The Scots in Carolina

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, October 1993 | Go to article overview

The Scots in Carolina


Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review


LONG before it got its present name, Franklin, near the western tip of North Carolina, was a sacred site of the Middle Cherokees. it cherishes a mound on which their councils may have met. Now the 'gem of the Smokies' plans to have another holy place. It is building a home for the Scottish Tartans Museum, the first outside Scotland. There was a bagpipe band for the groundbreaking, and they carried the good news across the State to the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain. It will also go to publications that cater for a nationwide American interest in things Scottish, mainly with a strong clan and kited emphasis. The sponsors in Franklin, led by the mayor and the minister of the First Presbyterian Church, would also like to get the tourists to stop off on the way from the National Park and the Cherokee reservation to Atlanta and the deeper South, reckoning on a power of loyalty as well as curiosity. For in these parts it is likelier than not that visitors as well as locals will have at least a trace of Scots ancestry.

When I visited them they also let me change the course of ethnic history in Appalachia, even if very slightly. They agreed it would be a good idea to extend the name and concept to 'Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Centre'. For just as a heritage is what you choose to remember, a heritage centre is what you choose to put in it, from -- I think I suggested -- a glimpse of Robert Burns's cottage to the history of golf. I was too tactful to quote John Buchan's well justified comment on the quondam cultural hero of the South, Sir Walter Scott, That 'Wizard of the North', said Buchan, induced imaginative tradesmen to provide family tartans for Scots Lowlanders 'whose ancestors would as soon have worn woad as the dress of their hereditary foes'. To suggest that modern tartans are the product of an evolutionary process, and not of direct literal inspiration, would have been a poor return for Southern mountain hospitality. In a country as complex as the USA, the milder assertions of ethnic identity need badgets or outward and visible symbols like tartans.

Not many Scots-Americans may have taken to the kilt, except for ceremonial occasions like the annual Grandfather Mountain festival, and one who did is reported to have suffered near-martyrdom in Peachtree City, in the Georgia Lowlands around Atlanta. He was allegedly barred from the local high-school prom on the grounds that all bare knees were prohibited by a ban of shorts. Maybe that was why in Asheville the most fervent Scots-American I met was not wearing the kilt but a well-tailored tartan suit. But to speak less than tactfully, even less than reverently, about clans and tartans in North Carolina would have been inappropriate as well as inexpedient. More than any part of the United States, it not only inherits a substantial Scots heritage but one reflecting in roughly equal measure the three main elements in it: Lowland, Highland, and Ulster-Scots -- or in American English, 'Scotch-Irish'.

The Highland Scots settlers or North Carolina, who might have recognised at least some of the tartans and of the sporting items on the Grandfather Mountain agenda, actually became lowlanders in the New World. If a heritage centre werew mainly to commemorate them, it would be better placed in the Cape Fear river 'Scotch country', where Campbel-town is concealed under the post-revolutionary name of Fayetteville.

When the Rev. David Macrae visited the area immediately after the Civil War, he could still find not only numerous fellow-clansmen plus Macnairs, Macleods, and others, but 'a very few' people who could speak and read Gaelic. He heard the tale -- gaining in the telling, perhaps -- of a prisoner acquitted because his counsel had addressed the jury in better Gaelic than the State attorney's. In this part of North Carolina many of the Scots settlers had been on the wrong side in the Jacobite risings against the British Crown but became 'Tories' in their American exile and stayed true to their post-rebellion oath of allegiance to King George -- among them Flora MacDonald, the heroine who helped to see the defeated Prince Charles Edward safely back to France after the rout at Culloden. …

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