Scottish Roots

by Frank Kilgore

Unless otherwise noted, photos are from the author’s recent Scotland trip, seeking his family’s Scottish Kunta Kinte.

Kilgore Tartan
Kilgore Tartan

Like many Appalachian descendants, especially those from Southwest Virginia several generations back, we can generally find that at least a portion of our lineage came directly or indirectly through Scotland. Obviously there are many exceptions, particularly the Mediterranean and Eastern European immigrants that emigrated to the coalfields in droves during the early 1900s coal mining booms. Numerous scholars say that coalfield Appalachia was third only to New York City and San Francisco for the diversity of nationalities present at that time. The census in Wise County during that “black gold” boom of a nearly century ago documented over two dozen nationalities, with Hungarians being the predominant group from Eastern Europe. Similarly, West Virginia had, and still has, a big contingent of residents bearing Slavic surnames from those days. African Americans seeking an alternative to southern sharecropping also played a significant role in coalfield diversity.

The region’s predominant early frontier settlers, however, hailed from Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish, English, German, and Welsh origins. These very hardy souls advanced away from the settled, safe, and productive Eastern coasts of the thirteen colonies, even before they became the United States of America, to settle along the western frontier where Native Americans, bears, wolves, eastern elk and buffalo, panthers, and towering stands of virgin oak, chestnut, poplar, and walnut trees dominated the landscape.

These Appalachian forefathers I speak of arrived in the mid-1700s and cleared a plot of land and built hand-hewed cabins upon mostly large tracts that they claimed through formal or informal means. Either they were politically connected and lucky enough to receive a land grant or obtained a deed from someone who did, or they “squatted” in a land that King George III had declared off limits in a failed effort to appease the Native Americans who wistfully hoped to keep the advancing waves of settlers from crossing the Alleghenies. These settlers were sons and daughters of immigrants or fresh off the trans-Atlantic sailing vessels themselves, seeking land, freedom, and privacy.

Many of them sailed from England as indentured servants. Others from Scotland and Ireland sought political freedom or refuge after losing one or more struggles to break from the King of England. Thousands of Scottish families first emigrated to Ireland for refuge or were forced there by various monarchs to dilute the warrior blood of the more pure Celts (another story that led to centuries of religious-based battles in Northern Ireland). In either event, although kindred with the Irish in Celtic blood, many of the Scottish transplants never quite felt accepted in their new island home.

Plaque in Abingdon, Virginia
Plaque in Abingdon, Virginia

These Scots-Irish came to America in the mid-1700s to find freedom, land, food, and individual rights not common in Ireland as that country continued to struggle against the King. These particular immigrants, the Scots-Irish, became the bedrock of resistance to English imperialism after the Declaration of Independence was signed. That declaration started a very long civil war between Tories loyal to the King and new American nationalists yearning to build their own country from scratch. This passion for independence was intense in the Appalachians, particularly among the frontier settlers whose residents held age-old dreams of freedom from the King and were willing to risk everything for that cause. Another segment of these new Americans tried to remain neutral before and during the Revolution and were pummeled by both sides, depending upon the fortunes of geography and war.

In response to American upstarts, King George sent in thousands of the world’s best soldiers, some of whom were German mercenaries. He sent a substantial part of his state-of-the-art naval armada, along with supplies and armaments the like of which his rebellious subjects could not match. He also had his British agents stir up Native Americans along the frontier border to massacre our forefathers along the Clinch, Holston, and New River valleys in an effort to wipe out the best shooting and most battle-tested patriots America had to offer.

Decades of hunting wildlife and fighting Cherokee, Shawnee, and a variety of other indigenous mountain Indians quickly taught our forefathers how to adopt stealth guerilla style hit and run tactics they learned the hard way from their opponents. Many of these long hunters, so called due to the long hunting expeditions they would launch with their very accurate long rifles, gathered at various locations, including Abingdon, to muster up a force of over 1000 determined men to confront the English handlers and their 1500 Tories at King’s Mountain.

