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Causes of Emigration

Valerie Galbraith

Throughout history Scots have been both driven and allured to seek their fortune throughout the world.

Most observers blamed the mass emigration from Scotland in the 17th century on the power of feudalism, a system of short leases and high rising rents which tenants could not afford.

Sir William Brereton travelling in Scotland in 1635 was told that in the two years prior to his visit more than 10,000 people had gone to Ireland from the district between Inverness and Aberdeen alone, many blaming landlords and rising rents. However, Brereton blamed the ignorance and neglect of agriculture. He noted that although salmon were plentiful in Scotland and coal abounded the landscape was bare of timber and the fields were exhausted and scantily manured with seaweed and lime. As the farmers of the time could not afford to enrich the soil or let the land lie fallow they would try to extract as many as six or seven crops from the same soil.

When Samuel Johnson was travelling in Scotland in 1773, more than a century later, government by the state was rapidly taking the place of self-government by the clans. The chiefs themselves were degenerating from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords and further increasing rents. So although the cause of emigration was still unaffordable rents, Johnson blamed the decay of the old feudal system .

Merchants, scholars, adventurers and soldiers from Scotland found their way to every European country. Ten thousand Scots served for France in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453); Scots formed the Scots Guard of Louis XI; thirteen regiments fought for Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the Thirty Years War (1618-48); it was a Scot who was Field Marshal to the Emperor of Prussia and another who helped consolidate the Russian Empire of Czar Peter the Great. After the union of the crowns in 1603 all Scots were forbidden to travel to England without express permission from the Privy Council; this encouraged them to travel further afield. Some went to Nova Scotia in 1624, some to the Isthmus of Darien in 1696. In 1650 Cromwell deported five thousand Scots to the American colonies. Many Scots followed Prince Charlie into exile after the "Forty Five". Lord Dundas, the effective ruler of Scotland for 30 years in the late 18th century, placed many Scots in high positions under the Indian Government.

Discontent at Home

This address was made to the newspapers during the Crimean War (1854-56) by the men of Sutherland in fear of being thought cowards for not fighting:
"We have no country to fight for, as our glens and straths are laid desolate, and we have no wives nor children to defend as we are forbidden to have them. We are not allowed to marry without the consent of the factor, the ground officer being always ready to report every case of marriage, and the result would be banishment from the country. Our lands have been taken from us and given to sheep farmers, and we are denied any portion of them, and when we apply for such, or even a site for a house, we are told that we should leave the country. For these wrongs and oppressions, as well as for others which we have long and patiently endured, we are resolved that there shall be no volunteers or recruits from Sutherlandshire. Yet we assert that we are as willing as our forefathers were to peril life and limb in defence of our Queen and country were our wrongs and long-endured oppression redressed, wrongs which will be remembered in Sutherlandshire by every true Highlander as long as grass grows and water runs."
James Boswell (1740-95) provided some interesting perceptions about emigration: He describes a general discontent in the Highlands where tales were told of countries where men could have land of their own, and eat the produce of their labour:
"Those who have obtained grants of American lands, have, as is well known, invited settlers from all quarters of the globe; and among other places, where oppression might produce a wish for new habitations, their emissaries would not fail to try their persuasions in the Isles of Scotland, where at the time when the clans were newly disunited form their Chiefs, and exasperated by unprecedented exactions, it is no wonder that they prevailed."
Boswell queries whether or not the "mischiefs of emigration" were seen immediately. Those who went first were the ones who could be most easily be spared, but the accounts they sent home, whether true or false, induced many to follow. Entire neighbourhoods went together so that departure from their native country was no longer exile. They took everything with them that made life pleasant.
"He sits down in a better climate, surrounded by his kindred and his friends: they carry with them their language, their opinions, their popular songs, and hereditary merriment : they change nothing but the place of their abode; and of that change they perceive the benefit.
This is the real effect of emigration, if those that go away together settle on the same spot, and preserve their ancient union. But some relate that these adventurous visitants of unknown regions, after a voyage passed in dreams of plenty and felicity, are dispersed at last upon a Sylvan wilderness, where their first years must be spent in toil, to clear the ground which is afterwards to be tilled, and that the whole effect of their undertaking is only more fatigue and equal scarcity."
Boswell explains how both accounts are suspect. The emigrants would enhance their experiences in order to attract others to follow, as the greater numbers would make their endeavours easier. One emigrant to Nova Scotia wrote home describing the climate as being like that of Italy. The owners of the islands in Scotland would for similar selfish reasons spread stories of American hardship in order to keep people content at home.
"Some method to stop this epidemick desire of wandering , which spreads its contagion from valley to valley, deserves to be sought with great diligence. In more fruitful countries, the removal of one only makes room for the succession of another: but in the Hebrides, the loss of an inhabitant leaves a lasting vacuity; for nobody born in any other part of the world will choose this country for his residence, and an Island once depopulated will remain a desert, as long as the present facility of travel gives everyone, who is discontented and unsettled, the choice of his abode."
James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd (1770-1835), described emigration thus:
"I know of nothing in the world so distressing as the last sight of a fine industrious independent peasantry taking the last look of their native country, never to behold it more. I have witnessed several of these scenes now and wish I may never witness another; for each of them has made tears burst every now and then from my eyes for days and nights, and all the while in that mood of mind that I could think about nothing else.
I saw the children all in high spirits, playing together and amusing themselves with trifles, and I wondered if those dear innocents, in after life, would remember anything of the land of their nativity. They felt no regret, for they knew that they had no home but where their parents were, no staff or stay but on them. They were beside them and attending to all their little wants, and they were happy.
How different the aspect of the parents! They looked backward to their native mountains and glades with the most rueful expression of countenance. These looks never can be effaced from my heart; and I noted always, that the older the men were, their looks were the more regretful and desolate. They thought, without doubt of the tombs of their parents and friends whose heads they had laid in an honoured grave, and that, after a few years of the toil and weariness collateral with old age, they were going to lay down their bones in a new world, a far-distant clime, never to mix their ashes with those that were dearest to them.
Alas! the days are gone that I have seen! It is long since emigration from the Highlands commenced; for, when clanship was abolished, as far as government edicts could abolish it, the poor Highlanders were obliged to emigrate. But never till now did the brave and intelligent Borderers rush from their native country, all with symptons of reckless despair.
It is most deplorable. The whole of our most valuable peasantry and operative manufacturers are leaving us. All who have made a little money to freight them over the Atlantic, and procure them a settlement in America, Van Diemen's Land, or New South Wales, are hurrying from us as from a place infected with the plague.
Every day the desire to emigrate increases, both in amount and intensity: in some parts of the country the movement is taking place to an immense extent. In the industrious village of Galashiels, fifty-two are already booked for transportation. In the town of Hawick, and its subordinate villages, are double that number. My own brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces are all going away; and if I were not the very individual man that I am, I should be the first to depart. But my name is now so much identified with Scotland and Ettrick Forest, that though I must die as I have lived, I cannot leave them."
© 2000