The tale is in the leaving
Why do so many Scots leave their homeland?
It cannot be because some winters are harsh. Sweden and Switzerland are just two countries that expect hard winters but we see few of their inhabitants desperate to lead a life elsewhere. 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 eighteenth 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 family married into Jewish families forced to flee from Nazi Germany.) 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, trading in slaves included, for some very lucrative, but no one can claim the wealth accrued did the poor any good.
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
Superbly and concisely written about Scots and their (almost limitless) potential. It is a pity that some Scots don’t believe in their abilities. The above post proved that given the right circumstances, another Scotland is truly possible. We Scots had prospered everywhere but Scotland.
It is indeed time for the people of Scotland to prosper in Scotland = )
Upon a time Grouse…
Heh. I’ve just erased a huge screed of text. It was a reply to your post which just seemed to grow in the reply box until it became a post of its own. Its enough to say, I understand how those folk felt who left because they had to.
Another but bigger , thank you.
Great research and fascinating history.
Let’s hope we can learn from it’s telling.
A lumpen troll corrects me; it appears Scotland’s role is to export its people. There are some unionists for whom hatred sustains the level of homicidal fury. PS: I enjoy your painterly site. Are you art school trained?
Oh, I always read your posts when I come across them. Try again if you can find time.
I left with lots of misgivings but came home again for the Referendum. I miss weeks of sunshine and walking about wearing only a T-shirt and short trousers
Crushing to have to admit so many Scots undersell themselves. I’m one.
Maybe at some other opportunity Grouse. Paul over on WGD allows me a vent or two from time to time. 😉
A very good blog on a very important topic. Scotland has for centuries losing it’s best and brightest to the rest of the world but mainly to England where our presence is ubiquitous.
My concern is that if we keep losing our best breeding stock for them to create fit , healthy and clever new Englishmen, Canadians, Australians, children, etc., what are we left with here?
The genetic loss alone is a major concern to any country aspiring to be a sovereign nation. If the unadventurous, unhealthy and unattractive are all we are left with to produce further generations of Scots, who does that suit? No answer required there. I am not advocating producing a master race here but we have to see the problems that emigration causes us.
Another recent development is EVEL which effectively excludes any Scottish MP from ever holding a cabinet post in a UK government (SS excepted). We are now not even allowed to reach the top of our so called union.
History holds the answers as you prove.
Keep up the good work.
Sir, that is what 300 years of being in this wretched Union does to you. I too suffer the same affliction. That is why I will be forever grateful that the indyref took place. It made me realise a lot of things and that no person is/should be limited by his/her sex, colour, religion etc.
But never again.
I promise you this, when time come (and it is very soon), this (honorary self-appointed) Scot in Malaysia will cross the ocean and help with the final push for independence. Nothing will stop an idea whose time has come.
I welcome your sentiments.
I can well remember my astonishment on arriving in my first German home, a small village in Bavaria, to find that it was thriving and had a strong cultural life of its own.
Now we are considering returning to the island for family reasons, and we are very clear on one thing: we’re not going to ‘England’ at any price. Scotland is obviously the more welcoming place for a European/Asian family and so Scotland will get the benefits of six years of professional German and Japanese training, degrees and schooling.
Interesting post & one that resonates strongly with me as both a descendent of Scots (& Irish) who emigrated to Canada & New Zealand in the 1800s & as a Scot’s born person who emigrated myself (only to return home again) in the late 20th.
My NZ (now naturalised Scot, OK, Brit of you must be pedantic) mother & my Glaswegian farther used to have (friendly) falling outs about the relative merits of those who emigrated & those who stayed. Mum claimed that those with get up & go got up & went while dad claimed only those who couldn’t hack it in Scotland left for foreign shores. I’ll leave it to others to decide who is right…
But one of the things that I noted during indyref1 was that my own NZ childhood has left me with a sense of confidence in being a Scot (& a Kiwi) that many fellow Scots seen to lack. NZ in the 1980s had nearer 3 million people but nobody thought that the country was to wee, stupid or poor to be an independent nation & that had rubbed of on me to the point where I struggle to see how anyone could think otherwise.
There are times when I wish I could go & live in a warmer country with a bit less winter darkness but nowhere feels like home as much as Scotland does. But I fear that I’m going to have to leave, go into exile, if Scots again decide to stick with the UK post-Brexit. I just can’t bear the thought of living amongst so many people who would lack the basic confidence of believing themselves capable of running their own affairs. Thankfully I have my NZ passport & my partner has her Irish one so we have options denied to many fellow Scots. And yes, I do feel a bit guilty about that.
