They Came From Scotland 5

So often when we look at the immigration records or statutory records of our ancestors, we learn that they "came from Scotland" but we don't know what part of Scotland. Knowing the place in Scotland where our ancestors lived is important if we hope to have success finding them in the Scottish records. While this may seem like an impossible task, it is often less of a challenge if you understand what brought them here in the first place. To do that, we need to understand a little bit of Scottish history. Not back to the beginning of time, just back to the beginning of emigration to the Americas.

Penal Transportation:

Following the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, over 4000 Scots had been captured and imprisoned. Needless to say this presented a problem for the English in terms of the resources required to house and feed them, so a decision was made that the prisoners should be sold. Some were sold to industries to work as tradesmen. However, these numbers were relatively small compared to the enormous number of men captured. Soon people began petitioning to have the men transported to the colonies. In fairly short order, 150 of the healthiest men were gathered, taken to London and then shipped on the Unity to Massachusetts. For a list of Scottish Prisoners of War from the Battle of Dunbar and subsequent listing of men who were transported, this website is incredibly helpful.

Several weeks after the sailing of the Unity, another 270 were led aboard the “John & Sara” and set sail for Boston. The ship’s list of the John & Sara has been transcribed and can be found here.

old gaol

Highland Clearances:

In the mid -1700s Highland life changed dramatically as the Lairds of the highland estates made a brisk move from agricultural farming to sheep farming. The Clearances, lasted a full century, from 1785 until 1886 when the Crofter’s Act was passed. This caused forced migration of thousands of highlanders. Some were granted crofts on the rocky coastal shores, where they learned to make a living as kelp farmers. Yet others wandered into the larger cities in hopes of finding work in the factories there. Many of the highlanders ended up losing their loved ones in the process of migrating either through hunger, fatigue or disease.


If you have ancestors who came to North America in the mid to late 1700s and feel that they may have been part of the highland clearances, here are a couple of websites to have a look at:

Other databases to try for finding your Scots ancestor from the highlands are:


Covenanters are a unique and important group in Scottish History. The Covenanters were a group that, in the simplest of terms, signed a "Covenant" (Oath) on 28 February 1683 in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. This was known as the National Covenant and was a promise with God that He would remain as the head of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) rather than the reigning King. As a result of this belief, the Covenanters were subject to persecution and often imprisonment. In fact there is a Covenanters Prison in the Greyfriars Kirkyard. Here, the Covenanters were held until they were transported to the West Indies or other ports. Covenanters were also held on Bass Rock, 3 miles off the coast of North Berwick in the Firth of Forth. The covenanters were rounded up and imprisoned out in the open until they either died of exposure, disease or starvation. Those who survived were extradited to the Colonies or the West Indies.

covenanter prison

The first group of Covenanters banished from Great Britain arrived in America in the late 1600s, settling in South Carolina and New Jersey. Here they were able to live free of religious persecution and to retain their strong Scottish culture. One website that might be useful in finding your covenanter ancestor is ancestry.


In 1689, King James VII of Scotland abandoned his kingdom and fled to France. This saw William of Orange become the King. Some Scots believed that being king of Scotland was a divine right given only to the descendents of King James. This group was known as Jacobites.

People were expected to swear allegiance to their King and his authority. Jacobites wouldn't swear allegiance since William was not a direct descendant of James, while Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) was. Hoping to reinstate the Stuart regime, the Jacobites rose in rebellion on a number of occasions, notably in 1715 and in 1745. Beginning in 1716, Jacobite Highlanders were rounded up, imprisoned and subsequently transported to the Americas. Approximately 1,500 Jacobite prisoners were exiled to the American Plantations. Many of their descendants subsequently made their way north as Loyalists, following the War of 1812.


The level of emigration from Scotland was, at one point, so strong that the government decided to compile what has become known as the "Register of Emigrants 1773-1774." This is the only comprehensive list of its kind compiled before the American Revolution. Unfortunately it only covers one year. However, a compiled list of the years 1773-1775 can be found here.  Scroll down about a third of the way to see the listing of Scots.

Hopefully this brief history lesson and these links will assist you in your quest to find your Scottish ancestors. Best of luck in your Scottish genealogy research.

About Christine Woodcock

Scottish born, Canadian raised, Christine Woodcock is a genealogy educator with an expertise in the Scottish records. She enjoys sharing new resources to assist others in their quest to find and document their heritage. Christine is also a lecturer, author and blogger. She is the Director of Genealogy Tours of Scotland (www.genealogytoursofscotland.ca) and enjoys taking fellow Scots “home” to do onsite genealogy research and to discover their own Scottish heritage.

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5 thoughts on “They Came From Scotland

  • Marilyn Greene

    Hi, Christine,

    I am so excited to receive your email. I have been trying to trace my great-great grandfather for many years, without much success. Perhaps I can join you sometime on a genealogy tour, or pay for help finding him. He came over from Scotland in the early 1800s, settled in Essex County, New Jersey, and disappeared off the face of the map. His daughter was my great-grandmother. I would love to be in contact with you about how to proceed. I love your work!


  • Elizabeth

    Hello, I just want to let you know that “Several weeks after the sailing of the Unity, another 270 were led aboard the “John & Sara” and set sail for Boston.” is incorrect. The Unity sailed following the Battle of Dunbar (03 Sep 1650) whereas the John and Sara sailed following the Battle of Worcester (03 Sep 1651). It can get a bit confusing since the battles took place on the same day a year apart.

  • Gloria Smit

    The descriptions of the various waves of Scottish immigrants above was helpful. In a nutshell, i understand more clearly the rather confusing history of Scotland over the last 300 years. My Scottish ancestor, my 5th great grandfather, was “Old” John McCollum. He was a Highlander who was banished to New Jersey for being a Covenantor around 1685. He settled in Basking Ridge, NJ.

    Thanks for the information.

    Also, I don’t understand why the population grew and/or the Clearance occurred. Was there less labor needed on sheep farms?

  • Kathryn M. Bates

    Thank you for this article. Helped me understand what my ancestors went through. It also helps me understand the current problem with immigration and the peoples strife throughout the world.