rate. This and chronic malnutrition, high infant mortality, and low birth weight remain the scourge of mountain people. West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee still have pockets of poverty as a result of high unemployment and isolation. These concerns are not, however, limited to Americans of Scottish descent.


Traditional family structure, especially in the Highlands, centered around the clan. There are about ninety original clans. Large clans enrolled smaller ones as allies, and the alliances also became traditional. The clans have loosely defined territories, and prolonged wars, often spanning generations, were once common between clans. The most famous feud was that between the Campbells (who supported the English) and the MacDonalds (Jacobites). Even today there are MacDonalds who will not speak to Campbells and vice-versa.

The adjective “clannish,” derived from the Gaelic clann (descent from a common ancestor), perfectly describes the sentimental attachment that Scottish Americans feel concerning extended family and heritage. The origin of this term is the tendency of Scots to migrate with their clan and settle in the same location. This tendency was so pronounced that in parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, relatives adopted the use of their middle name as a surname since all their kin shared a common last name. One of the most infamous examples in the United States of the Scottish tendency to clannishness is the Hatfield and McCoy feud of the 1880s in the Tug River Valley along the West Virginia and Kentucky border. The murderous vendetta lasted years and involved disputes over a razorback hog, a romance between a Hatfield son and a McCoy daughter, and various other affronts to family dignity. After nationwide publicity, the feud was finally ended in 1897 after the execution of one of the Hatfields and the jailing of several other participants. However, the phrase, “feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys” is still a part of the American vocabulary.

Gender Roles Scottish identity often aligns itself with displays of overt masculinity. Events like the Highland Games emphasize physical prowess and Page 107  |  Top of Articlethe use of weapons. In this way, Scottish heritage has come to signify misogyny for some American Scots. The image of a Braveheart figure often stands in for all of Scottish heritage, but in reality only reflects a narrow stereotype of Highlander Scots. Contemporary Scottish American culture reflects mainstream American gender roles. According to the American Community Survey estimates for 2011, the percentage of Scottish American women over the age of fifteen who in the labor force was 59 percent, nearly identical to the rate for U.S. women overall. Likewise, as with the general U.S. population, Scottish American women earned less than Scottish American men; the American Community Survey's 2009–2011 estimates showed that among Scottish Americans employed full-time, women's median earnings were 25 percent lower than that of their male counterparts. (For the total U.S. population, women's median earnings were 21 percent lower than men's.)

Education Perhaps due in part to ethnic and social advantages historically accorded to Scottish immigrants, in the early twenty-first century Scottish Americans had higher rates of educational attainment than the general American population. The American Community Survey's estimates for 2009–2011 showed that 95.8 percent of Scottish Americans had attained a high school degree or higher (compared with 85.6 percent of the overall population), and 42.7 percent of Scottish Americans had attained a bachelor's degree or higher (whereas only 28.2 percent of all Americans had achieved the same education levels).

Courtship and Weddings Scottish weddings were historically a time of public celebration in which an entire community would feast and revel together. While this practice may not have been unique to Scots, the tradition of breaking an oatcake over the bride's head is. Commonly in the nineteenth century, the wedding party would crumble a cake over the bride and then distribute it among guests. A symbol of breaking the bride's virgin state, the custom has since fallen by the wayside in favor of less messy rituals.

Less traditional wedding practices also have their origin in Scotland. For example, hand fasting, in which a bride and groom's hands are bound together to symbolize their new unity, has become a common feature in Wiccan and other non-Christian wedding ceremonies today. Accounts report that this ceremony originated as a civil alternative to religious wedding rituals at times when religious officials were unavailable, or as a way to “try out” a bride without having to make a marriage official. In 1939 reformed marriage laws ceased the recognition of hand fasting as official marriage, but today the majority of Scottish marriages are still civil rather than religious.

Philanthropy Philanthropy is a foundational tenet of Scottish culture in the United States. Many immigrants, grateful for the opportunities and successes granted them in the new world, used their

A Scottish Christmas parade. A Scottish Christmas parade. RICHARD T. NOWITZ / CORBIS

advantages to help others find similar opportunities. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the best-known Scottish American philanthropist. Carnegie essentially wrote the book on charitable giving, as his 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth” remains a reference for philanthropists into the twenty-first century. His philosophy was based in the belief that money is only valuable inasmuch as it can benefit society, rather than be amassed for individual gain. Carnegie donated hundreds of millions of dollars to build public libraries, endow universities, and fund scholarships. His most famous gift is one of New York's most beautiful public buildings, Carnegie Hall, which has hosted the world's most distinguished performers in the lively arts. Today groups such as the Scots Charitable Society and others carry on Carnegie's vision and work. Charity is a hallmark of Scottish community organizations throughout the United States.

