IT is only in recent decades that mass emigration from Scotland has become a thing of the past, but it is still likely that just about every family in this country contains at least one relative who now lives permanently abroad, most probably from a previous generation.

I personally have an aunt who long ago became an American citizen and I have cousins in Australia that I have never visited, and I suspect most people over the age of 50 could say much the same.

Why did this happen? Why are there so many Scots in the diaspora? What made them leave their homes, be it in glen or city, to go to another country?

I believe that for many decades from the 1750s up until the mid-20th century, Scotland had a culture where emigration was not only tolerated but often encouraged. In my recent researches into the subject, I have also concluded that, the Highland Clearances apart, the biggest driver of emigration was the sheer need to improve one’s lot.

As reported last week, Professor Sir Tom Devine’s statement on the causes of mass emigration from Scotland from the 18th century right up to the start of the 20th century encapsulates my feelings precisely: “Overwhelmingly in the 19th century and into the 20th century, Scottish emigration was mobilised by the desire for upward social mobility, by the desire for more success.”

Devine is the pre-eminent historian on the subject of Scottish migration – emigration and immigration – and there can be no argument with this statement contained in his masterful book The Scottish Nation A Modern History:

“Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, three countries, Ireland Norway, and Scotland topped the league table of central and western European countries with the highest rates of emigration per head of population…during four great surges of emigration (in the 1850s, 1870s, the early 1900s and again in the inter-war period) Scotland either headed this unenviable championship or came a close second to Ireland. If movement to England is included in the statistics, Scotland then emerges as the emigration capital of Europe for much of the period.”

That’s a devastating but highly accurate conclusion. Were we too wee, too poor, or did we just think the grass was greener on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall and across

the oceans?

In one of her many excellent pieces on the subject of migration Marjory Harper, the University of Aberdeen’s highly respected professor of History, quotes G. Bisset-Smith writing in 1907: “The Scots are a notoriously migratory people.”

The Clearances in the first half of the 19th century most certainly had their effect. Perthshire had a population of 142,166 in 1831, but by 1871 it was down to 127,768. In Argyllshire, the population was estimated at 100,973 in 1831, but had fallen by more than 24,000 to 76,468 in 1881. Inverness-shire saw less of a fall, but still a decline – from 94,799 in 1831 to 90,454 in 1881.

A report into the phenomenon concluded: “As emigration was proceeding rapidly from these areas, we may reasonably infer that a large percentage of it was due to unemployment, consequent on the change from arable to pasture land.” In other words, sheep and cattle taking over from crofters and small tenancy farmers.

Abject poverty was widespread in the Highlands and Islands throughout the 1800s. Due to improvements in health – most notably through the vaccination that dramatically reduced smallpox – the population was actually increasing but that in turn caused competition for land, jobs and housing and often emigration was the only answer.

There had been attempts to industrialise the coastal areas but the failure of fishing, linen and kelp industries led to high unemployment in the Highlands, especially after the First World War.

They left in their thousands, including one 18-year-old girl from a dirt poor Lewis croft called Mary Anne MacLeod, the mother of President Donald Trump who arrived in New York with just $50 in her pocket but determined like several of her siblings to make a new life in the USA.

FROM the 1870s on, emigration became something of an urban phenomenon as well. Living conditions were desperate in the slums of several cities and towns..

Often, dangerous working conditions down mines or in shipyards and factories were exacerbated by low wages and several industries were hit by sheer lack of demand for many individual years in the period between 1850 and the Great Depression of the 1930. What was also very much the case was that Scotland had a culture of emigration being seen as a good thing. From the 1870s, orphaned children were sent to new families in the New World by William Quarrier.

The YMCA was active in helping boys emigrate in the first half of the 20th century. The British Women’s Emigration Association was founded in 1901 to help middle-class educated women emigrate.

In her brilliant essay on Scottish emigration to Canada, Harper points out: “Philanthropy spawned a clutch of emigration societies, devoted to the care and relocation of disadvantaged women, unemployed artisans and destitute children.

The Aberdeen Ladies’ Union (1883-1914) was one of a number of small organisations that attempted to meet Canada’s incessant demand for domestic servants, with the objective of redressing the imbalance of the sexes in both locations, offering recruits better employment prospects than were available at home, and providing supervised passages for a category that might otherwise hesitate to cross the transatlantic border into the unknown.

“The Salvation Army, which in the early 20th century claimed to be the world’s largest emigration agency, was active in Scotland both before and after the war, providing assisted passages and employment advice for single women, unemployed men

and juveniles.

