Where We Live

Generations Of Residents Settle Down In Scotland

Bette Thompson has lived in Scotland most of her life. She is a descendant of William Dove, the former slave who founded the area in 1879.
Bette Thompson has lived in Scotland most of her life. She is a descendant of William Dove, the former slave who founded the area in 1879. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

By Janet Lubman Rathner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 18, 2005

Little about the Potomac community of Scotland hints at its historic significance as one of the earliest African American settlements in Montgomery County or the subsequent treatment that nearly obliterated it.

Today, Scotland is a 10-acre enclave of 100 townhouses off Seven Locks Road, built with the assistance of grants and government funding in the 1960s. But the community dates back to 1879 when, for $210, former slave William Dove bought 36 acres of land at auction.

Other former slaves followed suit. Eventually 48 acres along Seven Locks Road, between what is now Tuckerman Lane and Democracy Boulevard, became a rural, African American community. Much of that land has since become subdivisions, a shopping center and part of Cabin John Regional Park. What is left of Scotland is now home to residents of various races and nationalities.

Clustered throughout the neighborhood, however, are families that have been part of the community for generations. They are the ones for whom the neighborhood was created. Their needs and financial situations dictated how the housing was set up. Those who could afford to -- 25 families as it turned out -- bought their townhouses when they were built. Everyone else rented; most of the neighborhood is still rental property, some government subsidized.

"I'm descended from the Doves. My grandmother's mother had 15 children. The row across from me" -- seven townhouses -- "all but two are cousins," said Scotland homeowner Bette Thompson, 69, who lives in a section her neighbors have nicknamed "Dove Land."

Thompson is president of the Scotland Community Civic Association. She said it used to hold monthly meetings, but interest has waned in recent years.

"We're trying to get people to come out. It's hard. We used to pay dues, but not in a long time. We've been talking about starting back up. We have to do something," Thompson said.

Initially called "Snakes Den" because of its rocky terrain, the area came to be known as Scotland in 1920. According to local legend, a sign bearing the name "New Scotland" was removed from a nearby property and relocated with the "New" painted over.

As the countryside around them gave way to subdivisions and shopping centers, financially strapped Scotland families began selling off their property to speculators. Surrounded by affluence, they continued to live in ramshackle homes of tar paper and tin.

"We didn't have bathrooms or running water. That tree was where a pump house was," said Scotland homeowner, Dove descendant and Thompson cousin Odelia Cooper, 68, pointing toward the front yard of the townhouse that has been her home since 1971.

Indoor plumbing was not the only amenity lacking in Cooper's childhood home; a wood stove supplied heat. Her family was among the handful in Scotland to have electricity. That meant they did not have to rely on kerosene lamps for light, as their neighbors did. It also made it possible for Cooper's mother to use a wringer washing machine instead of a tub and a scrub board, but "we had to go to the spring to get water for it," Cooper said.

Growing up during segregation and going to a community school attended only by Scotland children, Cooper said the inequalities of her situation did not resonate as strongly as they might have.

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