In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scotland and the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Source Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • The Scottish Enlightenment
  • Scotland and the American Revolution
  • Legacies

Atlantic History Scotland and the Atlantic World
Ned C. Landsman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0260


For a small, resource-poor nation on the periphery of western Europe, few peoples had as conspicuous a presence in the world of the early modern Atlantic as did the Scots. Indeed, they would seem to have been outsized contributors to a whole range of activities in the Atlantic world: religion and education, migration and trade, medicine and botany, military affairs and imperial administration, and more—so much so that historians have begun to speak of a Scottish empire in the Atlantic. So extensive and so threatening did the Scottish presence seem that by the eve of the American Revolution, English people at home and North Americans in the colonies exhibited prominent instances of “Scotophobia.” Scots became famous for the extent of their loyalism during that conflict, even as Scottish influences became deeply embedded in the culture of British North America as it sought independence. Paradoxically, all of this occurred in spite of their having been relative latecomers to Atlantic involvement, and never dominant demographically. Yet their influence extended not only across the mainland British colonies that would become the United States, but also to the peripheries of settlement in Florida and the Canadian provinces as well as the Caribbean and beyond, eventually reaching Britain’s Asian empire as well. Historians long attributed the activism of the Scots to the 1707 Union of Parliaments, which, in creating a new United Kingdom opened up the American trade to Scottish participants in what was now a British empire. More recently they have come to recognize its roots in Scotland’s long history as an uncommonly migratory nation whose people regularly and prominently involved themselves abroad, including an unusual number of prominent and educated people. Indeed, as a poor and peripheral nation of the fringes of Europe, Scots had long before recognized that in order to develop their trade and find economic and cultural opportunities they would have to travel abroad to find them, and so Scots developed a skill for networking and a portable culture well suited to overseas involvement. That culture of Enlightenment proved to be influential overseas as well. It was in fact the very connectedness of Scots with places abroad on the European continent in the 17th century that limited their early involvement in the Atlantic world, and Atlantic traveling and trading never fully replaced those earlier connections.

General Overviews

For many years the history of Scottish involvement overseas was dominated by hagiography, by histories of the accomplishments of those of famous names of Scottish descent, from John Paul Jones to Andrew Carnegie, within the British empire as well as in the independent United States. Only in the second half of the 20th century did scholars begin to take an objective look at those contributions and, instead of simply celebrating them, to try to analyze what made them possible. A turning point was the July 1954 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, devoted entirely to Scots and early America, including, among several noteworthy essays, Clive and Bailyn 1954, which attributed those affinities to the similar positions of Scotland and British America as England’s “cultural provinces.” It raised the question as to why Scotland seemed so connected to North America. The result was to turn historians’ attention to the Anglo-Scottish union, and what Clive and Bailyn assumed was the sense of cultural inferiority Scots felt, and the goal of emulation. Those themes were picked up by many, including Richards 1991, which pointed out as well that provincial status could be a strength as well as a weakness. The dual result was discussed in the literary field by Hook 1975. The introductory essay in Sher and Smitten 1990 and Murdoch 2010 represent a general survey of the literature of the field, and a substantive summary statement, respectively. They and other works have argued that Scottish-American contacts had their origins well before the union, and that more important than supposed similarities between the positions of Scotland and the American colonies as cultural provinces were the increasing number of active interconnections between them. By the beginning of the 21st century, the historiographical emphasis was more on provincial empowerment than inferiority and led to such works as Fry 2001 (cited under Beyond North America) and Devine 2003 emphasizing Scots as dominant forces in Britain’s empire, especially in the Atlantic. Landsman 2001 attempted to broaden the field beyond the thirteen colonies and beyond mainland North America, a task also pursued by Fry and Donovan 1995 and Macinnes, et al. 2002, both cited under Primary Source Collections. Macinnes and Williamson 2006 looks at the extent to which Scotland’s longstanding European connections helped provide an entrée into the Atlantic world through the influence of other European powers.

  • Clive, John, and Bernard Bailyn. “England’s Cultural Provinces: Scotland and America.” William and Mary Quarterly 3d ser., 11 (1954): 200–213.

    DOI: 10.2307/1922039

    A pioneering work comparing Scotland and British America in the 18th century as cultural provinces of England, with a common sense of provinciality driving emulation of the metropolis in both places.

  • Devine, T. M. Scotland’s Empire and the Shaping of the Americas 1600–1815. London: Penguin, 2003.

    An extended study of the ways in which Scots in the 18th century contributed to the expansion of the British empire, from North America to the Caribbean to Asia, wielding disproportionate influence in many realms, in the process making it very much a British rather than an English affair.

  • Hook, Andrew. Scotland and America: A Study of Cultural Relations 1750–1835. Glasgow: Blackie, 1975.

    A pioneering literary survey noting the complexity of Scottish-American connections: a “fruitful harmony” and a “time of discord”; Scotland was portrayed both as a “land of learning” and a “land of romance.” All of those themes were taken up by later scholars.

  • Landsman, Ned C., ed. Nation and Province in the First British Empire: Scotland and the Americas 1600–1800: Papers from a Conference to Accompany an Exhibition held at the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island, 1994. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001.

    A collection of essays derived from a 1994 conference on Scotland and the Americas at the John Carter Brown Library, in Providence, Rhode Island, the collection attempts to move the subject beyond Scottish connections with just the United States or even mainland North America to look at larger American and Atlantic connections.

  • Macinnes, Allan I., and Arthur H. Williamson, eds. Shaping the Stuart World 1603–1714: The Atlantic Connection. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.

    The product of a pair of conferences at the Huntington Library in California in June 2001 and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in June 2002, this collection moved the subject of Scottish involvement in the Atlantic beyond the British world to explore involvements with varied European nations—those of the English, Spanish, and especially the Dutch, the great commercial power of the day. Scotland and England at times had overlapping agendas but also many rivalries in the Atlantic.

  • Murdoch, Alexander. Scotland and America, c. 1600–c. 1800. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    A detailed and well-conceived survey of the involvement of Scots with the Americas throughout the period, focusing both on migration and trade and on larger cultural influences. A good summary of the current literature. Of particular interest are chapters on Scots and slavery—as slave traders, slaveholders, and antislavery advocates—and on their connections with native peoples in the Americas.

  • Richards, Eric. “Scotland and the Uses of the Atlantic Empire.” In Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire. Edited by Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan, 67–114. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

    A survey of the involvement of Scots in the broader world of the Atlantic. Like most works of the time its focal point is the Anglo-Scottish union and its effects on Scotland’s situation, and it understates earlier connections and the influence of traditions of involvement overseas. Noteworthy for paying substantial attention to Highland as well as Lowland involvement.

  • Sher, Richard B., and Jeffrey R. Smitten, eds. Scotland and America in the Age of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

    Co-published by Princeton University Press. A pioneering collection of essays forms the first volume of the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society book series; it looks at the many connections that formed between those societies around the themes of religion and enlightenment, with a special emphasis on Scotland native and College of New Jersey president John Witherspoon. An introductory essay by Sher placed it all in then-current historiographical context.

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