“Child migration was more commonly – and controversially – associated with institutions such as Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland, which between 1872 and 1930 sponsored the emigration of 7,000 of its wards to Ontario as part of its wider programme of rescue and rehabilitation.

“Pejoratively described as ‘home children’, these emigrants, sent out by a host of British institutions from largely urban backgrounds, had to negotiate not only the obvious physical transition to rural Canada, but also the more challenging cultural borders that separated them from their Canadian counterparts and often led to their long-term stigmatisation.”

Often that meant Scots turning their back on their native culture, or else meeting in secret – freemasonry was highly popular among emigrants – or in many cases of emigrants to Canada, heading over the border to the USA. To Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, plus England, Scotland lost between 10% and 47% of what should have been a natural population increase in every single decade in the 1800s.

There was a huge surge in emigration in the “poor years” of the early 1900s, and overall there was a drift southwards, with Highlanders often moving to the Central Belt or going further south. Statistics show that in the period 1841–1931, some 749,000 Scots moved to various parts of Britain compared with over two million who emigrated abroad.

The 19th century saw emigration from rural Scotland but by the early part of the 20th century, it was skilled workers who were the largest category of emigrants, with almost half of men emigrating just before the war in that category.

As one report put it: “Only 29% categorised themselves as labourers. Unskilled labourers seemed to prefer emigrating to Canada and Australia, while skilled workers favoured South Africa and the United States. The middle classes strongly preferred South Africa.”

SO it wasn’t just poor farmworkers and labourers. Nor did they lack encouragement to go. Numerous assistance schemes were put through Parliament over the decades, with £10,000 being set aside to help emigrant crofters

in 1883.

One report to Parliament in 1911 noted: “The powers in possession of local authorities should be sufficient to enable them, at no onerous risk, to assist in the colonisation or emigration of persons or families from their own localities. (c) The congested districts of Ireland and of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland form an exceptional case and require relief by assistance to industries, to colonisation or emigration and, where suitable,

to migration.”

Again the problem was the lack of opportunity for a growing population. The first decade of the 20th century saw an increase of much more than those who emigrated, but in the post-war slump and the Great Depression the numbers leaving to find work abroad rose hugely.

The consequences Scotland faced were predictable. Edwin Muir wrote in his Scottish Journey in 1935: “Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character. If a country exports its most enterprising spirits and best minds year after year, for 50 or 100 or 200 years, some result will inevitably follow.”

In a couple of his books, Devine quotes the observation of Joe Duncan, secretary of the farm servants union, writing just before the outbreak of war in 1914: “There has been a fairly steady stream of emigration from the rural districts of Scotland, rising at times into something of a torrent, such as we have just had with in the last three or four years. It is interesting to note the counties from which emigration has been the greatest. By far the greatest emigration has taken place from the counties of Elgin, Nairn, Banff and Aberdeen. This is probably accounted for by the fact that there are fewer industries in these districts and less chance for farm workers changing occupation within their own districts.

“It is in these counties, too, that the largest number of single men employed on the farms are to be found, while the fact that it is the custom there for the bulk of wages to be paid at the end of the six months, produces a system of involuntary saving which provides the young men with the necessary cash to pay for passage abroad.

“The emigration has been less in the counties south of this where the wages are higher and the opportunities of entering other employment are greater. Emigration has generally been to Canada, Australia coming next

and increasingly, and then, much behind these New Zealand and the United States.

“Emigration has helped to increase wages and has also contributed to the independence of the workers remaining. It is the case today all over Scotland that there is a scarcity of suitable men for the farms and although there now seems to be a slackening in emigration it is not likely that any large increase in the number of competent men will

take place.”

The government was still keen on emigration, however. After the war, it set up the Overseas Settlement Committee to help former soldiers emigrate – the Lan Fit for Heroes couldn’t find them jobs, while the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 provided funds for those who wanted to emigrate.

One aspect of emigration which must be touched on is propaganda. People were encouraged to write home to tell their families how wonderful their new life was. Newspapers published glowing accounts of successful emigrants. In short, emigration was made attractive. Prof Harper’s work on such media activities is well worth researching.

All these emigrants had their individual stories. Some went on to great fame and fortune, such as Andrew Carnegie from Dunfermline. Others became mainstays of their communities, but most just go on with make a new life for themselves. Unlike the Irish, we do not make enough of our Scottish diaspora. Maybe they could teach us a thing or two.