The tale is in the leaving
Why do so many Scots leave their homeland? It cannot be because some winters are harsh. Where do countries put all the Scots? There are hundreds of thousands down the centuries, emigrants by force and by choice.
I was one, twenty-five years ago. After creating exciting pioneering work in Scottish arts, setting up companies, institutions, literary outlets, broadcasting slots, doors closed. The London boys didn’t like competition. Working for ‘British’ arts is fine ‘n dandy, Sandy, but independent, you’re a menace, Dennis! Get thee to the Americas.
Like many another I was born into a deprived household, yet managed to carve out the start of a career by dint of getting a good, traditional elementary and higher education in Scotland. (Let no one claim Scottish education is remotely backward. It has transformed the lives of millions, including today’s smug Scottish unionists.) I decided to find work abroad to sustain a vocation but I was repeating history. Scotland, a prosperous, vibrant nation, was still the emigration capital of the world haemorrhaging souls.
Earlier last century aunts and uncles had taken the £15 grant and emigrated to Australia. They exchanged bleak winters and starving pigeons for noisy kookaburras and constant sunshine. And yet, prime minister Harold MacMillan told us ‘We’d never had it so good.’
The view from 1707 and the Act of Union.
A recorded two million and more Scots left Scotland between the end of the first quarter of the eighteen century and the start of the First World War. A hundred years of steadily decreasing population, a figure that doesn’t include tens of thousands of Scots killed in that obscenity of a war England called ‘For King and Country’.
No matter what the malignant Tory and Ukip party say about keeping English jobs for Englishmen, all people of all nations have traversed the globe looking for work and trade since Marco Polo travelled to China and back. They will keep doing it, English included. It’s getting forced to leave your homeland that is the problem.
My musician grandfather was an immigrant from Westport, County Mayo, Ireland, one of many poor Irish who chose Scotland as their adopted home. His wife was an English immigrant to Scotland. My Sicilian father can testify Scotland’s emigration didn’t get close to the eight million exodus of Italians from his country, but as a small nation Scotland’s vanishing point left it vulnerable to English priorities. In a nation of less than four million, to lose half your population is a political and economic disaster.
Take our most mentioned examples of small countries Scotland should emulate, Norway and Ireland; they suffered fluctuations in prosperity and famine like Scotland, but whenever there was a surge of emigration we Scots beat them in number hands down and cases packed every time.
The 1800’s saw the Gaels lose over half their crofters and cottar families from the West Highlands. In their wake departed farm workers, ploughmen, shepherds, cattle breeders, blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, stonemasons. Our main cities saw some of them first but many decided abroad was the place to go.
Of evictions and pioneers
My research began in earnest when I was working on an original television script about the Highland Clearances. It was for the small screen not the big one because I know the difference between a suite and a symphony, and anyhow, I wanted the most people possible to see a significant aspect of Scotland’s history.
At the time I was privileged in making friends late in his life with historian and avid Scotiaphile John Prebble. He had a whole library of scholarship to impart. Through him I was surprised to learn almost all the colonial medical profession in North America in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth were Scots, or trained by Scots in Scotland.
Kith and kin that screwed their courage to an envisaged ideal went to North America. Those looking for land to farm went to Canada, a lot to Nova Scotia, and just as many to Australia and New Zealand. A few decided South Africa a good destination.
Wherever they settled Scots were assimilated quickly by the local population compared to sallow skinned Italians or poor Irish workers. Those Scots with skills, especially in leadership and diplomacy, were soon in government employment. Wherever they settled they made a deep and lasting impression on the development of the land and its life.
If you’ve never read a history book you know that from watching the movies, such as the populist Molly Maguires for the Irish, and The Godfather trilogy for the Italians. We see more dramas concerned with Italian and Irish Americans than Scots because those communities have built a strong political presence in America, but Scots are catching up.
A thing called leverage
Emigrant Scots had experience of working within a reasonably efficient capitalist system. Many were descendants of people who had participated in the Scottish Enlightenment and were themselves a product of those exciting times that electrified the world with new thinking and radicalism in economics, science, medicine, philosophy, and religion.
The Scots arrived with practical skills and knowledge. They had solutions not problems. They had vision, and a degree of authority of the personality that was valued.
