History

The Kennedy Clan was strong and powerful, dominating southwestern Scotland for centuries. They were astute enough to support the strong Scottish kings and to oppose the weak ones. This support enabled them to retain their lands and position and to expand them, sometimes at the expense of their neighboring clans. At the time of the Reformation in the 1500s, a schism developed within the Kennedys when one faction (Bargany) favored Henry VIII’s Reformation and the other side of the clan (Cassillis) favored remaining loyal to Rome. Long after the Cassillis branch embraced John Knox and Protestantism, the split remained, resulting in disputes after every clan chief’s death over who should succeed and lead the clan. The issue finally was resolved in favor of the Cassillis branch, and the title of Marquess of Ailsa is passed down through that side of the family today.

Other splintering occurred in the period 1400–1500. One Ulric Kennedy committed a serious crime, reputed to be the murder of a local royal official who had raped his wife. He fled northward and settled in an area near present-day Fort William known as Lochaber. This area was in a section of Scotland controlled by the Highland clan Cameron. Ulric “swore allegiance” to the Cameron chief and that branch of the Kennedys was claimed as a sept of the Camerons. Ulric’s family joined him later, and they settled further north in the Highlands in the area of Moray, around modern-day Inverness. They became an independent clan, “Ulric,” but they are accepted as the Kennedys that they really are. Ulric’s descendants also spread westward, including to some of the Inner Hebrides islands such as Skye. Some of these Kennedys probably were Catholic and might have fought on the side of the Stuarts in the various uprisings that attempted to install the Catholic Scot King James on the English throne.

In the early 1600s, Queen Elizabeth’s army defeated a revolt by Catholic Irish Lords in the northern part of Ireland. Elizabeth died shortly after, and James became king and placed pressure on the Irish lords. In 1607, they fled to France, and King James seized their lands. He then offered those lands to groups of English and Scottish citizens for settlements called “plantations.” The offer to Scots was limited to the lowland clans, including Kennedys, who were closest to the English border and had converted to the Episcopal or Presbyterian faith following the Reformation. The intent of the English king was to dilute the Catholic influence in Ireland by bringing in “good” English and Scot Protestants. Many Kennedys took advantage of this opportunity, since economic conditions were poor and farmable land was limited in their area of Scotland. On a clear day, they could see their Kennedy homeland in Scotland to the northeast across the Irish Sea!

In time, economic conditions in this new homeland became poor, and Catholic hostility became stronger. Many of the Scots, including Kennedys, moved to Canada and America. A major portion entered through Annapolis and Philadelphia and moved further westward in Pennsylvania. Mountains and Indian opposition turned some of this influx southwest, down the Shenandoah Valley and into western Virginia and western North Carolina and South Carolina. Almost all these immigrants were Protestant Scots, and much of this emigration from northern Ireland occurred before and just after the American Revolution. Many of the Kennedys found today in Pennsylvania and western North and South Carolina have their roots in these early pioneers. Because England controlled all of Ireland until 1922 and did not recognize separate north and south Ireland, their emigration papers said they were from “Ireland.” Therefore, many of these Scots were listed as “Irish” by customs agents when they entered U.S. colonies/states and Canada. Many immigrants responded by stating they were “Scotch-Irish,” meaning their ancestors were from Scotland but moved to northern Ireland and then to North America. They made this response because of pride in their Scots heritage and to show that they were Protestant, not Catholic, which was an important distinction in early America and Canada.

In 1745-46, the last attempt to reinstate the Catholic Scot King James on the throne of England was led by his son, “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” This attempt resulted in the final defeat of the Scots by the British at Culloden. While a few individual Kennedys fought at Culloden, there was no formal Kennedy Clan presence on either side at that battle.

The Scots defeat at Culloden led to the destruction of the clan system in the Highlands and the infamous “Highland Clearances,” when the victorious British and many of the surviving Highland clan chiefs forced the people (“crofters”) off the land so that sheep could be pastured and hunting preserves established. A major migration of Highlanders and other Scots to Canada, the American colonies, Barbados, and other far-flung parts of the British Empire took place at this time. Scots — probably including Kennedys of the Ulric branch — who came to what is now the United States during this period settled primarily in coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, because those areas most resembled their original homelands.

In the early 1800s, the Industrial Revolution began in England. The lowland Scots prospered during this period, due in no small part to the fact that the lowland clans had supported the English King during the attempts of the Stuarts in the 1700s to install a Scots Catholic king on the throne of England. Glasgow, just north of Kennedy lands, grew to be the industrial center and largest city of Scotland. This happy time continued until the 1860s, when the American Civil War disrupted the flow of cotton and tobacco to England and caused a major economic depression. In addition, the potato blight, better known for its tragic impact on Ireland, spread to Scotland and caused food shortages there. All of these factors led to the last major migration of Scots — this time, lowland Scots (unlike the late 1700s, when the Highland Scots were being evicted for revolting against the king). This final group of immigrants to the United States entered primarily through the northeastern and middle Atlantic states, some remaining there and some pushing westward into the Midwest and on to the newly opening western states. Again, Kennedys were included in great numbers in this last exodus from Scotland. These final Scots brought with them many trades and skills they had acquired during the industrialization of southern Scotland, and these skills were sorely needed and warmly welcomed in the United States. Immigrants from other countries such as Ireland and Italy were not so fortunate; often, they were met with hostility when they arrived.

These Scots and their descendants, with names such as Armstrong, Buchanan, Calhoun, Campbell, Carnegie, Clarke, Eccles, Graham, Grant, Hamilton, Jackson, Knox, MacArthur, McDonald, McGregor, McKinley, Sinclair, Wilson, and, of course, Kennedy, made major contributions to the political, economic, and industrial development of our country. Be proud of your heritage!

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Last updated: 1 October 2005