Falkland alleyway
Falkland alleyway

This decisive defeat of the battle-tested English forces, plus another rout at Cowpens, turned back General Cornwallis’s sweep of North Carolina and his designs upon southern and western Virginia after he had cleared South Carolina of most patriot resistance. After losing Major Ferguson at the battle of King’s Mountain, who made a tactical error in sending a threat to our forefathers that he would put them and their homesteads to waste with fire and sword, and losing thousands of Tories to battle wounds and desertion, Cornwallis fled toward New Jersey on English Navy ships to face off against George Washington. We know the story from there.

Thomas Jefferson later credited our forefathers, known as the Over Mountain Men, for turning the tide of the war in the South at King’s Mountain and Cowpens. Using evasive tactics instead of standing face to face to exchange shots in rank formation with the world’s best army, these pioneer marksmen gave hope and some new common sense fighting lessons to the rest of the patriots. Among those soldiers fighting at King’s Mountain were five Kilgore brothers, Robert, Charles, James, Hiram, and William, whose fates and lineages are described later in this article.

In tracing back the Kilgore roots, many genealogists have found that name first used in and around the County of Cork in Ireland, where records show their first known presence around 1700. As it turns out, the Kilgores of Ireland were in fact descendants of Scottish immigrants from Kilgour Parish near the small town of Falkland, Scotland. The town is now a national historic district, complete with Falkland Castle and enough history and historic buildings to satisfy most amateur scholars. Just southwest of Falkland is Edinburgh, one of the best-preserved cities in all of the United Kingdom.

As I recently roamed the streets and backroads of Falkland and the County of Fife, looking for the Kilgore Kunta Kinte, I was at first put off when residents there, even castle and museum curators, had not heard of any Kilgores in their history or midst. Finally I showed one elderly historian my notes about the Kilgour Parish and his eyes lit up. “So, you mean the ‘Kill-gare’ family, why didn’t you say so?” From then it was easy sailing, so to speak.

I was pointed in many directions by several nice Scottish citizens on a very rainy day. Not wishing to drive in a country where the left lane is the primary route of travel and the right hand side of the car hosts the driver’s controls, I walked everywhere I was directed and took suggested shortcuts through fields and forests along muddy paths and toward a place called the Pillars of Hercules. Once there, I found a small organic cafe along a gravel road. I didn’t care that I could have ridden a taxi via that gravel road had someone told me about it. I liked the idea of hunting down the Kilgour home land by foot, in the rain, as the Scottish mist rose for its millionth time from lowland ridges.

Kilgour House in County of Fife, Scotland
Kilgour House in County of Fife, Scotland

After trudging more miles of recommended back roads, I finally saw the sign “Kilgour House” and took some photos of the old but well-maintained farm and farmhouse. Above the little farm was Kilgour Ridge. Back in Falkland, and after a great meal at the Pillars of Hercules, I visited ancient cemeteries in and around Falkland. As interesting as they were, I did not find any Kilgours. Their early grave markers had, it seems, been cleared from Kilgour Parish when the church and cemetery were razed by hungry farmers.

Several living Kilgours were listed in the phone books of nearby towns, but I wanted to see the rest of Scotland and did not contact them, reckoning that I could dig up more information when I got home. Sure enough, one of the Falkland historians I spoke with, Pamela McIlroy, sent me an email and contact for a Roy Killgore (another derivation of Kilgour) in California who recently finished a Kilgore history after visiting the same places I had just toured in the County of Fife. I have contacted Roy to see if we can share some information as I am sure he has heard of the five Kilgore brothers that fought at King’s Mountain, and perhaps he has found the missing links between the Scots-Irish Kilgores of Ireland and the Kilgours of Kilgour Parish.

For those of you who have interest in such things, I am adding below my particular lineage from the Scott County Kilgores to their Scots-Irish Kilgores, to the first registered Kilgours of Scotland. As you can see, there is a lot of work to do to link the two lines. I hope to update everyone on this Scottish roots quest in our next issue and invite any information our readers might have about this subject and the Scots-Irish influence in our region and nation. Feel free to submit your own early settler lineage, and we will publish the one we find to be of the most interest. In the interim, I recommend Senator Jim Webb’s book, “Born Fighting,” and the epic story “Before They Were Heroes at King’s Mountain” by Randell Jones, for those of you who wish to be further informed about our forefathers. You can find both of these books at Amazon.