Hard work and hard conditions didn’t bother them much. That gave them a distinct advantage over uneducated Italians and Irish – though not the advanced Italian aesthetic in design and architecture. That took Italians to Hollywood set making, to opera houses, made them produce growers and sellers, clothes and interior designers.
Historical records show as many as half of Scots emigrants were skilled or semi-skilled tradesmen. New emergent nations desperate for skills and experience welcomed them with offers of jobs, land and grants. Japan, too, found a place for businessmen ready to export its goods, and handle its shipbuilding. The urge was outward.
Most people can name Andrew Carnegie, novelist R. L. Stevenson, and Allan Pinkerton Scots who made their mark abroad. Others made their name in London such as Peter Pan’s J. M. Barrie before their reputation spread abroad. Others were just as successful in small business enterprise.
Scots shopkeepers could be found all along the western frontier running trading posts, and sheep farmers helped create and nurture vast flocks in Wyoming, and Montana. I used to wonder why I kept hearing cowboys with Scots accents, or actors with Scottish names in western movies until I did some homework.
American history books record that Donald Mackay and John Dickie practically invented shipbuilding in New York. American banks benefitted from the doctrine of Adam Smith imported by Scots bankers, the real philosophy of Adam Smith, that is, not the corrupted one we hear now so often misquoted.
The Australian experience
In Australia expat Scots were able to borrow from their banks back home and reinvest it in their personal enterprises. That fact took me by surprise. The generally held image of Scottish emigration is of the Victorian kind, and with some justification, harrowing images painted on large canvases of destitute Highland families sitting forlorn among meagre possessions at the dockside. Indeed, when trying to find information on the ships that transported them to the Americas I discovered some Highland women refused to defecate on board ship without privacy among passengers, so unused to loss of dignity were they.
It is true that women and children died on the journey. But to discover so many were what can be categorised as middle-class, is a surprise. They went where there was work for them, and many did well out of it.
I have to add there are instances in Australia’s New South Wales where tough Highland Scots were brutal to the Aborigine tribes in an effort to appropriate the land the tribes lived off. Some kept young women as mistresses while presenting them as servants. Those historical details are told in Don Watson’s Caledonia Australis.
One famous pioneering Scot, Angus MacMillan, who married a Gaelic speaker arrived by boat, practically opened up Gippsland in the south-east region. There is a statue to his memory. Macmillan was an uncompromising Presbyterian with a bad temper. It was his undoing. He hunted down and wiped out a small tribe at Warrigal Creek when he thought they had kidnapped a white woman. The massacre is legend. (His sexual obsession is a backstory in itself.) The kidnapped ‘woman’ turned out to be a ship’s figurehead that had washed up on a beach. The Aborigines were worshipping it as an icon.
When you go to America…
America and Canada absorbed a great many skilled Scots. They went there for higher wages than they could ever secure in their homeland. Canadian officials, for example, keen to acquire new blood, recognised the influx from Scotland could open up new territories and establish new settlements. That in turn meant laying new railroads to distant places in the prairies. Canadian Pacific Railway softened the hardships of long journeys by building ready-made farms for the emigrants, with all the extras of barns and cattle fences thrown in. Those seductive inducements were incentives to make a life where there was hope.
Many came home again. Newspapers, ever looking for the negative story, were filled with examples of the weary and the failure. Just as many (like me) made the USA their summer place of work, and returned to Scotland for the winter and family, money in their pockets. One such group was Aberdeen’s granite masons. Coal miners did the same thing, took advantage of seasonal work in the US. And the more tradesmen did this the more they brought home tales of overseas opportunities and great conditions of employment.
It’s from that ebb and flow that we Scots took up the annoying habit of overlooking ability under our nose, yet praising it when it returns home. Does the Scottish cringe have its beginnings in the myth the grass is greener on the other side? To be a Scot working in Scotland is somehow a lowly position on the social scale than when working abroad.
At any rate, emigrants brought back news of wonderful lands, and people who treated Scots and the Scots language with respect.
No wonder so many took advantage of places to settle, assisted passages, land parcels, grants, and superior living conditions. They could create their own mini-society, their own Little Scotland.
