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How Scotland connected North Carolina to the modern world

By D. G. Martin
Posted Thursday, September 25, 2014

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Chapel Hill, NC - Did North Carolinians have a stake in the outcome of last week's referendum in Scotland?

Maybe not the same kind of stake the residents of Scotland had, but our ties to that land are so close, so important and so contemporary that perhaps we should have been entitled to vote on the question of its independence from the United Kingdom.

New evidence of our enduring ties to Scotland comes in a few days with UNC Press’s release of “Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia” by Scotland’s Fiona Ritchie and North Carolina’s Doug Orr.

Ritchie hosts National Public Radio's “The Thistle & Shamrock.” Orr, a lifelong performer and scholar of Appalachian mountain music, is interim chancellor of UNC-Asheville. UNC-Press explains that Ritchie and Orr “guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.”

If we should ever be tempted to forget our close ties, remember some North Carolinians’ love affair with all things Scottish. They celebrate those connections by dressing up in kilts and tartans for dinners in honor of poet Robert Burns, for special religious services, and for Highland games and festivals at Grandfather Mountain, Scotland County, “Loch” Norman, and all over the state.

Sometimes we forget Scotland’s contribution to a long tradition of fostering intellectual inquiry and diverse viewpoints in our universities.

In his book, “How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It,” Arthur Herman argues that the Scots are responsible for the modern world’s way of thinking and getting things done. He says that the Scots “created the basic idea of modernity” that “transformed their culture and society in the eighteenth century,” and “they carried it with them wherever they went.”

Before the John Knox-led Scottish reformation in the mid-1500s, Scotland was a land of poverty, feudalism, illiteracy and clan warfare. Knox taught that the people must read the Bible and come to know God personally through their own thoughtful study and prayer.

Having been taught to read the Bible, many Scots began to read lots of other books.

Having been taught the responsibility to develop their own relationships with God, they developed a self-confident pride in their ability to solve every kind of problem.

By the 1700s, Scotland had become the center of philosophic and economic thinking, led by such familiar names as Adam Smith, David Hume and a host of others. Its universities were the envy of every country in Europe. Scotland became the center of invention and business.

What does this have to do with North Carolina today?

Shortly before the American Revolution, John Witherspoon, a Scottish minister, came to America to become president of Princeton University.

He took Princeton by storm. Although he represented the evangelical and conservative wing of Presbyterian thinking, he required his students to read the works of his intellectual and theological opponents, including Hume.

According to Herman, “Witherspoon's attitude was that even if you disagreed with a philosopher or thinker, you still needed to read him in order to appreciate his arguments and refute them. So Witherspoon's students found themselves inundated with a host of thinkers Witherspoon disapproved of, but whom, ‘in the spirit of free inquiry,’ they were expected to understand and digest.”

One of Witherspoon's students was Joseph Caldwell, who became the first president of the University of North Carolina. Caldwell brought Witherspoon’s traditions to UNC. That tradition of vigorous intellectual inquiry and debate became a fundamental part of the state’s strong universities to the benefit of their graduates who made up a leadership core that helped make North Carolina a leader of the New South.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

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How Scotland connected North Carolina to the modern world
Joseph Caldwell, who became the first president of the University of North Carolina, brought Witherspoon’s traditions to UNC.

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