Many believe that the Scots in the Borders were driven out only by oppression and violence and forced to pastures new, however, that it seems is only part of the story.
This piece written by Hamish MacPherson and published in The National newspaper in August 2020, felt it such an interesting piece, we thought we would share it with you in full.
FAMINE has had huge effects on Scotland. The sheer lack of food caused by the failure of crops has on more than one occasion changed the history of this land. In the 1690s, for example, a series of failed harvests saw devastating famine across Scotland. Perhaps as much as 15% of the population died in what became known as the Seven Ill Years.
Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun estimated in 1698 that 200,000 people had been turned into beggars and vagrants, double the number of just a few years previously. In the 1690s and the first decade of the 1700s, as many as 100,000 people or more emigrated, many of them to Ulster. Very few went to England at this time – the Poor Laws there forbade assistance to immigrants, creating a “hostile environment” as modern Tories might say.
There then followed the Darien scheme’s colossal failure and as a direct consequence of famine and financial disaster, Union with England was sought, despite the fact that the majority of the Scottish people – and the majority of the English, it must be said – were against it. The English nobility’s obsession with securing the “correct” succession for Queen Anne overrode all other considerations, and thus famine and the bribery of a parcel of rogues changed Scotland’s status – but not, we earnestly hope, for all time.
The last two columns in this series dealt with the Highland Potato Famine and showed how, in the 1830s and 1840s, many people in the Highlands and Islands were driven to emigration to survive. The gaiseadh a’ bhuntata, potato blight, drove thousands south to the central belt, but many more to Canada and Australia in particular.
Now, in the first of a four part series on emigration and immigration, I am going to attempt to detail the often painful evidence of how Scotland “acquired” a diaspora in the 19th and 20th centuries, a diaspora which I contend we still make nowhere near enough of, and also provide the evidence to show how Scotland became and remains a “mongrel nation”, the famous phrase of the late great William McIlvanney that he used on Democracy Day in 1992 – I was standing near the bus from which he made his stirring speech. How we miss McIlvanney and his friend the author and journalist Ian Bell.
Emigration from Scotland in the 19th century was not a phenomenon localised to the Highlands and Islands. As Professor Sir Tom Devine – apologies for forgetting to mention last week his 1990 Saltire Prize winning-book The Great Highland Famine: Hunger, Emigration and the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century – showed in his magisterial 2018 work The Scottish Clearances:A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900, that the Lowland Clearances were a real and long-lasting phenomenon.
I attended Sir Tom’s talk with that fine broadcaster Alan Little at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in which he started by showing how Scottish society changed in the century from the Jacobite Rising of 1745 onwards.
The statistic that blew me away was that in 1750 one in ten Scots lived in urban settings, but by the census of 1851, it was one in three. By that latter census, 42% of Scottish men worked in mining and manufacturing. Devine showed how from the mid-17th century onwards, due to changed land tenure, clearance or dispossession, clearance was more thorough in lowland Scotland that in the Highlands and Islands.
Devine’s self-described “attack on orthodoxy” still resonates, but the fact that he backed up his assertions with an extraordinary mass of documents convinced me that he was and is correct – the Highland Clearances should be re-named the Scottish Clearances. Devine told his audience that there was no “folk tradition of removal or dispossession in lowland Scotland as there obviously has been and still is to this day in the Gaeltacht”.
BUT it happened all the same, in the Borders, in Ayrshire, and just about every area where the humble cottar, the tenant or sub-tenant farmworker, was removed by whatever means.
It happened as Scotland became an industrial society, perhaps the most advanced in the world at the time, so many people found work in the new industries. Many more left Scotland for a new life across the Atlantic or Down Under, especially to New Zealand, which by 1850 had a population that was almost a quarter Scottish or descended from Scots.
So now I will go against orthodoxy, too. Leaving aside the Lowlands, I believe the evidence shows that the Highland Clearances – by which I mean the enforced dispossession of people from the lands they tenanted – were largely over by the 1850s, yet emigration continued and even accelerated.
Many people wanted to leave their native land. Why? I’ve never heard it put better than by Devine at that talk: “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.”
Clearances at the point of bayonet and flaming torch were not the main driver of emigration of Scots, certainly in the second half of the 19th century, but the people were being deliberately deprived of ambition here.
