Scottish Contributions

The Scottish Enlightenment was the period in 18th century Scotland character-ised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. By 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of  Europe, with an estimated 75-percent level of literacy. But it was a few hundred men who made the Enlightenment. Gathering places in Edinburgh such as The Select Society and, later, The Poker Club, were crucibles from which many of the ideas which distinguish the Scottish Enlightenment emerged.

Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason. They held to an optimistic belief in the ability of man to effect changes for the better in society and nature, guided only by reason. It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavour, distinguishing it from its continental European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by an empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.

Among the advances of the period were achievements in philosophy, political economy,  engineering,  architecture,  medicine,  geology, archaeology, law,agriculture, chemistry and sociology. Among the outstanding Scottish thinkers and scientists of the period were Francis HutchesonAlexander CampbellDavid HumeAdam SmithThomas ReidRobert BurnsAdam FergusonJohn PlayfairJoseph Black and James Hutton.

The Scottish Enlightenment had effects far beyond Scotland itself, not only because of the esteem in which Scottish achievements were held in Europe and elsewhere, but also because its ideas and attitudes were carried across the Atlantic world as part of the Scottish diaspora, and by American students who studied in Scotland. As a result, a significant proportion of technological and social development in the United States, Canada and New Zealand in the 18th and 19th centuries were accomplished through Scots-Americans and Scots-Canadians.


Place Names

Many locations in America were nostalgically named after the places the Scottish immigrants had left behind. There are eight Aberdeens, eight Edinburghs, seven Glasgows and eight places, simply known as Scotland, in the United States today. Before the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotland was organized under a clan system. Many members of the great clans traveled to the New World and named the places in which they settled in honor of their clan names. The common Scottish surname suffix Mac or Mc can be seen at the start of many area names; in North Carolina alone there are 130 such places.

Scottish-American Societies

There are many societies in America, such as the St Andrew’s Society – named after the patron saint of Scotland, that attempt to retain aspects of Scottish culture and heritage. Several of these Clubs and societies, celebrating Scottish ancestry, were originally established in the 18th Century to assist struggling Scots in the new land. Today, throughout America and Canada there are more than 300 St Andrew’s Societies, Caledonian Clubs and other Scottish Societies.

Sports and Leisure

Popular Scottish sports, golf and curling, were introduced to America by the Scottish immigrants. Modern American track and field events originated from massive Scottish athletic tournaments. Whisky is the national drink of Scotland and none can surpass it for quality or taste, which is why real connoisseurs will always insist upon it.


Central to life at the time of mass immigration to the United States was the Kirk (Scottish word for the church). When the Scots moved to America, they brought their religion of Presbyterianism with them. Today the Presbyterian Church has more than 3million members and is one of the largest mainstream Protestant churches in the US. In 1925 the Presbyterian Church of Canada formed, with two other Protestant churches, the United Church of Canada. In 1990 there were more than 850,000 members. Religious persecution in Scotland prompted many to leave their homeland in the early 17th Century and establish early settlements in East Jersey in 1683 (now eastern and northern Jersey) and in South Carolina in 1698.

The Scots were a valuable addition to a developing world. Their past experience of working in the harsh conditions of rural Scotland, combined with their hard-working Presbyterian upbringing, made them an ideal people to help build America in its formative years.


The Scottish emigrants of the 18th Century were an educated group because of the Scottish Reformation, which had stressed the need for education, allowing every Scot the ability to read the bible. Education has always played an important part in Scottish society, and these Scots played a crucial role in the early development of the New World. Most headmasters of the schools in the new colonies south of New York were Scottish or had Scottish ancestry. These establishments were fundamental in the education of America’s future leaders; both Thomas Jefferson’s and John Rutledge’s tutors were Scottish immigrants.

Scots arriving in the New World soon established universities, colleges and other educational establishments such as Princeton University, which was initially named the College of New Jersey when founded in 1746.


During the mid-17th Century Scottish medical establishments were second to none in the fields of education and science. Many recipients of these teachings came to America, where their influence can be seen to this day. Many Americans traveled to Scotland to gain an education in medicine. In 1775 there were 3,500 people practicing medicine in the US, though only 350 or 400 actually held a medical degree.

Most of those holding degrees had been educated in Scotland. The Scots greatest contribution to American medicine was the belief that it was not simply the body but the mind that must be healed. Drawing upon their knowledge of philosophy and the humanities they expounded the need to be humane when treating patients. Scots were crucial in establishing separate medical teaching institutions; previously all medical education had been taught within the confines of medical establishments.

Great Americans of Scottish Descent

When the Scots immigrated to America, they brought with them a great passion for liberty. Patrick Henry, of Scottish descent, so eloquently embraced this spirit for freedom in his famous quote, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” In the American Revolution, more than half of the soldiers of the Colonial Army were Presbyterians and Calvinists, and many historians refer to the American Revolution as being ‘a Scottish Rebellion,’ or as one historian said, ‘John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.’

