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. Like many another deprived Scot I managed to carve out a career by dint of getting a good, traditional elementary and higher education. Let no one claim Scottish education is remotely backward. It has transformed the lives of millions, including today’s smug Scottish unionists. I sought work abroad only to sustain my vocation. 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.
No matter what the malignant Tory and Ukip party say about keeping English jobs for English men, 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. Forced to leave your homeland is the problem discussed here.
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, Don Carlo Bernini, can testify in number Scotland’s emigration isn’t close to the eight million exodus of Italians from his country. Nevertheless, for a nation of less than four million to lose half its population is a disaster.
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 two main cities Edinburgh and Glasgow grew to accommodate the homeless – one family on top of the other in badly built tenements – 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.
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.
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.
It always surprises me to read of how quickly Scots were assimilated by the local population compared to (say) Italians or Irish workers, newcomers ostracised by the locals. If you’ve never read a history book you know from watching movies such as The Molly Maguires (Irish) and The Godfather trilogy, (Italian) the problems those races encountered. As for Scots, we behaved ourselves.
A thing called leverage
Emigrant Scots had experience of working under a reasonably efficient capitalist system. Many were descendants of people who had participated in the Scottish Enlightenment, inspired by new thinking and radicalism in economics, science, medicine, philosophy, and religion. Scots arrived with practical skills that could be put to good use. They had solutions not problems. They had vision too, and a valued authority of the personality.
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 to design movie scenery, to opera houses, or made them 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 J. M. Barrie author of Peter Pan.) Others were just as successful in small business enterprise. Scots shopkeepers set up stores 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, and actors with Scottish names in western movies until I did some homework.
American history books record that, for example, 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 theories of Adam Smith, that is, not the corrupted one we hear now so often quoted.
The poor and the middle class sought a new life in the Americas and Canada. When trying to find information on the ships that transported them I read some not only of the death of women and children, but also Highland women refused to defecate on board ship without privacy among passengers, so unused to loss of dignity were they.
The Australian experience
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. 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.
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.
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. Seductive inducements offer a good life where there is hope.
Some Scots failed, of course, and came home again. Newspapers, ever looking for the negative story, were filled with examples of the weary and the failure. Some returned with 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.
It’s from that ebb and flow Scots took up the annoying habit of overlooking ability under their nose yet praising it when it returns from abroad. At any rate, emigrants brought back news of vast lands and people who treated Scots and their language with respect. No wonder so many took advantage of places to settle, assisted passages, land parcels, grants, and superior living conditions. They created their own Nova Scotia.
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. Poles came to Scotland to make a new life. We exchanged small-time merchants and labourers. That friendship resulted in a steady influx of Polish from about the 1850’s, an association with 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 on the Highland and Islands populace. England’s power imposed a landlord culture as a means of taming Scots and grabbing land, not an unknown situation in other countries where people living off the land for generations have no documents to prove they own it.
The unionist slogan ‘Better Together’ has to be one of the most ironic in human history.
A place to call home
England suffered emigration too, but not on the scale of the Scots haemorrhaging. You will not find vast tracts of land and villages left derelict over rural England. And to be fair, Scotland benefited at one time out of the Union.
In days of the British empire Scots tobacco lords drove Glasgow’s rapid expansion; playing enthusiastic employee to England’s territorial ambitions was very attractive, and for some very lucrative, but no one can claim the wealth accrued benefitted the common good. It benefitted the few.
England created modern England with the help of its colonies. Scots, mindful they were essentially an English colony, took their skills and energies to England and elsewhere.
Be a nation again…
Today sees the population of Scotland rise over the 5 million mark for the first time in its history. Then again, a good many incomers are choosing Scotland as a place to live because English society has become less tolerable politically and socially. But Scots emigration has not reduced, not yet. I can’t think what will change that other than nationhood reinstated.
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