Robin McKelvie

Almost 350 years since the first colonists forged into Charleston Harbor the British are back. I find myself as a Scot in a familiar place – at the vanguard. I’m aboard the third British Airways flight to Charleston, which opens up a city and a state alive with Scottish heritage. It’s also instantly obvious why savvy American travellers rate Charleston so highly.

While many Americans are well acquainted with Charleston’s sultry southern charms, South Carolina’s oldest city largely remains an enigma elsewhere. Before I fly I’m asked by a flurry of friends which state it’s in. Not only is the BA route the first from the UK, but it’s Europe’s only direct connection.

It’s tempting then to label Charleston that most tired of travel writing cliches, a hidden gem. In truth this elegant grand dame has been hiding in plain sight. No shrinking backwater, the city was pivotal in both the American War of Independence and the American Civil War. Indeed on my first morning in the city I take a boat trip out to Fort Sumter and discover that the first shots of the latter rang out across Charleston Harbor in 1861.

Historic sites ripple around the tentacles of this vast waterway, everything from forts through to the first submarine (the H.L. Hunley) to sink a battleship (the USS Housatonic) in 1864 and the hulking aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown, a legacy of the massive naval base that used to dominate the city. Vast plantations too still stretch off around a state where history is still very much of the palpably living variety.

It took the twin blows of the closure of that naval base in 1996 and the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 to really kick off Charleston’s rebirth as a tourist hub. Government rebuilding funds were channelled wisely and a new breed of younger entrepreneur was encouraged to inject life into the swathe of historic buildings.

There was a rich architectural template. Charleston boasts one of the most cohesive historic cores of any of the southern US states with the unique one room wide Charleston Single House a highlight. These striking time warps come with a wee privacy door, yellow cypress walls, face south or west for the ocean breezes, and are usually neatly topped with Welsh slate.

Today the privations and mosquito ridden swamps the first settlers endured have been replaced by a newfound confidence that marries the historic with the modern. My base, the stately Hotel Bennett, is the perfect microcosm. It sports lashings of old world charm. I half expect Rhett Butler to swagger in, but it only opened earlier this year. In the lobby the clock ticks back to colonial era afternoon tea, while upstairs smooth dance tracks soothe revellers in the rooftop bar and swimming pool.

The city’s restaurants have also undergone a revolution and are a major reason that Charleston keeps winning accolades, including Conde Nast Traveler’s Best Small US City award last year. I don’t suffer a bad meal all week. Highlights include the old school Charleston Grill where refined local seafood and US Prime Beef steaks star. The new face of the city emerges at the buzzing Prohibition with no sign of alcoholic privations on their cocktail list and in their on trend sharing plates. The Darling Oyster Bar nods towards France with its stone seafood bar, but quickly hotfoots it back to South Carolina with boat fresh seafood and that brand of beaming service still rare in Scotland.

On a couple of nights I don my kilt – always a useful barometer of an area’s Scottish links. I knew about North Carolina’s strong Scottish connections, but had heard little of its southern sibling. I encounter much more than the usual Braveheart tinged vague nostalgia in Charleston. I learn that this was a city founded on commerce rather than principle and all comers were welcome irrespective of religion, handy for Presbyterians unwelcome elsewhere.

The tangible evidence of this religious freedom are a brace of deeply historic churches. The gloriously literal First Scots Presbyterian Church dates back to 1731 when a dozen Scottish families strove for a venue for their own non-Anglican worship. The second incarnation – you guessed it – the Second Scots Presbyterian Church, sprang up on the same street in 1811, the brainchild of 15 devotees under a Reverend Andrew Flinn.

It’s notable for lending its bell to be used to forge Confederate cannons during the civil war. It served as a beacon for subsequent waves too of Scots-Irish (the local term for Ulster Scots). It became a literal beacon as it also helped shipping safely navigate the harbour.

It doesn’t end there as one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Calhoun Street, is named after one of its most famous sons, John C. Calhoun, who served as US Vice President from 1825-1832 and in the Senate too. The surname derives directly from the Scottish Colquhoun and he was said to have been deeply proud of his roots.

Pushing beyond the spectacular peninsula that neatly frames the historic city the Scottish connections grow faster than the rice and cotton that built Charleston. There is McLeod Plantation, acquired in 1851 and named by a man with surely the most Scottish name in South Carolinian history – William Wallace McLeod. It’s now a heritage site that examines the state’s controversial history, including the Slave Trade.

Then there is the Caledonian Plantation, an old rice plantation, given its roots now fittingly home to a golf course and lavish Boone Hall, a plantation that hosts a Highland Games every September. Indeed South Carolina is uncannily similar to Scotland in size and population – this American sibling even has its own monster, who lurks in the depths of Lake Murray.

Roaring away from Charleston’s increasingly busy airport I reflect on what the guy behind the counter at the Tavern, which claims to be the oldest liquor store in the US, told me. In front of shelves where bourbon lies stacked cheek by jowl with Scotch, he beamed, “We’ve always had plenty of Scots here and I don’t just mean in the store. I get the feeling we’ll be getting a lot more soon.”

I leave glad to have been part of a vanguard that is surely just the start of a more pacific wave of new arrivals into this most charming of southern port cities.

British Airways ( fly to Charleston from London Heathrow – return flights start at £547. Lonely Planet’s Georgia and the Carolinas guide sports useful information as does