Surnames Typical Scottish surnames carry some historical signification. Many original surnames are patronyms, meaning they were derived from the first name of a person's father; numerous clan names are prefixed by the Gaelic “Mac,” meaning “son of” and many of these have proliferated and remain common today. Historically, inhabitants of claimed land often changed their surnames to reflect the clans newly in charge of their land, demonstrating their allegiance and strengthening the clan's power. Other surnames derived from the region of a family's origin or a

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The following are examples of Scottish proverbs:

Whit's fur ye'll no go past ye.

(Meaning: What's meant to happen will happen.)

Mony a mickle maks a muckle!

(Meaning: Saving a small amount soon builds up to a large amount.)

family's trade. Among the most recognized Scottish surnames are Campbell, Mackenzie, Stewart (Stuart), MacDonald, and Gordon.


The Scots people were among the first European settlers, and along with the other colonists from the British Isles they helped create what has been recognized as the dominant culture in America, namely, white and Protestant. By working hard and seizing the opportunities of a rapidly growing country, many Scottish immigrants were able to move up rapidly in American society. Unaffected by barriers of race, language, or religion, they earned a reputation for hard work and thrift that was greatly admired in the young republic.

Historically, American Scots were drawn to the land as farmers and herders just as in their home country. Highland Scots, in particular, were attracted to mountain areas that resembled their homeland, and replicated their lives as herders and small-scale farmers wherever possible. Others were drawn to work in heavy industry, such as the steel mills and coal mines. The nation's railroads provided employment for many, and in the case of Andrew Carnegie, provided a step up in his career as a capitalist. Many sought higher education and entered the professions at all levels, particularly as physicians and lawyers. According to the American Community Survey estimates for 2009–2011, nearly 48 percent of Scottish Americans reported employment in management, business, sciences and arts industries (compared with 36 percent for the total U.S. population).

For others, isolated in Appalachia or the rural South, hard times during the Great Depression brought scores of Scotch-Irish to the factories of Detroit and Chicago, where they labored in the auto plants and stockyards. Poverty returned for many of these people as plants shut down and downscaled in the 1960s, creating so-called “hillbilly ghettoes” in major Northern industrial cities. Generations of poverty have created an underclass of displaced Southerners, which persists as a social problem today. Author Harriette Arnow, born in 1908, wrote movingly of the plight of these economic migrants in her novel The Dollmaker (1954).

Scottish Americans have, of course, assimilated to a high degree and have benefited much from the opportunities that class mobility and a strong work ethic have brought them. Despite the economic downturn in the late 2000s, American Scots maintained a lower unemployment rate than the national average.


Scots were a significant presence in the American Revolution and the Civil War. The divided union was embodied by Generals “Stonewall” Jackson and Jeb Stuart for the Gray and George B. McClellan for the Blue. Many Scots had settled on the frontier and moved westward seeking land and opportunity, and pressed forward to the West, chiefly Texas, Oklahoma, and the Gulf Coast. Texas in particular was a land of opportunity for the land-hungry Scots—Scotch-Irish statesman Sam Houston and his fellows were among the intrepid settlers of that diverse state who fought the Comanche and settled the Plains, effectively expanding the purview of the United States' territory at the cost of Native American cultural and population losses.

Highland Scots and their descendants (who typically settled in the mountains) were active in the anti-slavery movement, while it was more common for the Lowland Scots and the Scotch-Irish to be proslavery. This created a major rift in the mid-South and the lowland areas, which clung to slavery while the highlands in large part chose the Union during the Civil War. Scots figured prominently in all the major political parties in American history, and were perhaps most identified as a group with the Populist movement which reached its peak in the 1890s and united farmers for a short time against perceived economic injustice. The South and Midwest were the stronghold of the populists, led by men like Tom Watson and Ignatius Donnelly. Scots were also a major force in the union movement, exemplified by the agitation for workers' rights in the textile mills of the Southeast and the mines of West Virginia and Kentucky, marked by serious outbreaks of violence and strikes. “Which side are you on?” was a question often heard in these conflicts. Filmmaker Barbara Kopple documented this long and bloody struggle in her prize-winning film Harlan County, USA (1977).

