NQ Scottish History

The effects of migration and empire on Scotland to 1939

The tradition of the movement of Scots continued well into the 20th century. Until 1989–1990 there had been only one year (1932–3) in which Scotland experienced a greater inflow than outflow of people. During the 19th century and again in the 1920s and 1930s, the principal aim of the emigrants was to find work and wages and to escape unemployment at home.

This trend has generally most affected the age group 16–29, skilled rather than unskilled workers, and men rather than women. Although most of the emigrants were able to make a better life for themselves and their families abroad, the impact on Scotland has been less favourable.

Many of the most productive and talented Scots have left their birthplace to enrich, both economically and culturally, other countries at the expense of their own. The empty glens of the Scottish Highlands are an eloquent testimony to this process. And although these out-goers have been replaced to a certain extent by newly arriving immigrants, the movement into Scotland from elsewhere has never been enough to seriously balance the numbers.

Emigration acted as a safety valve for modern Scotland. Large numbers left for England but many went abroad in a world-wide dispersion. The British Empire was the main beneficiary of this process, but Scotland also benefited in terms of wealth and profit.

The great commercial palaces of Edinburgh and Glasgow were built on the back of the colonial trade. It was not only profits but also jobs that were dependent on Empire. Indeed, Empire provided the economic glue which held the Union together. Politically, it allowed for the creation of a Unionist electoral bloc in Scotland from 1884 onwards, based on Presbyterianism, patriotism and empire.

  • Old photograph of Jamaica Street in Glasgow.

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Immigration - an overview