A friendship with Poland
In the sixteenth and seventeenth century we put on our warm coats and gloves and set off in our tens of thousands for Poland – hence so many places in Poland with Scottish names and Poles who came to Scotland to make a new life. We exchanged small-time merchants and labourers. That friendship resulted in a steady influx of Poles from about the 1850’s. That association had its roots in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mother. She was Polish.
Elementary history books show us indisputable evidence the most draconian emigration in the nineteenth century was enforced, steered by severe economic pressures – placed first on the Highland and Islands population, then on people living in towns and cities – by an uncaring, aggressive London elite. They imposed a landlord culture as a means of taming Scots and grabbing land, a unique situation, not even migrant Poles had experienced.
The unionist slogan ‘Better Together’ has to be one of the most ironic in human history.
England’s ills and solutions
To be scrupulously fair, England suffered emigration too, but not on the scale of the Scots haemorrhaging. It does not have vast tracts of land and villages derelict. Nevertheless, the contempt shown, the complete lack of empathy for Scotland’s plight, is curious.
To begin with, Scotland’s worst periods of widespread poverty are in great measure a direct result of England’s arrogant, hopeless rule. There were patches, the years of tobacco lords that drove Glasgow’s rapid expansion, for example, where playing enthusiastic employee to England’s Victorian empire was very attractive, and for the few very lucrative, but no one can claim the wealth accrued benefitted the common good. Secondly, you’d think knowledge of England’s own historical deprivation and emigration would make emollient antagonistic English; they might stop claiming Scotland is an economic basket case. But they do not.
To help with its economy and rebuilding, England enticed people from the Commonwealth with the promise of ‘full British’ citizenship, Scots and Irish included. We were given ‘British’ passports and nominally addressed as British, never English. Now England wants to repatriate non-English. We have reached a stage where, eternally suspicious of Johnny Foreigner, English denies Scots the right to govern its own immigration system.
The wild contradictions inherent in the English colonial mentality would embarrass the grandest diplomat with a conscience.
Though racists will never admit it, England created modern England with the help of its colonies. Scots, ever mindful they were essentially an English colony, took their skills and energies elsewhere and many succeeded.
When skills are called upon, charge fees
Last year saw the population of Scotland rise over the 5 million mark for the first time in its history. But emigration has not reduced. For some this is not good news; they worry the movement for genuine self-determination now relies on the good will of incomers. Then again, a good many incomers are choosing Scotland as a place to live because English society has become less tolerable politically and socially.
It is to be profoundly hoped immigrants from all nations will respect their ‘new found land’ by voting for its permanent sovereignty and governance. They should join with Scots in closing the sluice gates of British corruption and fantasy economics. As a nation state Britain does not exist. It isn’t a unitary state, it isn’t an English state. It never was.
Westminster removes Scotland’s oil estates, takes its taxes and tosses back pocket money, withdraws its regiments, refuses share of its pound, burdens Scotland with debts it never created, and blocks its right to grow and mature. What reason is left to justify continuing with a decrepit Union that lingers on, suffering acute arrhythmia?
Scots taking flight isn’t the answer.
Scotland’s emigrants helped shape nations. Hence, we have all the skills and experience needed to reform our own. There should be no hesitation. What confident nation ever rose up only to demand its abolition?
I’ve omitted specific dates and government Acts to keep the narrative flowing. The curious should consult the many history books on the subject, or contact the NRS.
Most emigration records are kept in London – no surprise, but the National Records of Scotland (NRS) has this to say: “We hold records of the Highland and Island Emigration Society, 1851-1859, set up by private subscription to alleviate destitution in the Highlands by promoting and assisting the emigration of Highlanders to Australia. Their passenger lists for the years 1852-1857 have survived and are organised by ship and by family and record the name, age and residence of each emigrant (NRS ref. HD4/5). You can search the index to this online at the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website. A state-aided scheme was set up in the 1880s to assist emigrants from Lewis and Harris to settle in Manitoba, Canada. Names of the emigrants involved in this scheme appear in the files of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (NRS reference AF51).”
- The Highland Clearances John Prebble
- The Scottish Exodus James Hunter
- To the Ends of the Earth T.M. Devine
- Scots Colonists of America David Dobson
- The Poor Had No Lawyers Andy Wightman
- Farewell My Children Richard Reid
- The Fatal Shore Robert Hughes
- Oceans of Consolation David Fitzpatrick