Were Scots responsible for the Ku Klux Klan?

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1. Scots and the New World

I’ve spent years celebrating the legacy of Scots who helped lay the foundations of the United States of America. One third of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Scottish, but the Scots' influence has not always been a source of pride.

In the 1700s, Scots were lured to Virginia to help English settlers defend the colony. With every generation they moved further south and west, establishing cotton plantations and buying slaves. But when northern states planned to limit the expansion of slavery the southern states left the union and a civil war began.

Much of the fighting took place in the south, which was left devastated by the end of the conflict. Soldiers returned to find their homes and businesses were gone, the economy in ruins and local government all but non-existent. The once rich southerners - many of Scottish descent - had lost their way of life and most of their wealth.

2. The Klan's roots

The end of the civil war left conditions in the south ripe for dissent. Click or tap to find out how the Ku Klux Klan evolved.

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3. The Clansman

By 1868 the Ku Klux Klan had become a national force and the group’s reign of terror had scared black men away from voting booths and hounded them from office. But as Klan violence intensified the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 protected black men’s right to vote and hold positions of authority, while allowing perpetrators of racial violence to be prosecuted.

The Klan’s influence was dramatically reduced by the laws and by 1872, Klan violence had ended. But in 1905 a man of Scots descent reignited racial tension with the publication of a novel.

Thomas Dixon, the son of a Scots minister and plantation owner, wrote The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, which was set in a time where whites are enslaved and black men are in charge.

Dixon drew from his Scots heritage by introducing the idea of the burning cross as a symbol of the Klan, even though it had never before been associated with the group. He based it on the Crann Tara, a fiery cross which had been a traditional means of calling Scottish clans to arms.

In 1915 the tale was adapted for film and released as The Birth of a Nation. Dixon’s idea of the Klan as heroic saviours of the south met a much larger audience, sparking outbreaks of violence and prompting a new wave of Klan activity. This time the group broadened its goals beyond the rights of black people to also target Jews, Catholics and immigrants.

At its peak in 1925 Klan membership swelled to at least two million and the secretive Klansmen infiltrated and corrupted public office across the country.

However, the combination of a public outrage, scandals and the Great Depression in the 1930s saw membership fall dramatically. The Klan disbanded in the 1940s, but racial hatred continued to simmer.

4. Celts and the Klan

A third wave of Klan violence emerged in response to the growing civil rights movement in the 1960s. But the Klan’s murders and bombings only served to strengthen public support for civil rights.

President Johnson’s condemnation of the group and a crackdown on senior members saw the numbers of Klansmen dwindle.

But even now there are hundreds of hate groups within the United States which share the Klan’s idea of white supremacy, and many of these organisations identify with their Celtic roots.

They claim to share the Scots ideology of clan kinship. For many of them in the south their aim is to protect their own people, their “blood kin” whose ancestry can be traced to the pioneer families of the 18th Century.

5. Scots' influence on the south

Scots have left their mark on the southern states of America in many other ways.

Sir Walter Scott

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Sir Walter Scott

Mark Twain claimed Scott’s tales of “rank and caste”, which were said to have influenced Southern society, made him responsible for the Civil War.

Gospel music

Gospel music

Gospel music

Research has suggested that gospel evolved from Hebridean migrants and the Gaelic psalms of Presbyterian Scotland.


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The controversial confederate flag which is an emblem of slavery to some, is thought to be based on Scotland’s St Andrew’s cross.