Not until the 1970s would Scottish nationalism be a significant force in British politics; nonetheless, in 1979, Scottish voters rejected limited home rule in a referendum. Despite historic, economic, and cultural ties to Britain, Scottish independence is a fervently debated issue. Nationalists believe that Scottish interests have long been placed secondary to England and Page 109  |  Top of Articlethat independence would enable Scotland to thrive financially, socially, and creatively and effectively allow it to become an equal world power and to exercise full control over its future. The opposition, who constitute the majority of Scots, maintains that Scotland is more stable as a part of the UK, which shares risk and upholds common values. Yet, the issue is not black and white; some opposed to independence support an increase in economic and legislative autonomy while leaving some issues like defense and foreign affairs as the UK's responsibility as a prudent compromise. With no clear decision on the horizon, Scottish citizens anticipate a referendum on independence in late 2014. Although, for many contemporary Scottish Americans, the details of Scotland's politics are less pertinent than the idyllic imagery and clan identities so often referenced in popular media.

Scottish Americans have been involved with U.S. government from the founding of the Republic. As landholders and farmers, they were very much the people Thomas Jefferson had in mind as participants in his agrarian democracy. From legislators to presidents, including President Bill Clinton, the passion of Scottish people for government has been felt in America. Presidents who shared this heritage include Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), and Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), and George W. Bush (1946–).

Since the breakup of the so-called Democratic “Solid South,” it is difficult to predict how Scottish Americans vote. In addition, because of assimilation, it is unlikely that there would be a “Scots vote.”


Pioneer and explorer Daniel Boone (1734–1820), was born to parents of Scottish ancestry. After immigrating to the United States, Boone exemplified the aptitude of Scots to adapt to the unrest and harsh climate of the American frontier. Boone was active in building the New Republic, primarily in the American Southeast, where he established settlements and fought to defend the region from the British. His reputation has been celebrated in song and story, as well as movies and television. Daniel Boone was a trailblazer and patriot who continues to capture the imaginations of Americans.

Scottish-born naturalist John Muir (1838–1914), was reared as a strict Calvinist, and reacted to a near loss of his eyesight in an accident by embarking on a spiritual quest for the natural world. He began a walk on foot across the continent, which instilled in him a deep appreciation for the wild land of North America. Through his writings, such as My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) and A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916), Muir popularized environmental preservation. A fierce advocate for the preservation of the wilderness, Muir influenced President Theodore Roosevelt to become a conservationist. The national parks are a tribute to his foresight and love of America's natural beauty. Today he is regarded as one of America's great naturalists and the founder of modern nature writing.

Commerce and Industry Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. Arriving in the United States as a child immigrant, Carnegie's meteoric rise to the top echelons of American society has come to epitomize the notion of America as the “Land of Opportunity.” Years of hard work and smart investments in the railroad and steel industries earned Carnegie the designation of being among the earliest millionaires in the United States. In addition to his substantial role to the development of American business and infrastructure, perhaps Carnegie's most lasting contribution to American society has been his philosophy of charitable giving. It is estimated that at the time of his death, Andrew Carnegie had donated more than $350 million dollars. Many of these donations went to education and art institutions. Today the world-renowned performance center Carnegie Hall in New York City, Carnegie Mellon University, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and others bear the great philanthropist's name.

The adjective “clannish,” derived from the Gaelic clann (descent from a common ancestor), perfectly describes the sentimental attachment that Scottish Americans feel concerning extended family and heritage. The origin of this term is the tendency of Scots to migrate with their clan and settle in the same location.

Fashion Claire McCardell (1905–1958) revolutionized fashion design and dance by popularizing the stretch leotard; a pioneer in women's ready-to-wear clothing, she also created the affordable and practical “popover,” a wraparound denim housedress, and the “Moroccan” tent dress.

Literature Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938), received great acclaim for his novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). The youngest of eight children, Wolfe grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. After writing plays for several years without success, Wolfe turned to fiction. He drew on his life experiences in the American South to inform his masterpiece, causing some controversy in the small town. He continued to write throughout his life, but by the time he died only half of Wolfe's prolific writings had been published. Today Harvard University and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, the author's alma maters, both maintain collections of his work.

Author Carson McCullers (1917–1967), wrote in a variety of genres, but almost always focused on themes pertaining to the America South. Born Lula Carson Page 110  |  Top of ArticleSmith in Georgia, McCullers came from an illustrious legacy in the South, as her grandparents owned plantations and fought for the Confederate army. Among her best known works are The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Reflections in A Golden Eye (1941), and Member of the Wedding (1946). Two of these titles were adapted to film. Today, she is regarded as one of the South's most important novelists alongside William Faulkner.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (1936–), is known for his Western-themed novels, including The Last Picture Show (1966) and Lonesome Dove (1985). A native of Texas, McMurtry often draws inspiration from the landscapes and legends of his home state. Not only has McMurtry found success as an author, but several of his works have been adapted to hit films and television series'. The film version of McMurtry's 1975 novel Terms of Endearment won five Academy awards, and McMurtry himself won an Oscar in 2005 for his adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain, about two cowboys in Wyoming.

