Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Scots in the Mill City

Duncan Rankin McKean,
 in Glasgow, 1880s.
The Irish were not the only Celts to help build the city of Lowell.  Before anyone protests, of course the Irish were Lowell’s first immigrant group.  That would make the Scots Lowell’s second wave of immigration.  In one of Lowell’s early histories an 1833 writer is quoted as saying the Scots were, “the most intelligent of our foreign population.”  The writer was a Yankee and it might be fair to say not a fan of the Irish.

To dig a little deeper, Lowell’s existence is partially due to the Scots.  Francis Cabot Lowell himself had Scottish roots, and it was only after his 2 year stint visiting England and Scotland with his family that the idea of textile manufacturing on such a scale as he saw in Manchester and Paisley would come to America. 

Scots had been living in the area since the time of the colonies.  Before Lowell was Lowell, there were farmers and tradesmen from Ulster (Scots-Irish) in Chelmsford and Dracut.  Even the Pawtucketville Congregational Church once identified itself as Presbyterian.  As textile mills were erected professional workers who knew the secrets of the textile trade had to be imported to share their knowledge.  James Sanderson, a native Scot, was brought solely because he knew had to dye skeins indigo blue, a color much in vogue at the time and not easily produced previously in America.

The major wave of Scots into Lowell occurred in 1828 with Alexander Wright. “A colony from Refrewshire, Scotland settled in Lowell and engaged in the manufacture of carpets.  It included many sons and daughters of the Kirk of Scotland and was reintroduced from time to time by other immigrants.” (ORHA)  Soon another group from Lanarkshire, Scotland joined the group increasing the Scots population and carpet manufacturing.

Like the Irish, many of the Scots chose to live among their own.  One group settled along Market Street in areas called “Scotch block” and “Scotch Row” according to Lowell Directories.  The tiny district includes name such as; McAlpine, Bosworth, McOvey, Johnson, McCreck, McArthur, Knowles, and Wilson.

With the Scots came their faith, Presbyterianism.  They were the descendants of the Covenanters. By the 1860s there were enough to form their own church that was erected on Appleton Street on the corner of Davis, known as the First Presbyterian.  An early account says that those who were “old school Presbyterians” were forming a society. It continues to say there were enough like-minded people to have already had a Sunday school.  A Rev. Dr. Robertson was the preacher and succeeded by Revs. Calhoun and Rankin.  That is not to say that there were no Catholic Scots as well.  In St. Patrick Cemetery there are a number of 19th century graves with Scotland listed as place of birth.  And don’t forget St. Margaret’s Church was actually names after St. Margret of Scotland.
They also brought their customs and traditions.  One that continues in Scotland today and was first celebrated in Lowell in 1833 was Robert Burns Night.  Celebrating Scotland’s most famous poet, they gathered, many of Lowell’s Yankee elite, to toast the bard and to share the haggis.  A Mr. Waugh made the haggis, a sort of pudding made of entrails and boiled in a sheep’s stomach.  The Ode to the haggis was recited and singing songs like, “O Willie brew’d a pack o’maut.”   The evening ended with the traditional “Auld Lang Syne.”  It must have been a rowdy evening since the writer commented that the other guest in the hotel must have appreciated the night coming to a close.
For many years Scottish athletic games were held here in the city.  Mention is made of Scots in their “native costumes” (kilts) parading through the city with pipe bands and athletes marching to the athletic fields in Centraville.  The local Caledonian Club sponsored the “annual games of the Bonnie Scots,” which drew athletes from U.S. and Canada participating in the caber toss and throwing the hammer.  A world record for such was made in Lowell.

One of the last vestiges of Scottish culture in Lowell was Clan Grant 141 OSC (Order of Scottish Clans).  There may have been other such organizations, but Clan Grant appears to have been the most active and most recent.  Clan Grant held annual Burns Night dinners, dances, lectures, and gatherings which kept the Scottish tradition alive in Lowell.  The last major function seems to have been in the 1970s with the Kiltie Pipe Band of Worcester and a number of singers entertaining a huge crowd.  The officers of the ladies auxiliary appeared in their white dresses and tartan sashes.  (Members of my own family once held posts in the organization.)

Many Scots who came to Lowell brought their skills to open shops and become entrepreneurs in the city.   The Nesmith brothers, Thomas and John, who were Ulster Scots, became very wealthy in business ventures so much so they had a street names after them in Belvidere.  The Bowers family originally came from Scotland and became owners of farm and dairy land in Lowell.  Nineteenth century physician, Dr Shaw was born in Glasgow.  The first ice cream manufacturer in Lowell, Alexander Cruichshank was born in the Scottish Highlands.  Another Glasgow native, Alexander Cumnock, became nationally famous for his work in cotton manufacturing. A friend of Kirk Boott, John Waugh, along with fellow Scotsman, James Wilson, became the leading suppliers of slate roofing in Lowell’s earliest days.  Many of these men remain in our history having had streets and buildings named after them. 

One of the last Scots native to be recalled was James Johnston Mr. Johnston, a native Scot’s speaker opened a bakery on Westford Street.  The family occupied the 2nd floor on top of the business.  The family kept the business until the 1980s.  In my family it was traditional at Christmas to go to Johnston’s to buy shortbread.  On the day the bakery closed I went pleading to buy the shortbread molds, but the family rightfully held onto them. 

Not all Scots would make it into the history books.  My own grandfather was born in Milngavie, Scotland.  His family had been working as calico printers for 3 generations.  No wonder he made it to Lowell.  His Scottish burr (accent) remained with him until the end.  He was baptized in the Church of Scotland and converted to Catholicism to marry my grandmother at St. Patrick’s.  He was known to break into, “Roamin in the Gloamin.”  He never told why he left Scotland and had little contact with his family back in Glasgow except for a box at Christmas that contained dulse (seaweed), shortbread, and oatcakes. 

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