Elihugh Kilgore and Family
Elihugh Kilgore and Family

My father, Arthur W. Kilgore, was born in Dante, Virginia in 1923, a World War II vet, coal miner, truck driver, part time moonshiner, and UMWA member. He married Clinas Johnson of Grassy Creek, Russell County, Virginia.
My grandfather, Wiley Frank Kilgore, born on Sandy Ridge in 1895, Dickenson County, Virginia, a coal miner for 47 years who never drove a car and joined the UMWA when doing so meant being “black-balled” from work. He married Elsie Lee Phillips, and both are buried at Three Forks Cemetery, Honey Branch, in Wise County, Virginia.
Elihugh Kilgore, born in 1853, Scott County, Virginia, married Sabra Ann Holbrook of Wise County. They lived in what was then the Sandy Ridge section of Wise County, later becoming part of Dickenson County. Elihugh was a farmer and justice of the peace.
William M. Kilgore, born in 1832, Scott County, married Nancy Hartsock of Scott County.
Charles Kilgore, born in 1785, in what is now Scott County, married Mary “Polly” Gray.
Robert Kilgore (Jr.) born in 1765 in Orange County (in the portion now named Caswell County), North Carolina, moved with his family to what is now Scott County, Virginia, and married Jane Porter of Augusta County. Both are buried at the Methodist Cemetery in Nicklesville in Scott County.
Robert Kilgore (of the Battle of King’s Mountain fame) born in 1744 in North Carolina and married Winnifred Clayton also of North Carolina. They both moved to what is now Scott County before the Revolutionary War (which was then in Washington County, but in 1786 became Russell County, and in 1815 became Scott).
Thomas Kilgore, born in 1715 (probably in County of Cork) Ireland, then moved to America, ending up in or around what is now Caswell County (previously Orange County) North Carolina, and he and his wife (surname unknown) lived in Robertson County, Tennessee until Thomas died.
Here is the most recent summary I could find regarding the Kilgour name and lineage in Scotland:

“This is an ancient Scottish surname. It originates from a place known as ‘The lands of Kilgour,’ near Falkland in the county of Fife. The first recorded holder of the surname was one Sir Thomas Kilgour, who in circa 1538 was it seems a ‘merchant’ as well as being chaplain at the church of St. Thomas in the palace of Holyrood House. Possibly being chaplain was only a part time job, and probably not too well paid, as Sir Thomas’s name appears regularly in the accounts for payments for ‘bear skins.’ Just what he was doing with all these skins, unless he was selling them on, is a matter of conjecture. Other recordings of the same period include David Kilgour of Lathrisk in 1555, and later Alexander Kylgour who was registered as the heir to his father Alexander Kylgour of Nethill, in the year 1600. The surname seems to have bred a regular covey of churchmen. Amongst the many recordings are those of John Kilgour of the cathedral church of Aberdeen in 1607, and a century or so later, that of Hamilton Kilgour, the minister of Collace, who died in 1777.”

Cemetery in Falkland, Scotland
Cemetery in Falkland, Scotland

Read more and search for your own surname on this very informative website:

An Internet search turned up the following clan history posted by J. Penley, who is also a descendant of Robert Kilgore, Sr.:

“Old World History: The Kilgore Clan”

“The Clan Kilgour (Kilgore, Killgore) is of undoubted Scottish or Celtic origin. The name is the best indication of that, being a compound of ‘cell-gor’ meaning ‘cell’ or church in the Gaelic, and ‘gor’ which is the word for hill, in the same language; so that the name Kilgore or Kilgour, as originally spelled, is the equivalent of our English compound name churchill or ‘church on the hill.’

Kilgour, from which the name is derived, was an Ancient Parish in Fifeshire, Scotland, which lies on the north of the Firth of Forth. It is now incorporated with the Parish of Falkland. The church of the Ancient Parish of Kilgour stood originally two miles west of the present town of Falkland and before the Reformation, belonged to the Priory of St. Andrews. The Earl of Fife made a grant of it to the Priory in 1316. The deed of Mortification as well as another curious old Charter, bearing the date 1224, which throw light upon the Ecclesiastical state of the Parish at that early period, may be seen in the records of St. Andrews. The church seems to be a building 40 ft long by 16 ft with chancel and stood in the center of the burial ground.”

