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The Highlanders of North Carolina & the battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge

The latest series of period drama Outlander shines a light on the Highlanders who crossed the Atlantic to make a new life in the British colonies of America in the late 18th century. Here, Professor James Hunter explores the Scots who influenced one of the earliest battles of the American Revolution…

Illustration showing a scene from the Battle of Moore's Creek
Published: March 11, 2022 at 7:02 am
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Once it was a road of sorts. Now it’s a US National Parks Service walkway leading to the spot where a narrow bridge carried the original thoroughfare across Moore’s Creek. On the low ridge overlooking this North Carolina watercourse, it’s possible still to glimpse the outline of what, eight weeks into 1776, was a freshly constructed embankment, smelling strongly of raw earth. Behind this embankment, in the misty half-light of a February dawn, there crouched a detachment of musket-carrying militiamen answering to the North Carolina Provincial Congress and soon to be engaged, here at Moore’s Creek, in one of the opening battles of America’s Revolutionary War.

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The visibility is poor. But not poor enough to shelter those other troops known to be just beyond the creek and suddenly seen to be getting to this side of it. One of the attackers, shouting in a language none of the waiting militiamen can understand, is far before the rest. Clutching an upraised sword, he comes running up the incline from the bridge. “He was a brave soldier,” one of his opponents will shortly write of this man, “and would have done honour to a good cause.” But these are sentiments of the sort that flourish only in the aftermath of combat. Now there is no room for generosity. Fingers tighten on triggers. The swordsman, it seems probable, is dead before he falls.

The battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge: in context

When was it fought?
27 February 1776
Where was it fought?
Moore’s Creek Bridge, near Wilmington in North Carolina, present day USA
Who fought?
A 1,600-strong loyalist militia, led by a British colonel named Donald MacLeod, fought around 1,000 North Carolina Patriots under Colonel Richard Caswell
Who won?
Victory went to the revolutionary force, who cut the loyalists’ charge down with heavy musket fire. Around 70 highlanders were killed, and more than 850 soldiers were taken prisoner
Why is it significant?
It marked the permanent end of royal authority in the colony of North Carolina and was one of the early Patriot victories of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83)

Most of the men killed at Moore’s Creek can’t now be identified. But the swordsman who so impressed his enemies is among the exceptions. He was called Donald MacLeod and he was in charge that February morning of men whose names, like their commander’s, were redolent of Scotland. MacLean, MacNeil, MacDougall, runs a list of prisoners taken here. Campbell, Stewart, MacEachen, this list continues, Cameron, MacPhail, MacLennan and MacRae.

These men were not full-time soldiers. Mostly they were farmers. But they were also Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. And so they’d been turned out to fight in the familiar Highland manner – pressed by Donald MacLeod and others of their officers to quit their North Carolina homesteads and to march off to war.

Such had been the pattern in Scotland. Such remained the pattern here in their new country. For all this country’s distance from the glens and islands where the largest number of them had been born, it was as if the men advancing on Moore’s Creek felt that matters of this kind ought to be ordered in accordance with tradition. Something of their customs, then, had survived the ocean crossing; that something which had brought them to this spot where they found themselves expected to unleash one of the pell-mell Highland charges that, in years past, had put to flight lots of superior formations.

And there was now, for a brief moment, a glimpse of what had been experienced at Prestonpans, at Killiecrankie, and all the other battlefields where Highlanders had triumphed. Among the long-leaf pines beside Moore’s Creek the blades of broadswords glinted in the first, faint light of morning. There was the sound of bagpipes. Not since Scotland’s final Jacobite Rebellion, 30 years before, had an army quite like this prepared for action. No such army would exist again.

Highlanders face Redcoats at the battle of Culloden
Moore’s Creek Bridge saw echoes of Highland battles of the Jacobite cause, three decades earlier. (Image by Alamy)

Command this day should have belonged to Donald MacDonald, a professional military man who’d last seen action at Bunker’s Hill in Massachusetts. But the elderly MacDonald – who, had the times been better ordered, might have retired to his family home in Scotland’s Isle of Skye – had been exhausted by forced marches through unsettled, wooded country. The previous evening, his health giving out, MacDonald had summoned his senior subordinates and told them that, from this point forward, they’d take orders from the one regular soldier at the ailing Skyeman’s disposal, this Donald MacLeod whose unenviable task it was to storm Moore’s Creek Bridge.