On the subject of Scots who made their mark on the world, please check out Thomas Blake Glover who was instrumental in the development of modern Japan & is credited with founding the Mitsubishi corporation & being the ‘father’ of the Japanese Navy. Fraserburgh born & Aberdeen bred, not that many from the north east would be aware of him. The Japanese, on the other hand, still revere him & 2 million tourist visit his house in Nagasaki every year. Not bad for the 3rd son of a Coastguard Officer. (Aberdeen City Council’s virtual lack of interest in him is a whole other story…)
There’s a whole movie or even a television drama series in Thomas Blake Glover!
Your point about Scots abroad returning with a greater sense of self-worth than when they left is a valuable insight.
I’ve got relatives who live in Italy, Australia, Israel, USA, Canada, and probably a shedload more countries if I could be bothered thinking about it. And that’s based on emigration since WW2, and nothing to do with the clearances. I spent half my working life in the south of England. It’s called ‘opportunity’ and loads of people take advantage of it.
That’s not to denigrate those who left Scotland pre- or post- Culloden. People were trampled on. Small communities in many parts of Scotland suffer from the consequences to this day, and the right for crofters (and others) to buy out land only goes part of the way to address these old grievances.
Yet I’m back in Scotland; an uncle who was pretty senior in Air Canada ended back in Scotland; another uncle who was a world prawn expert also returned home as have others. Another uncle survived mayhem in Kenya yet returned to be a minister in Blantyre and then Kinloch Rannoch. A cousin lives in Leicester, yet I still occasionally speak to him. Another cousin lives permanently in the north of Italy, I have a relative in Hong Kong, I’m told, but I know nothing about her.
None of these left Scotland due to pressure, financial or political. But it’s what Scots do, and you find them all over the world. It’ll continue after Scotland’s independence.
On a trip to Vancouver I was welcomed by a piper with the surname Gonzalez. Like many, he’d kept the connection to Scotland strong in his heart. There are many (cough Trump) who maintain an emotional connection. One reason why Scotland gets zillions of tourists from all round the world. The whole business of ‘too poor, too wee, too stupid’ is one inflicted on Scotland by others who do not wish Scotland well.
Another cracker G.B.
My wife and me spoke aboot moving to either New York or Australia a few years ago but decided that we loved oor lives where we are here in bonny Dundee.
We both have jobs, a house and friends we love.
We were in New York for the 5th anniversary o 911 and got speakin to protesters wearing “BUSH DID 911” t.shirts and screaming abuse at his car as he and aboot a million security personnel drove past. My wife was shocked as she naively thought that all Americans loved their president. They didnay!
I got interested in politics when Obama became president. Something aboot his ‘Change’ campaign struck a wee cord with me.
I joined the SNP and over the next three or four years read more and more aboot world politics.
By the time the Independence Referendum was gettin spoken aboot, any talk of living anywhere but Scotland was oot the windee.
Seeing Alex Salmond on tv talking positively aboot meh country brought that “Change” to me.
The thought of turning oor backs on oor bra wee country when we’re needed didnay bear thinkin aboot.
So we’ll stay and continue to do oor wee bit and hopefully one day that “Change” will be oors.
(A wee bit added Dundonian there)
Happy new year to yi.
Ah that’s a shame as I’ve always liked your replies Macart. I usually say a wee ‘fuck eh’ when I’m readin them.
Dinny hud back next time.
A happy if not content New Year to you, WJ.
I hope you make that film/series then!
I wrote about this lack of confidence
in my blog back in 2014:
Scots seem to have a habit of founding Navies…
US Navy, certainly John Paul Jones
Chile, largely down to Cochrane (part inspiration for Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and some of Hornblower’s exploits).
Samuel Greig in Russia (1735-88), reformed the Baltic fleet and modernised, in the end 30 Russian Scots held Flag rank before things ended badly in 1917…
Glover was exceptional in Japan.
Amazing what Scots can achieve given a chance and hard work.
“nothing to do with the clearances…. It’s called ‘opportunity’”
That’s the point of the essay, Del – even beyond the clearances, there is a severe lack of opportunity within Scotland.
I myself went to sea as there were no available jobs on land. I have since returned ashore, but that has been in Singapore and now West Africa. I would love to come back to Scotland, but realistically I can’t see that being before I retire.
Exactly. And of course a nation must have all the political powers and mechanisms to create opportunity.
SMB, that’s a bit of a misreading of what I went on to say.
I had a perfectly good job in Scotland, but was looking for – let’s say – promotion, and I looked elsewhere. The best job available at the time happened to be in the south of England. It was not a question of poor job opportunity in Scotland.
None of which removed my Scottishness, my belief that Scotland needed to be an independent nation. Colleagues in the South of England misunderstood that, sometimes wilfully, which increased my desire for independence but not enough that I was going to walk out of the job.