Music Actor and singer John Raitt (1917–2005) enjoyed Broadway success that transferred to Hollywood musicals. Best known for his portrayal of Curley in Oklahoma! (which depicts Scottish customs such as the shivaree and the barn dance), Raitt began his career on the stage during a height of Broadway's popularity. Raitt's talent easily translated to the screen, where he appeared frequently to perform his musical hits.

Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Bonnie Raitt (1949–), is the daughter of legendary musician John Raitt. Beginning her career as a folk and roots performer, Raitt has come to be known as a noted interpreter of the blues. Among her best known songs are the pop hit “Something to Talk About” (1991) and the melancholy breakup ballad, “I Can't Make You Love Me” (1991). By the mid-2010s, Raitt had won ten Grammy Awards, solidifying her place in the annals of American music history.

Performance Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) was a major innovator in modern dance, creating a unique expression based on Greek classicism and a belief in liberating the body from the constrictive costumes and especially footwear of classical ballet; her flowing draperies and bare feet made her the sensation of her day; her colorful life story is chronicled in her autobiography, My Life (1926).

Science and Medicine Samuel Morse (1791–1872), who revolutionized communications with the telegraph and Morse Code, was also an accomplished portrait painter and a founder of Vassar College in 1861; in 1844 he sent the famous message “What hath God wrought?” from Washington to Baltimore, and between 1857 and 1858 he collaborated with entrepreneur Cyrus Field (1819–1892) in laying the first transatlantic cable.

Visual Arts Craftsman Duncan Phyfe (1768–1854) was born in Scotland, but emigrated as a child, relocating to upstate New York where he became the apprentice of a cabinetmaker. Gaining the patronage of wealthy New York families, Phyfe built a notable reputation for his hard work and popular styles mid-nineteenth century. Phyfe is well-known to generations of Americans who cherish the tables, chairs, and cabinets he created, as well as inspiring imitators of his work—the apex of the Federalist style. Retrospectives of his work continue to be exhibited as recently as 2012.

Stage and Screen Oscar-winning stage and film actor James Stewart (1908–1997) was one of Hollywood's most famous and beloved citizens. Known for classics such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story, It's a Wonderful Life (1947), and Rear Window (1954), Stewart's characters defined classic Hollywood heroes. By the late twentieth century, Stewart had largely retired from acting but he remained an active political contributor. Starring in over ninety films, Stewart received numerous Lifetime Achievement awards for his contributions to American film history.

Film and television actor Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003) was known as a strong-willed and talented leading lady. An Oscar-winning actress, Hepburn's numerous films span a career lasting over fifty years. She portrayed the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary of Scotland (1936), and took on the role of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story opposite James Stewart, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. Throughout her long and honored career on stage and screen, Hepburn won three Academy Awards and was nominated for eight.

Scottish-born comedian and television personality Craig Ferguson (1962–) immigrated to the United States in the 1990s as an adult. He moved to Los Angeles looking to break into the American movie business after finding moderate success in the United Kingdom. Soon after this move, Ferguson broke onto American television as a character on The Drew Carey Show (1996–2003). By the mid-2000s, Ferguson had begun hosting The Late Late Show, a late-night talk show, which showcased his sparkling personality and comedic prowess. In 2008 Ferguson became a naturalized American citizen, the process of which he broadcast on his television program.


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The Highlander Magazine

A bimonthly magazine of Scottish heritage, largely dealing with Scottish history and traditions.

The Highlander
87 Highland Avenue
Hull, Massachusetts 02045
Phone: (781) 925-0600
Fax: (781) 925-1439

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Scotia: Interdisciplinary Journal of Scottish Studies

An academic journal presenting research across disciplines, which focus on topics pertaining to Scottish history and culture; published by the Department of History at Old Dominion University.

Old Dominion University
Department of History
8000 Batten Arts and Letters
Norfolk, Virginia 23529
Phone: (757) 683-3949
Fax: (757) 683-5644

Scottish Banner

Touted as the largest international Scottish newspaper, the Banner covers news and events for Scots in North America and Australia. Intended for Scottish expatriates and descendants.

13799 Park Boulevard #271
Seminole, Florida 33776
Phone: (866) 544-5157
Fax: (727) 648-4096

Scots Heritage Magazine

A quarterly publication with a readership of more than 32,000 worldwide. Available in print and online.