Allan and Flora MacDonald: real Scots who settled in Cape Fear River country

Also at that anxious conference was the further Skyeman now serving as MacLeod’s second-in-command. His name was Allan MacDonald. As was equally true both of Donald MacDonald and Donald MacLeod, Allan belonged to one of the families who stood just below the region’s chieftains in the Highland scheme of things. All three men, then, were of the class to which Scotland’s clans had looked for leadership. In their own Gaelic language the members of this class were daoine uaisle, a phrase denoting elevated rank and status. In English, beginning to be heard more often in the Highlands, they were tacksmen – their tacks being the landholdings made over to them by their chiefs. There being no small prestige to be gained in Scotland from designations of this sort, the name of his tack was customarily added to each tacksman’s own. So Allan, though he’d recently put the Atlantic between himself and Skye, continued to call himself, here in America, MacDonald of Kingsburgh.

Allan MacDonald’s Scottish home, in its grove of wind-bent trees to the east of the fiord-like inlet of Loch Snizort, looks out on a typical Skye patchwork of sea and moor and hill. This was one of the localities sought out by Dr Samuel Johnson, one of England’s leading literary figures, when in 1773 he journeyed to Skye with his friend and future biographer, James Boswell. On reaching Kingsburgh at the close of a day when, Boswell remembered, “it rained very hard” and “Dr Johnson appeared to be somewhat out of spirits”, the two travellers were promptly taken in for the night by Allan MacDonald, “completely the figure of a gallant Highlander”, in Boswell’s recollection.

But Allan’s visitors were less interested in MacDonald of Kingsburgh than in his wife. She was, Boswell noted, “a little woman, of a genteel appearance, and uncommonly mild and well-bred”. Johnson concurred. His hostess’s name, he added a little portentously, would “be mentioned in history and, if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour”.

The name in question was Flora MacDonald. Its fame – sufficient to have persuaded Samuel Johnson to set aside his usual curmudgeonly response to Scottish claims to distinction – derived from events in the summer of 1746 when Flora, at some risk to herself, had come to the aid of the fugitive Jacobite prince, Charles Edward Stuart, whose arrival in Scotland, just under 12 months earlier, had precipitated the Highland uprising that ended so calamitously at the battle of Culloden. Flora’s kin in Skye, as it happens, had kept out of the rebellion. But this hadn’t prevented her helping the beaten Bonnie Prince Charlie make his way to Skye in the course of his escape to France.

A depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald
A depiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Johnson and Boswell found the Kingsburgh family contemplating emigration. They duly left in the summer of 1774 – bound for the Lower Cape Fear River country of North Carolina. Thousands of Highlanders, mostly hard-pressed agriculturalists in search of land of the sort made available by North Carolina’s colonial administration to people willing to clear and cultivate it, had already made the same journey. Allan and Flora MacDonald, however, were no pioneers. They felled no trees and constructed no log cabins. Instead, in the spring of 1775, they bought an already established plantation and its accompanying house. In North Carolina, it’s clear, the MacDonalds meant to occupy as prominent a position as they’d occupied in Skye.

Wider events were to get in the way of this ambition, the MacDonalds having reached the Cape Fear River country at the moment when a developing crisis in relations between Britain’s American colonists on one side, a more than usually incompetent British government on the other, came finally to a head. This was a good time for newly arrived immigrants to lie low politically. But the Kingsburgh couple at once chose to involve themselves in efforts to stop America’s slide to independence; Allan by raising the force he helped lead to Moore’s Creek; Flora, it was said, by pronouncing a Gaelic blessing on men her husband had recruited.

It seemed odd to Americans that a woman whose renown rested on help she’d given a Jacobite prince should thus back a British state and British monarchy the same prince had aimed to overthrow. This, however, was to overlook the fact that socially elevated Highlanders like Flora and Allan were unlikely to be attracted to the notion – more and more central to American thinking – that hierarchy and aristocracy were inherently suspect. But if Allan and Flora’s commitment to the British side in America’s Revolutionary War was beyond question, North Carolina’s more modestly placed settlers had other priorities. By no means every Highlander who marched to Moore’s Creek Bridge was intent on fighting, let alone dying, for Britain and its king. Hence the easy victory won there by North Carolina’s pro-revolutionary militia. Hence too the speed with which many of the Highlanders taken prisoner at Moore’s Creek were permitted to return to their homesteads.

Allan and Flora MacDonald received less generous treatment. Allan was imprisoned and Flora left impoverished by the North Carolina legislature’s seizure of her and her husband’s property. In 1779 an understandably embittered Flora returned to Scotland – where, following Britain’s 1783 recognition of American independence, Allan was to rejoin her.

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Professor James Hunter is a historian of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and the author of A Dance Called America: The Scottish Highlands, the United States and Canada (Birlinn) a new edition of which will be published in May 2022

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