John Witherspoon was the Scottish – American religious leader who was president of the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University) for eight years. He left Scotland in 1786 to take up his position where he was responsible for adding philosophy, French, and history to the curriculum. Witherspoon tutored American luminaries such as James Madison, imparting to them the beliefs of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as separation of church and state. Witherspoon later became involved in American politics and served in Congress from 1776-1782, he was also one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.

Once the United States was formed, Scottish Americans continued to make great contributions. Nine of the first 13 Governors, all the members of the First American Cabinet, 11 US Presidents and 35 Supreme Court Justices had Scottish ancestry.

John Kay and Samuel Bard established the first medical school in New York, King’s College, both medical graduates of Edinburgh University. James Blair (1656-1743) was the first president and founder of the College of William and Mary; he emigrated from Scotland in 1685.

On the bench of the first sitting of the Supreme Court in 1789 sat two Scottish Americans – John Blair and James Wilson. Two of the jurists present on this case were also of Scottish descent, John Rutledge and John Marshall. These jurors served as second and third justices of the court.

Andrew Carnegie, a poor Scots immigrant, found fame and fortune in the US where he became the Pittsburgh steel millionaire.

James Craik, originally from Dumfriesshire, was President Washington’s Army surgeon. His exemplary service record prompted Washington to promote him to physician and surgeon of the whole US army in 1781.

Ayrshire born Robert Gibson Eccles immigrated to the US where, in 1848, he discovered the properties of benzoic acid and benzoate as a food preservative.

One of the greatest inventors of all time, Thomas Alva Edison began to work at an early age and continued to work right up until his death. During his career Edison patented more than 1,000 inventions, including the electric light, the phonograph, and the motion-picture camera. These three inventions gave rise to giant industries-electric utilities, phonograph and record companies, and the film industry-thus changing the work and leisure habits of people throughout the world. The period from 1879 to 1900, when Edison produced and perfected most of his devices, has been called the Age of Edison.

Distinguished US scientist Samuel Guthrie (1728-1848) was of Scots descent. He was one of the pioneers of vaccination and in 1831 discovered chloroform

Alexander Hamilton is one of the most influential Scots in American history. His father was Scottish and he himself was born in the British colony of Nevis, located in the West Indies. One of the main authors of the Federalist essays – instrumental in the forming of the Constitution – he became the first US Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton developed an impressive and effective financial plan that created immediate faith in the government of a new nation.

The first American author to achieve international renown, Washington Irving, who created the fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. The critical acceptance and enduring popularity of Irving’s tales involving these characters proved the effectiveness of the short story as an American literary form.

There were many commanding officers of Scottish descent that played their part in the American Civil War. Generals “Stonewall” Jackson, Joseph Johnston, John Brown Gordon, John C. Breckenridge and John B Magruder served in the Confederate army. On the side of the Unionists were generals Ambrose Burnside and James B McPherson. The first American Secretary of War was a Scot namedGeneral Henry Knox, he was appointed in 1785.

Scottish entrepreneur John Law financed the development and colonization of Louisiana.

John Macintosh, the developer of the Mackintosh red apple, was born in New York State: his father immigrated to the US from Inverness. Apple Computers have named a range of computers after him.

The creator of the garden of the Golden Gate, San Francisco, John McLaren was born in Bannockburn, Stirlingshire.

At least 11 Presidents of the USA were of Scots ancestry including McKinley, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Polk, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ulysses Grant, who incidentally visited Dundee after he ceased to be President.

US dentist William Morton, who pioneered the use of anesthesia, was of Scottish descent.

American naturalist, explorer, and writer, John Muir was an influential conservationist. John Muir worked to preserve wilderness areas and wildlife from commercial exploitation and destruction, in which his efforts helped to establish Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park.

One of the strongest and most vigorous presidents in United States history, Theodore Roosevelt,  is well known for his efforts in conservation of our environment. He set aside some 60 million hectares (150 million acres) of public lands to protect them from exploitation by private interests. He later added 34 million hectares (85 million acres) in Alaska and the Northwest to the public domain. The Reclamation Act of 1902 established irrigation and other services for Western lands.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, who was descended from a long line of Scots, founded the Sisters of Charity in 1809 in Baltimore. She was canonized by Rome in 1975.

F. D. Roosevelt’s Secretary for Agriculture, Henry Wallace, was the grandson of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister. His invention, of a hybrid corn increased agricultural production.

Harvard Medical School was founded by three doctors – of the three, only Dr Benjamin Waterhouse, a graduate of the medical school at Edinburgh University, was a qualified doctor.

General Winfield Scott was the grandson of a Scot who fought at the Battle of Culloden. He became the commanding general of the American forces during the Mexican War of 1846-48.

Alexander Wilson, who emigrated from Scotland in 1794, was the first person to study North American birds. He was the author of the first seven volumes of the American Ornithology.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, was the grandson of a Scottish Presbyterian minister.