Poverty and what we might now call austerity – a deliberate policy on the part of government and landowners of suppressing people’s incomes – backed with the creation of a cult of emigration and bribery caused the great outflowing of our people. As we saw last week, the Highland and Island Emigration Society was founded in the early 1850s at the direct instigation of Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, a man whose place in history has been cemented by his inclusion in the Irish folk song Fields of Athenry, in which a young man is deported to Australia because he “stole Trevelyan’s corn”. The civil servant Trevelyan’s role in the Great Famine in Ireland is well known, but his involvement in Scottish emigration is much less so.
Trevelyan was a student of the economist Thomas Malthus and a racist, who basically believed that the Irish and Highland Celts were inferior – he wanted to import Germans – but played his part in the relief boards set up following the famine of 1846-47, though his basic belief never altered that emigration was the key to solving the problem of recurring famines. Though he is much criticised, Trevelyan at least took the time to visit Scotland – his second marriage was to an Islay native, Eleanor Anne Campbell – and he became an associate and colleague of Sir John McNeill, the former surgeon charged with investigating the causes and possible remedies for the 1846-47 famine. A Highlander himself, McNeill reported to the Board of Supervision which was in charge of applying the Poor Laws of 1845 to Scotland.
McNeill visited at least 27 parishes affected by the Highland Potato Famine, and while he promoted relief work – much of it coordinated by the Free Church of Scotland and charities – he concluded that overpopulation was the root cause of the problem, a Malthusian view shared by Trevelyan.
THIS in a part of Scotland that had fewer people in 1851 than it did in 1801, and it was in 1851 that the Government in Westminster, passed the Emigration Advances Act to help landlords pay the fares of those who wished to leave Scotland – bribery by any other description.
In Devine’s To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750–2010, McNeill is quoted as writing of “large-scale emigration of the ‘surplus’ population as the only way forward.”
Their destination would be Australia. McNeill and Trevelyan obtained funds from Westminster, Scottish landowners, charitable donors, and also the fledgling governments of Australian states.
In effect, as Devine has suggested, the Highland and Island Emigration Society was a quango, and it was certainly connected to high places – its initial pamphlet in 1852 listed Queen Victoria as a donor and Prince Albert as its patron. The London Committee of the Society sent out a begging letter to the great and the good saying this was a “final effort to put an end to the misery that is breaking the spirit and degrading the character of our Highlanders, now that an absolute necessity of removing them has coincided with such an opportunity of providing for them elsewhere as never has, and perhaps never will, occur again”.
The Society was criticised for aiding and abetting the Clearances by unscrupulous landowners, but was praised for introducing one rule – initially, it would only convey families Down Under.
There were many deaths on the long voyages, but we know from the Society’s own well-preserved records that in 1852 alone some 17 ships carried Highland families to Australia, where the demand for experienced shepherds and farmworkers was high. Tales were sent back of how Scottish immigrants were making a huge success of life in Australia – many were, but some longed for home – and a culture grew up that made emigration seem like a better option. Over the next five years, some 5000 emigrants went to Australia and Trevelyan was able to declare it was “a popular movement”.
But was it? The fact that the numbers carried to Australia dropped right away in 1855 and only one ship left in 1857 when the Society ceased operations. This shows that the economic upturn which Scotland experienced in the mid-1850s was quite sufficient to stop mass emigration in its tracks. In other words, when people were able to earn a living, emigration was much less of an option.
From 1850 onwards, another sign of emigration being more voluntary than enforced was the choice of destination. Canada had always been a popular choice for Scots, but from 1850 onwards the USA became the go-to place for emigrants with, at one point, half of all emigrating Scots going to America.
They went to other places too, such as South Africa, and for many decades Scots could make a good career in the Asian sub-continent. Scottish administrators, engineers and soldiers were the backbone of the Raj through the 19th century and there is no doubt many families here were enriched by relatives serving over there.
Again there was a difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands. It may be an over-simplification, but by the second half of the 19th century it was Lowlanders who left to improve their economic lot, while emigration from the Highlands and Islands was often a matter of sheer survival.
The agriculture of the Highlands and Islands continued to be problematic. The Potato Famine of 1846-47 had seen many crofters and farmers change to a more mixed cultivation, but in 1882-83 there were widespread crop failures and it was reported in Parliament that the situation was nearly as bad as 1846.
A letter written by the Rev A Davidson of the Free Church of Scotland on Harris was read to the House of Commons: “I have had occasion lately to be extensively among my people, which afforded me an opportunity of knowing their state. Some said the destitution was not greater in 1846, the year of the potato famine, than in this year.”
The answer from the authorities was again emigration with a further avalanche of bribery. Next week we’ll see how it continued into the 20th century.