Ancient Headstone in Scotland
Ancient Headstone in Scotland

Not a single vesting of it now visible. The foundation stones have been dug up about 1825 and removed to fill up drains on the neighboring farm. The farmer transported one of the ancient stone coffins into his barnyard to form a water trough for his cattle where it still remains, and they crowned this sacrilegious act by plowing up the church yard.

The old church site lies at the foot of the Black Hill, one of the foothills of the Lomand Hills, on the head waters of Loch Laven, one of Scotland’s most picturesque lakes. Between Falkland and Kilgour are the famous ruins of the Royal Palace. It is historically certain that the ancestral home of the Clan Kilgour was in the above mentioned Parish, as the name is still common in that part of Scotland.

Ireland: A branch of the Kilgour clan was transported to Ireland, along with hundreds of other Scotsmen, by King James I, in 1606 and later by Cromwell who adopted this method of colonizing the Emerald Isle with Protestants in order to keep Catholic Ireland in subjection. This explains the rapid spread of the clan in Ulster, who never took kindly to the land of their adoption and for a century or more, until their exodus to America, were bitterly opposed by the followers of the wild Irish Earle and when their name, regardless of the religious antagonism, is as well known as in Scotland, the ancient seat of the clan.”

And yet another researcher had this to say about the Kilgore Irish connection:

“The Kilgore family, a Scots-Irish line, emigrated to America from Northern Ireland about 1763. The Scots-Irish Kilgores have a tradition that their line of Kilgores are related to the Douglass family of Scotland, and through this line related to Queen Victoria.

Violin Shop in Edinburgh, Scotland
Violin Shop in Edinburgh, Scotland

There were five Kilgore boys (believed brothers) located in VA in 1763. The names given were Robert, Charles, William, James, and Hiram Kilgore. All five of the Kilgore brothers were in the Battle of King’s Mountain, which was fought 7 October 1780 and was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. In this battle Hiram Kilgore was killed, Charles Kilgore was shot through the body, and Robert Kilgore was seriously wounded. Charles and Robert both recovered.”

Author’s Note: There is still a question of whether Hiram Kilgore was killed in battle. The next issue of Mountain Peeks will feature an article about the Battle of King’s Mountain and the new museum dedicated to it in Abingdon, Virginia.

If you ever find yourself in Scotland, do not miss the castle at Edinburgh
( and the great walk along the Royal Mile below it. While there, if you tire of haggis (sheep innards, suet, and oatmeal) and black pudding (pig, lamb, or goose blood mixed with a bunch of other stuff), enjoy a gourmet meal at the Wedgewood Restaurant at 267 Canongate instead.

Speaking of food, it did not take me long to observe that Southwest Virginians, including me of course, love to eat large just as the Scottish population I observed tend to do. Suspecting that I had accidentally discovered the “gravy gene” that centuries ago made its way from Scotland to the hills of Appalachia, I did a little health research and was not totally surprised to learn that Scotland is the European country with the greatest incidences of obesity, high blood pressure, drug abuse, and the nasty, suicidal habit of smoking. Like us, they drop like flies at a relatively early age due to these mostly preventable, lifestyle-driven bad habits.scotland_edinburgh_o

Another interesting fact is that although the UK is much less violent than the U.S., the killings that do occur are much more up front and personal. Very strict gun ownership laws make it very risky to use a firearm in the commission of a crime, so the thugs in that country use knives. While staying in the Scottish Highlands city of Inverness, and only from what I could see and hear, the loud “hooligans” who fussed, cursed, and fought at night in the downtown areas were rarely visited by the police.

scotland_falkland_palace_tree_oI asked a cab driver about this phenomenon and remarked that pepper-spraying, baton-wielding, head-knocking city police in the U.S. would descend like avenging angels upon brawlers and drunks that scared away job-creating tourists. He was very practical about the matter and said, as best as I could discern, “Aye, the police are afraid mostly of the hooligans at night and avoid them unless a killing or stabbing tales place, but these rowdy lads seem to fight among themselves mostly, and except for trying to rob cabs or break into stores and houses to find drug money, they don’t prey much on the average person.”

We obviously do have a lot in common with our Scottish brothers and sisters.