I do understand that people are forced to work elsewhere when opportunity doesn’t exist in Scotland. But people can choose to work abroad even when opportunity exists within Scotland. I wouldn’t call it an ‘internationalist’ attitude, but I would say it’s a willingness to look beyond borders. In exactly the same way that some people stick within their own home town even through unemployment while others decide to move. And not always to avoid the shackles and impoverishment of the community where you were brought up. Some are forced to move for negative reasons. Others choose to move for positive reasons.
Anyway I’m now retired. I could have gone for a cosy cottage in the Cotswolds or maybe one of these ghastly retirement towns on England’s south coast. But here I am back in Edinburgh: it’s home, it’s handy for the hills, and it has bags of intellect and culture. And I get to take parts on sites like this …
How can I put this sensitively? Scottish emigration (and from other European countries) was largely caused by tragic circumstances at home, as you explain in your excellent essay, but the results were even more tragic for the native peoples in the lands they emigrated to who were subjected to various forms of oppression, victimisation, racism, enslavement, apartheid, extermination and outright genocide. In which of these emigrant countries are the first nation peoples in charge of their own affairs?
Who would not wonder what type of Scotland we would live in if the union had never happened. Imagine that ability to persuade most of our own and best talent to remain and help enrich our country and culture.
I would not say everything would have smelled of roses, but that offensive Scottish cringe would never have existed. I honestly reckon within five years of having independence we will not recognise ourselves as both a people and a country and will berate ourselves for having lived so long under Westminster rule.
At least our kids will not have the same shite-chip on their shoulders.
PS. I finally got the chance to watch the “Hunt for Winderpeople”, me and the wife loved it.
There’s a paragraph spoken by a teacher in my Gibraltar essay – currently going viral again because May and her cronies avoid mention of it when telling us we shall have to lump Brexit – that answers your insightful remark about throwing off the negative inheritance of a colonised nation. You should read it. It took Gibraltarians only ten years.
The essay is ‘A People Betrayed.’
Thanks GB. I have read your essay, did a quick check the teacher said 10 years to change the attitude of all. I can’t wait to feel that way. Your essays will help pave the way, keep it going. Cheers.
A small thought on your excellent piece. You say that Scots had leverage, “That gave them a distinct advantage over uneducated Italians and Irish – though not the advanced Italian aesthetic in design and architecture.”
That’s true of the 20th Century but I think not so much in the 18th or 19th Centuries.
A few examples: John Smibert (1688–1751) born in Edinburgh, was the first academically trained painter to work in America. Painting more than 250 portraits after he moved to Rhode Island in 1728 he also worked as an architect designing Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
Robert Smith (1722-1777) born in Dalkeith has been called, “America’s most important 18th Century architect.” His buildings are mainly in and around Philadelphia. A century later, the architect John McArthur (1823–1890) born in Bladenock, also worked in Philadelphia designing the City Hall. When completed, this was the tallest occupied building in the world.
The architectural sculpture on the City Hall is by Alexander Calder, from Aberdeen. (His grandson, also Alexander Calder, became one of the most significant sculptors in the 20th century best known for his mobiles.) Daniel Cottier (1837–1891) from Glasgow introduced the Aesthetic Movement to America and was an important influence on Louis Comfort Tiffany… There are others.
As Scotland’s contribution to the visual arts is often marginalised, the artists and designers who emigrated from here are even less likely to be mentioned. Don’t think there has ever been much research into them but they could be the subject of a lavish book or even a series of exhibitions. That may have to wait till after independence. I just wish it would hurry up!
Great piece as ever. Thank you
You make some interesting points, and remind me there’s an essay on Scotland’s emigrant artists. (I penned one on our 20th century painters : ‘A Fart in the Wind’.)
One of those early artists was Scottish and black as coal, by the name of Hamilton.
Aye, read your piece on 20th Century painters again and noticed i had left a response on that too. Should stop meeting like this but I like your posts too much!
Treat my essay site as a 24-hour-open corner store staffed by a friendly counter assistant. 🙂
Once again I get my history education on this blog. Excellently produced and written as usual. It is another accusation to level at our colonial masters that we were not allowed to know about such things, while being educated in one of the best educated systems in the world. Ah well, not everything is perfect and Scotland, under Westminster rule, has never been near that! I once visited the house of MacDonalds in Glencoe. Now basically a ruin with only foundations to be found. That this should be done on orders of Government is beyond contemplation but far worse has been done to Scotland since the union, and it will continue until we do something about it. Carry on with the good work, I enjoy these posts.
We are at the cross-roads of hope and despair. Choose hope.
Wonderful essay! My Australian friend asked me just the other day about the Scottish Clearances and I couldn’t tell her much. I never was told about this when growing up in the 1950’s in Scotland. Was there a reason we were never told about this in primary school? I will be sending your essay to Shirley so she can understand how her family ancestors came to be sailing to Australia, one of whom sadly died on the voyage.