Richard Bath, Editor
P.O. Box 32510
Fridley, Minnesota 55432
Phone: 01631 568000
Fax: (763) 571-8292


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The Thistle & Shamrock

The Thistle & Shamrock is a weekly Celtic music and cultural appreciation program, featuring thematically grouped presentations on Scottish, Irish, and Breton music. Broadcast on more than 350 National Public Radio stations.

Fiona Ritchie, Producer and Host
P.O. Box 518
Matthews, North Carolina 28106

Simply Scottish Radio

Originally a syndicated radio show, Simply Scottish Radio aired weekly throughout North America on NPR affiliates. Since 2011 it has been broadcast as a weekly Internet podcast. The show features music, history, news, interviews, and other aspects of Scottish culture. The show was created in 1999 by Andrew McDiarmid Sr. and his son Andrew McDiarmid Jr., who continue to host the show into the 2010s.

Andrew McDiarmid, Jr., Radio Host


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American Scottish Foundation

An organization that promotes Scottish heritage through Scotland House, a cultural center in New York City, and a newsletter, Calling All Scots.

Heather L. Bain, Chairman
545 Madison Avenue
New York, New York 10022
Phone: (212) 605-0338
Fax: (212) 605-0222

Association of Scottish Games and Festivals

Provides information for its members on Highland Games held in the United States; compiles statistics and maintains a computer database.

Kevin Anderson, Immediate Past-President
RR3–Box 223
Bridgeport, West Virginia 26330
Phone: (304) 534-3737
Fax: (215) 825-8745

Council of Scottish Clans and Associations (COSCA)

Provides information on clan organizations for interested individuals or groups and maintains files of clan newsletters and books. The council meets each July at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.

Susan L. McIntosh, Board of Trustees President
P.O. Box 427
Pinehurst, North Carolina 28370
Phone: (980) 333-4686
Fax: (280) 229-4699


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Ellen Payne Odom Genealogical Library

Built in 1989 by an endowment from the estate of Ellen Payne Odom, the library offers individuals resources for genealogical research. Numerous Scottish clans have declared the library an official repository for records.

Lauren Howell, Board of Trustees Chairman
Moultrie-Colquitt County Library
204 5th Street, Southeast
Moultrie, Georgia 31768
Phone: (229) 985-6540

Scottish American History Club and Museum

Run by the Illinois Saint Andrew Society, the largest Scottish Society in the United States, the museum presents information and exhibits pertaining to Scottish contributions to American culture. Aiming to cultivate Scottish identity through education and celebration, the museum is just one of many ways the Chicago Scots promote their heritage.

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Kristen Guthrie
Illinois St. Andrew Society
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, Illinois 60546
Phone: (708) 447-5092
Fax: (708) 447-4697

Scottish Tartans Museum

Dedicated to the “history and traditions of Scottish Highland Dress,” the museum showcases a gallery of kilts and tartans that date to the eighteenth century. In addition to the 500 tartans on display, the museum also provides access to thousands more. The museum, founded by the Scottish Tartan Society has dedicated itself to providing reliable information and encouraging research of traditional Highland garb.

Ronan B. MacGregor, Operating Manager
86 East Main Street
Franklin, North Carolina 28734
Phone: (828) 524-7472

St. Andrews Scottish Heritage Center

Housing a collection of books on history, genealogy, and culture, as well as artifacts and Celtic music, the Scottish Heritage Center aims to educate Americans of Scottish decent and researchers alike. Sponsored by North Carolina's St. Andrews University, the heritage center also hosts educational programming.

Bill Caudill, Director
1700 Dogwood Mile
Laurinburg, North Carolina 28352
Phone: (910) 277-5555
Fax: (910) 277-5020


Dobson, David. Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607–1785. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Duncan, Sim. American Scots: The Scottish Diaspora and the USA. Edinburgh: Dinedin Press, 2011.

Fry, Michael. How the Scots Made America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.

Lehmann, William C. Scottish and Scotch-Irish Contributions to Early American Life and Culture. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1978.

McWhiney, Grady. Cracker Culture: Celtic Customs in the Old South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Parker, Anthony W. Scottish Highlanders in Colonial Georgia: The Recruitment, Emigration, and Settlement at Darien, 1735–1748. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

Ray, Celeste. Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2001.

———, ed. Transatlantic Scots. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Rethford, Wayne, and June Skinner Sawyers. The Scots of Chicago: Quiet Immigrants and Their New Society. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co., 1997.

Szasz, Margaret Connell. Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans: Indigenous Education in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300157