Five on a Friday: It’s Tartan Day!

Five on a Friday: It's Tartan Day!

In 1966 historian Gordon Donaldson wrote that, in essence, Scotland’s “greatest export” was its people. [1] Over the course of five centuries, Scots migrated to every corner of the world. They are, in many ways, a very mobile population.

My own research has looked at Scottish families (from both the Highlands and Lowlands) who settled in early North Carolina and how they shaped the development of that colony in the eighteenth century. This story, however, did not end with the American Revolution. In the nineteenth century, Scots migration to North Carolina continued—primarily as a result of the Highland Clearances. As a result, Scottish culture has found its way into many areas of North Carolina life, as it has in other locations where Scots made new homes.

Today is Tartan Day, a day set aside by a number of countries to honor the impact of Scottish heritage and culture among their people. It was adopted first by Canada in the 1980s and in the United States in 1998. Held on 6 April each year, the commemoration coincides with the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath which was signed in 1320. [2] In North Carolina, celebrations of Scottish culture have been happening since the eighteenth century. Here are five ways you many not know that Scottish culture has been celebrated in years past!

A Toast to Auld Reekie
Over the course of the eighteenth century, the Wilmington merchant community became dominated by Scots. The large number of Scottish families who made up the professional classes in the port city would have likely found ways to celebrate shared Scottish ethnicity. In 1788, a local newspaper recorded a dinner held in commemoration of St Andrew’s Day at Dorsey’s Tavern and Coffee House where party-goers toasted the patron saint of St Andrew, “Auld Reekie” (Edinburgh), and the British royal family. [3]

Are you going to the Scotch Fair?
Highland Scots settlement in North Carolina tended to cluster around what is today Fayetteville and extended throughout the Sandhills region. As early as 1792, a semi-annual ‘Scotch Fair’ was commissioned for the months of May and October in the community of Laurel Hill (in what is currently Scotland County). The Scotch Fairs brought merchants, peddlers, and visitors from miles around for a market fair, horse racing, and feats of athleticism. According to some sources, the fairs’ fighting events drew the most spectators and a local Scotsman, “one-eyed” Hector McNeill, received his nickname from one such event. Rising concern over the raucous nature of the whisky-fueled events eventually led Laurel Hill citizens to petition the state legislature for a ban on the Scotch Fairs in the 1840s. While events were more subdued in the mid-nineteenth century, the fairs returned after the Civil War until they were formally banned in 1873. [4]

May Day Scotch Dancers at Flora MacDonald College
May Day Scotch Dancers perform the Scottish Fling at Flora MacDonald College, c.1910-1916, State Archives of North Carolina

Paul Green delivers a Highland Call
Two hundred years after the arrival of the first substantial Highland settlement in North Carolina, the state hosted the Cape Fear Valley Scottish Festival in 1939 to commemorate the anniversary of the landing of 350 settlers known as the “Argyll Colony.” Famed dramatist and writer, Paul Green, responded with his outdoor drama, Highland Call: A Symphonic Play of American History in Two Acts. A romanticized story of the dreams and fears of the Scots who settled the Cape Fear River Valley of North Carolina in the eighteenth century, the play focuses on two storylines: Real-life Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald and her husband’s struggles in Scotland and North Carolina, as well as the fictional star-crossed lovers Daniel Murchison and Peggie McNeill. While not as famous as his long-running Lost Colony drama, Green’s Highland Call added to the mythos surrounding Flora MacDonald and the Scots Loyalists in early North Carolina. [5]

A dance called ‘America’
In 1956, two individuals of Scottish heritage, Agnes MacRae Morton and Donald MacDonald, came together to cofound an annual Highland games event to be held at Grandfather Mountain in Linville, NC. The inaugural event was to commemorate the 211th anniversary of the raising of the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan at the start of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. As the first of its kind in North Carolina, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games soon became a popular annual tradition. Much like the nineteenth-century Scotch Fairs, the Highland Games offer competitions of physical strength, Highland dance, and bagpiping. Similar events have been held at locations throughout the state, including Waxhaw, Red Springs, and Lake Norman. Today the four-day event attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually. [6]

Hugh Morton, Scottish Clans 1956
Hugh Morton, “Scottish Clans 1956”, Hugh Morton Collection of Photographs and Films, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Celtic Connections
An annual celebration of Celtic musical traditions that has been running since 1994, Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Scotland often features American artists whose music is flavored by Gaelic culture. North Carolina’s Rhiannon Giddens has been a crowd favorite for several years running. The Greensboro native’s fusion of Americana, African American music, and Scottish mouth music has put her on the map as one to watch since her days in the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops ensemble, and her two solo releases, Tomorrow is My Turn (2015) and Freedom Highway (2017), continue to please. [7]
One descendent of early Highland Settlers remarked in 2002, “The first time I went to Scotland, when I went to Skye I had this strange feeling that I had come home.” [8] North Carolina’s history is certainly steeped in Scottish culture.


[1] Ned C. Landsman, Scotland and Its First American Colony, 1683-1765 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 9. See Gordon Donaldson, The Scots Overseas (London: Robert Hale, 1966), p. 14.
[2] Tartan Day – Wikipedia
[3] Alan D. Watson, Wilmington, North Carolina, to 1861 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), p. 41.
[4] Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, s.v. “Scotch Fair”.
[5] Paul Green, Highland Call: A Symphonic Play of American History in Two Acts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). See also Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, s.v. “Green, Paul Eliot”.
[6] Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, s.v. “Highland Games”. See also Grandfather Mountain Highland Games.
[7] Push It Further: Rhiannon Giddens Takes A Turn On Tradition,  NPR, 10 February 2015.
[8] News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), 10 March 2002.

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