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American Connections


Whether you subscribe to the belief that Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot in America, or that nearly 400 years later Henry Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, crossed the Atlantic to arrive there in 1390 (some 100 years ahead of Christopher Columbus) it’s clear that the pull of the ‘new world’ has always been strong for us northerners.

In fact, around 20 to 25 million (or 8.3%) of Americans today are estimated to be of Scottish descent. Of course it’s well documented that many Scots left their native shores in times of crisis – with migration peaks following the Jacobite uprising of 1745 and the Highland Clearances of the 1850s – but it’s important to remember that the Scottish diaspora through the ages has been well represented by an educated and elective population too.

With Independence Day fast approaching, and our US team going from strength to strength, we approached Lucy Gibbon at the Orkney Library & Archives with an idea, and Lucy directed us to the website of tourist guide and historian, Patricia Long. Could they tell us, we asked, of any famous Americans who could trace their ancestry back to Orkney? The answer was an emphatic ‘Yes!’ and we’ve selected just four of our favourites.  


John Scollay (1711-1790)

A key figure in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, John Scollay was the great-grandfather of the author Herman Melville and played a significant role in the American Revolution as chair of the Boston Selectmen (1772-1790), as a member of the Sons of Liberty and as a friend of Samuel Adams, one of America’s founding fathers. Scollay was born in Boston MA, but is descended from Malcolm Scollay and Barbara Elphinstone of Hunton in Stronsay; it is likely that his own father emigrated from Orkney in the late 17th century.


Washington Irving (1783-1859)

Author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and a distinguished essayist, biographer, historian and diplomat in the early 19th century, Irving was one of eleven children born to William Irving Sr who hailed from Shapinsay, and his wife Sarah, originally from Cornwall. Washington was born in New York, and lived in America and Europe at various stages throughout his life, but his Orkney roots came into play towards the end of his life, rather bizarrely when he needed to settle a question over breach of copyright.


James Petrie Chalmers (1866-1912)

The film and publishing entrepreneur who ‘dedicated his life to raising the standards of the film industry’ (according to Frontiers Magazine) through his incredibly influential Moving Picture World was born and raised on the family croft in Tankerness. Leaving school at 13 to serve a seven-year apprenticeship with The Orkney Herald in Kirkwall, Chalmers left for New York soon afterwards to further his career. His death some 25 years later, following a tragic accident, took up the front page of the New York Times and his funeral was attended by leading film industry figures from across America.


Greer Garson (1904-1996)

Winning an Oscar for the film Mrs Miniver in 1943 (and noted for her incredibly long acceptance speech afterwards), the inimitable Greer Garson shares a record with Bette Davis for receiving the most consecutive Oscar acting nominations (male or female). Greer may have had Irish hair, English manners and an American postal address, but her grandparents – Peter and Jean – were Orcadians. Peter Garson was born and brought up in Sandwick while Jean came from the parish of Kirkwall and St Ola. They and their two children moved to London where George (Greer Garson’s father) was born.

Interested in tracing your own Orcadian roots? If you’d like to lose yourself for an hour or two in fascinating archive materials – and we highly recommend it – dip into the archive blog as well as the main Orkney Library & Archives site and check out the Orkney Family History Society site too.




July 01, 2021