Spring is an excellent time to remember North Carolina’s history, culture, and individual liberty. Most North Carolina history students know the Halifax Resolves’ significance, signed April 12, 1776, to make us the first colony to direct its members of the Continental Congress to vote for independence. Some know the significance of May 20, 1775, and the passing of the Mecklenburg Declaration. However, most people skip over April 6 and that day’s importance in our state and nation’s foundations.
In 1998, a Coalition of Scottish Americans with former U.S. Senator Trent Lott’s (R-MS) support successfully lobbied the Senate for the designation of April 6 as National Tartan Day “to recognize the outstanding achievements and contributions made by Scottish Americans to the United States.” April 6 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Scottish declaration of independence — the Declaration of Arbroath.
From the Declaration of Arbroath to the American Revolution, the Scottish heritage of freedom has had an ongoing impact on North Carolina. And so, April 6 is an apt time not only to recognize the contributions that Scottish Americans have made to the Old North State but also for the principles of liberty.
The American view on the struggle for freedom against tyranny was well summarized by Ron Swanson’s character on the sitcom Parks and Recreation: “History began on July 4, 1776. Everything before that was a mistake.”
However, the Western ideal of individual liberty dates back millennia and took root in Scotland. As Scottish author, Linda MacDonald-Lewis told the Guardian, “If Americans want to understand their history, they need to look to Scotland, because that is where their ideals come from. And Scots should look across the Atlantic to see where their homegrown doctrines and ideas have been most fully embraced.”
The roots of these ideals in Scotland date back more than 700 years ago. The First War of Scottish Independence brought about the most famous letter in Scottish history – the Declaration of Arbroath, signed in 1320. In that document, we find early echoes and influence for the American Declaration of Independence. The concept that liberty is universal, life without it is unlivable, and the government’s role is to protect, not exploit, those rights. The Declaration of Arbroath states, “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours (sic) that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
While these ideals stayed alive, Scottish history was volatile enough to cause mass emigration, especially after the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. The Cape Fear region of North Carolina began to see increased immigration from Scotland after 1739. After the clearances and famine that followed the 1745 rebellion, those numbers escalated with Scottish emigrants citing high rents and lack of work for their journey to America.
They were searching for freedom and opportunity.
Because of these Scottish immigrants, North Carolina has places with names like Aberdeen, Dundarrach, Glencoe, and more to the point, Scotland County.
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series of historical fiction novels, beginning in the early 1990s, there has been renewed interest in Scotland and Scottish heritage. The eight-novel series takes the reader from Scotland to France to North Carolina and covers historical events such as the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 in Scotland and North Carolina’s War of the Regulation in the late 1760s and early 1770s.
Gabaldon’s novels note some historic North Carolina Scottish immigrants, such as Farquard Campbell, an attorney from Cross Creek (now Fayetteville). Campbell, along with Alexander McAllister in 1775, was tasked with meeting new immigrants from Scotland explaining the North Carolina colony’s grievances with England.
By 1775, feelings towards independence had reached such a point that Alexander McAlister, commandant of the Cumberland County Militia, wrote: “All colonies [are] fully determined to fight to the last before they give up their most valuable privilege which is their liberty. If Parliament persists in putting the acts [the Intolerable Acts] in force, they will have a severe battle.”
Such was the sentiment for a large portion of North Carolinians at the time, who wanted to declare independence from Great Britain when their constitutional rights were ignored – and so passed the Halifax Resolves. These sentiments have deep roots, not necessarily in the Magna Carta or ancient Athens, but in Scotland.
To be clear, there is no lack of celebration of Scottish heritage in North Carolina. The Grandfather Mountain Scottish Highland Games are world-famous, and the prevalence of Presbyterian churches around the Old North State harken to a Scotch heritage. But when we think of Scotland, whether its family history or bagpipes, North Carolinians would be remiss not to give the nod to that culture’s influence on our freedom.
This piece originally appeared in the April print edition of Carolina Journal.