For Scots, one of the attractions of Carolina was religious liberty. The proprietors guaranteed it, and Scottish Covenanters stood ready to emigrate for it.

The first Scot to visit South Carolina was John Crafford, supercargo aboard the James of Erwin in 1682. The James was charting sites for a proposed Scottish colony, and Crafford, probably under commission of the Lords Proprietors, published a glowing review titled A New and Most Exact Account of the Fertiles and Famous Colony of Carolina. Carolina, Crafford said, was “the most healthfull and fertile of His Majesties territories.” Over the coming centuries many Scots would make their names, fortunes, or at least better lives in Carolina. Time would show, though, that the Carolina climate was certainly not healthful to expatriate Scots, nor were the rewards of colonization always equal to its costs.

For Scots, one of the attractions of Carolina was religious liberty. The proprietors guaranteed it, and Scottish Covenanters stood ready to emigrate for it. The Covenanters were rigid Presbyterians, opposed to the authority of royally appointed bishops and loyal to the proscribed Covenant of 1638. Through the 1670s several Covenanting leaders, among them William Dunlop and Henry Erskine, Lord Cardross, hoped to establish a Presbyterian haven abroad. Cardross and Dunlop opened negotiations with the proprietors in 1680, arranged for the James to reconnoiter, and planted their new colony, Stuart’s Town, in October 1684.

Unfortunately for the Scots, Port Royal Sound was claimed by Spain, and in August 1686 the Spanish dispatched an expedition against them that destroyed the settlement. Most of the colonists survived, but the demise of Stuart’s Town ensured that South Carolina would henceforth be an English colony, under English law, with its center of gravity at Charleston.

The 1707 Treaty of Union allowed Scots free access to the British Empire, and large numbers made their way to the southern colonies. Scottish immigration to South Carolina was distinctive, however, for while Georgia and North Carolina received waves of poor highlanders, South Carolina attracted lowlanders, the educated younger sons of the landed and professional classes. A self-conscious Scottish elite of merchants, planters, and professionals coalesced in the cities. They founded churches, schools, and a Charleston-based St. Andrew’s Society, creating a social network that attracted still more of their countrymen and countrywomen. Representative of these was Dr. John Moultrie, who in 1728 brought his Scottish medical training—then the world’s best—to Carolina, the first of several generations of Edinburgh-schooled Moultries to practice medicine in Charleston. Another was Robert Pringle, who arrived in South Carolina in 1725 as a merchant’s agent but made good on his own through trade in land, slaves, rice, and indigo. Perhaps the most prominent Scot in colonial South Carolina was Governor James Glen. Appointed in 1738, Glen combined ironclad integrity and conservative financial policy—if not modesty. He boasted that he found the colony “in ashes, defenceless and declining” and left it “fortified and flourishing.” By 1790, even after significant war-time departures, more than 21,000 South Carolinians—about fifteen percent of the state’s white population—were ethnic or immigrant Scots.

The Revolutionary War transformed the Scottish community in British North America. Scottish networks of influence and authority collapsed as many, especially highlanders, refused to tolerate rebellion against British sovereignty. The watershed for South Carolina Scots came in 1782, when British forces evacuated Charleston. Four thousand Loyalists, largely but not exclusively Scottish, left with the redcoats. Those who remained and those who came later no longer proclaimed their Scottish identity so openly. As the historian William Brock noted, they “ceased to be Scots resident in America, and became Americans of Scottish descent.” Even a man such as George Buist, principal of Charleston College, found it necessary to lose his accent to avoid the “Tory” taint. Scottish immigration gradually resumed, rising to a peak in the 1820s, but industrial-era migrants were more often the displaced and the dispossessed, people less enamored of Scotland and determined to assimilate in America.

The Scottish legacy in South Carolina is mixed. The American tradition of religious liberty is affirmed in South Carolina by the experiment at Stuart’s Town. Scots were instrumental in the development of the colony’s first staples: rice and indigo. Staples, however, require labor, and Scots were enthusiastic slavers, turning to Africans after royal governors forbade kidnapping Indians. Another double-edged blessing is the Scottish tradition of bellicose independence and distrust of central authority, invoked triumphantly by some in 1776 and tragically by others in 1860. More recently, that curious Fifeshire pastime golf has become a bulwark of the Carolina economy, and highland games are as popular in the lowcountry as they are in the upstate. In the twenty-first century Scots remain one visible component of the ethnic stew that is South Carolina.

Brock, William R. Scotus Americanus: A Survey of the Sources for the Links between Scotland and America in the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982.

Dobson, David. Directory of Scottish Settlers in North America, 1625–1825. 6 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1986.

Donaldson, Gordon. The Scots Overseas. London: Robert Hale, 1966.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Scots
  • Author Robert H. Landrum
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 10, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date August 1, 2016
  • Date of Last Update October 26, 2016