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A Curious Story

We invited one of our Dames to lend her expertise to discuss the African-Scottish experience through the lens of her own heritage. Kimberly has worked for the Smithsonian Institute as a program coordinator and is a member of SAWS.


“ We got our names from slave masters, we got our religion from slave masters, and we got our blood from slave masters.” Willie Ruff- Yale University

My family has always been interested in genealogy My father began collecting information from his elders as early as the 1940s. When he passed, my uncle took up the baton and began to forge deeper. He asked me to assist him on a number of occasions but time did not permit. During his research, he shared that my ancestors had not made a direct route to this country but came by way of Jamaica and back to Scotland before coming to the Colonies. It was even more unusual that both Scottish and African came speaking Gaelic! I have often pondered that curious story. It wasn’t until I started my own family research, that I came upon an article that shed a bit more light upon the subject. It began by stating that the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie often spoke of family members telling and retelling tales of Gaelic speaking slaves in his home state of Alabama.


My ancestors arrived in North Carolina on board a ship that had been purchased with the proceeds from the sale of the family property in Argyll, Scotland. Alexander McAllister had immigrated in 1734 and returned to Scotland in 1739 to marry and on returning to North Carolina participate in a ten year tax exemption offered by fellow countryman Governor Gabriel Johnston. More came after the Battle of Culloden, fought in a failed attempt to put a Stuart king back on the throne of England. Those who came at that time were brought as indenture servants and convicts. In the first official census of North Carolina in 1790, a number of my ancestors participated also enumerating slaves. In James Hunter’s book “A Dance Called America” he mentions at least three of my ancestors, Farquard Campbell, Archibald Mc Allister and Alexander Mc Allister owning about 150 slave between them. Those slaves also spoke Gaelic. It was the language of their masters and everyone in the region. The reasons behind these slaves speaking only Gaelic were manifold. Being able to communicate with their masters and overseers is obvious, but also that their speaking only Gaelic was used as a form of control. Africans were being exported from all over the African continent with diverse dialects and cultures. In being taught Gaelic their communication was limited to that language and while eliminating any intra- tribal bonds or ability to communicate with English speaking slaves.

So much of what has been thought as deep African culture has turned out to have a Gaelic twist. Line singing that I saw and heard as a child, when visiting rural North Carolina, strangely enough resembles the line singing traditions of the Hebrides in Scotland. A simple breakfast staple that was served whenever I visited my paternal grandparents which was referred to as “puddin” has an uncanny resemblance to Haggis, a traditional food in Scotland. “Puddin” uses the liver and other internal organs of a pig mixed with meal and spices stuffed into pigs intestines instead of sheep. My great great- grandfather William McLaughlin, a former slave, served as a presiding elder of the Presbyterian church as did Alexander Mc Allister a century before. Last but not least, you cannot find many black folks in North Carolina without a Gaelic last name. Gilchrist, McLean, Mc Laughlin, Graham, McNeill and Mc Phatter are amongst the many.

With so much in common, perhaps the descendants of these slaves should be called African-Gaelic not African-American. No? Well it’s a thought.


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