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Martha MacLeod: The Highland Scots

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 3/10/2002. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

I visited with Martha MacLeod near Aberdeen, in Moore County, in a home built by her great-grandfather 200 years ago. Hers is the story of the Highland Scots, their great migration to the Cape Fear Valley in the 18th century, and an enduring bond to Scotland. More Highland Scots settled in the Cape Fear Valley than anywhere else in the American Colonies, and she makes the great events of the Highland Scot settlement -- the 1746 Battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances, the American Revolution -- seem like yesterday. A teacher who moved home 50 years ago to take care of her parents, MacLeod has lived up well to the clan MacLeod's motto -- "Hold fast."

Martha MacLeod. Photo by Chris Seward, 2002.In Martha MacLeod's words: 
My great-great-grandfather, Neil MacLeod, came from the Isle of Skye in 1774 and settled in what is now Fort Bragg. He was in his 50s and he had two wives, and both of them had died, and he had four boys that he brought with him. To have left Scotland at that age with his four boys, he must have had a lot of strength and determination. You wouldn't just start out like that unless you were pretty strong. They were a very religious family, and generally they were hard-working and frugal. The youngest boy, John, was my great-grandfather.

Neil bought this land in 1777. It was a Highland Scot settlement all through this area: no towns, just settlement. They came up the Cape Fear, and they probably came up Rockfish Creek as far as it went. His house was on a hill over there. The Indians were mostly gone. My great-uncle talked about seeing some when he was a boy, but that was way back.

The clan MacLeod had a chieftain living in Dunvegan, on the Isle of Skye, for 700 or 800 years. It goes back that far. Up until the time of The Clearances, the clan chieftain took care of everybody. He saw to it that they were cared for and provided them with land and a house and all that. But then the chieftains turned against them and decided they were unprofitable and wanted to get them out. The MacLeod chief was more lenient than some of the others. The McDonalds, my own grandmother's family, were terrible. They just ran them off and treated them really bad during The Clearances and the potato famine. It did look like they came right into the teeth of a war. They got here just before the Revolution, which was pretty rough going for a lot of them. The MacLeods were Tories. All of the Highland Scots were Tories. There are some that say it was because of the Battle of Culloden, when they had to sign the oath in blood that they would not take arms against the king. But most of them that came in the 1770s were not at Culloden. Very few of the MacLeods were there.

After they got settled here, my great-great-grandfather Neil sent the boys over to the Clark place, which is about 6 miles across the woods, for an errand. There had been a massacre -- the Whigs and Tories, you know -- and while they were there Fanning came through vowing revenge. He came to the Clark place, and he told Kenneth Clark, the father, to tell him the names of all the people who were down there at the time of the massacre. He wouldn't tell him, and they screwed his thumbs in the gunlocks and tried to make him tell.

They just decided to kill whomever they could find. They killed two of Clark's boys and Alexander MacLeod, who was a young teenage boy then. He would have been my great-granduncle, the son of Neil. The women hid John, my great-grandfather, in the chimney at the Clark house. He was just a little bitty fellow.

John grew up and married one of the Clark girls, Christian Clark. Squire John -- that's what they called him -- got married the first time in 1797 or '98, and he built this house for Christian Clark to live in. It's built out of heart pine. My grandfather was born in that stairwell in 1853. He -- Squire John -- lived to be up into his 90s, and my grandfather did, too. My grandfather died in 1948 and he told me all this I am telling you, so I feel like it's right. He was a teenage boy when his father died, and he got it all from him.

All of them in Scotland were Presbyterians, so they brought it with them and they were very dedicated to the church. My grandfather was born in September, and in the middle of the winter, Squire John took him out to Old Bethesda Church, which is a right long distance, to have him baptized, the little bitty baby. He had no way to go but in a carriage, and it was cold, but he thought it was important enough to go.

The preachers at Bethesda preached in Gaelic up until sometime in the 1800s. Even the slaves born here spoke Gaelic. Of course, in Scotland the English eventually told the Highlanders they couldn't speak Gaelic, but they did here. The English told them they couldn't wear the kilt, and they could here. And of course they were strong in the Masonic order. They brought that with them, and there was a Masonic order over here, the Pansophia Lodge, that the people belonged to. At the end of the Civil War, when Sherman's army came through here, Sherman happened to be a Mason and he told his men as they went, "Don't burn the home of any Mason." That's why this house is still here.

The first time I went to Scotland, when I went to Skye I had this strange feeling that I had come home. Every four years, when the clan MacLeod has a parliament in Dunvegan, the MacLeods come from all over the world: Canada and New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, everywhere. I've been once, and it makes you feel like you have cousins everywhere.

When I first went to the MacLeod castle, it was awe-inspiring. I had heard things ever since I was a child that made it special to me, like the fairy flag that hangs in the castle that is supposed to give good luck to the MacLeods. One of the MacLeod chieftains was said to have married a fairy, and she got homesick and wanted to go back to fairyland and she gave him this flag. When the babies are born in our family, they have white hair and the older people would say, "It's the mark of the fairy, " because they all had blond hair that they got from the fairy.

A whole lot of it is the land. It's very rugged and it's pretty barren, but it is very beautiful. There are so many lochs all over it, and the sea is close by. The weather, a lot of the places, is damp and cold and the strong wind blowing, and you know what the Highland Scots came out of, some of them just terrible conditions -- and you think, why would anybody go and want to have an attachment to this? But you do. This is who I am and where I am from.

For more on the Highland Scots in North Carolina, I heartily recommend the Scottish Heritage Center at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg.

Additional information from NCpedia editors at the State Library of North Carolina: : 
Martha MacLeod lived from November 16, 1923 - October 27, 2013.

Obituary: Martha M. McLeod. The Pilot, October 29, 2013:

Origin - location: 
November 16, 1923 - October 27, 2013