NQ Scottish History

Irish emigration to Scotland in the 19th and 20th centuries

Early emigration

The Irish were by far the largest group of immigrants to settle in Scotland. With fares from as little as 6d for a deck passage from Ireland to Greenock, emigration to Scotland was a regular feature of Irish life before 1830. In the 1820s, 6000–8000 Irish per year were making the harvest migration. By the 1840s this had grown to 25,000 over the agricultural season.

Most of the emigration, however, was on a temporary basis, peaking during important times in the farming calendar, such as harvest. In the summer of 1841, 57,651 Irish, mainly male labourers, crossed to England and Scotland to work on the harvest.

There was no attempt to form permanent settlements, although with the development of cotton weaving, the construction of railways and the general expansion of the economy, the foundations of Irish settlement were beginning to be laid in Scotland. Prior to the great famine of 1846–7, emigration from Ireland could best be described as a trickle. After the famine it became a flood.

The impact of the Irish famine

According to the census of population, the Irish-born population of Scotland stood at 126,321 out of a total of 2,620,184 in 1841, or 4.8%. Ten years later it stood at 207,367, or 7.2%, out of a total of 2,888,742. This compared to 2.9% for England and Wales. During 1848, the average weekly inflow of Irish into Glasgow was estimated at over 1000, and the figure for January to April of that year was put at 42,860.

Between 1841 and 1851 the Irish population of Scotland increased by 90%. As the century progressed the numbers of Irish immigrants dwindled to 3.7% in 1911, or 174,715; the respective figures for England and Wales were 1%, or 395,325. The census figures, however, underestimate the total strength of the Irish community in Scotland as they record only those people who were Irish-born; children of Irish immigrants born in Scotland were classified as Scottish.

Settlement of the Irish

Because of their poverty and poor state of health, Irish immigrants tended to settle in or around their point of disembarkation, which meant the west coast of Scotland. The nearest counties to Ireland, Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire, had substantial Irish populations by 1841. The famine pushed the numbers up to 16.5% of the population in the former.

Dumfries-shire saw its Irish-born population stand at 5.9% in 1851. The Irish also made their way to the east coast, particularly to Dundee, where a large female Irish community was established. Edinburgh had only a small Irish community of 6.5% of total population in 1851. However, it was the industrial areas of the west of Scotland which saw the largest concentrations of Irish immigrants, with almost 29% of all Irish migrants settled in Glasgow, but the smaller industrial towns of the west also had substantial Irish communities. The population of Coatbridge in 1851 was 35.8% Irish.

Occupational structure


  • Photograph of Dundee Jute Works, about 1900

On the whole, the Catholic Irish settled wherever muscle and strength was in demand, and as such they found their way into coal mining, dock work and labouring of all kinds. It was estimated that in Great Britain in 1851, somewhere between a half to three-quarters of all dock-labourers and two-thirds of miners were Irish.

Many also found their way into the less skilled jobs of handloom weaving and other textile work. Irish women, for instance, made up 44.3 per cent of female textile workers in Greenock in 1851. However, due to the operation of sectarianism, their lack of education and, in many cases, their language (which was Gaelic), the Irish were under-represented in the more highly paid skilled trades.

Religious divisions and tensions

Their lowly occupational status and their willingness to work for less than the going rate did not endear Irish Catholics to the Scottish working class. Indeed, their religion was a factor which gave rise to discrimination from all sections of Scottish society. Since the Reformation, Scotland had been a Protestant country and Catholicism was largely anathema. Attacks on the Irish became commonplace in newspapers, pulpits and on the streets.

As late as 1923, the Church of Scotland could still publish a pamphlet entitled ‘The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality’. The Irish were seen as drunken, idle, uncivilised and undermining the moral fibre of Scottish society. They were also seen as carriers of disease. Typhus, for example, was known as ‘Irish fever’.

Although the accusations had some force, they had nothing to do with ethnicity and more to do with poverty. The incidence of fever among the Irish was due to their unsanitary housing. It was also because many of the immigrants who arrived fleeing the famine were so weak that their resistance to disease was low. The Irish-born in Dundee constituted 20% of all burials in 1848, whereas seven years earlier they had only constituted 5%.

Irish communities

In spite of the hostility of the host society and their poverty, Irish Catholics demonstrated a tremendous capacity to build sustainable local communities. One study of Dundee showed that in the early 1860s there were only two Catholic churches and three schools, one of which the Dundee Advertiser described as a ‘cellar under the Chapel’, serving a community of around 20,000.

Within 10 years the number of churches and schools had doubled, all financed to a large degree out of the contributions of low-paid workers. However, the situation was still dire as in 1876 there were only 192 Catholic schools staffed by 171 teachers and 357 pupil teachers. The Catholic Church also provided other services of a recreational and social kind. Indeed, there was little need for Catholics to go beyond the bounds of the Church since all their needs were catered for.

Even the late 19th-century working class obsession with professional football was catered for by the setting up of Hibernian FC in Edinburgh and Celtic FC in Glasgow. The Irish Catholics had become a community within a community and this was strengthened by the degree of inter-marriage. In Greenock it was found that in 1851 80.6% of Irish men and women had found marriage partners amongst their own kind. Forty years later the numbers were still high at 72.4%. Such a situation made it difficult for the Irish Catholic to assimilate into the mainstream of Scottish society.

Irish protestant emigration

The same charge could not be levelled at the Protestant Irish. As Catholic Irish immigrants declined in number in the late 1870s and 1880s, the Protestant Irish took up the slack. Most of these new immigrants came from the most Orange counties of the north, such as Armagh. There had been historic links of an economic and religious kind between the west of Scotland and Ulster.

Even the Church of Scotland recognised that in their 1923 attack on the Catholic Irish ‘[no complaint can be made about] the presence of an Orange population in Scotland. They are of the same race as ourselves and of the same Faith, and are readily assimilated to the Scottish race’. Thus, the Protestant Irish faced nothing like the level of discrimination endured by the Catholic Irish.

Sectarian rivalry

The arrival of Ulster Protestants with their Orange traditions increased the pace of sectarian rivalries. The Catholic Irish had, of course, borne the brunt of attacks from all quarters of Scottish society since the 18th century but the assaults tended to be unsystematic and random. Even the arrival of the Irish in large numbers after 1846 only provoked occasional skirmishes between the rival communities at sensitive moments in the religious calendar, rather than full-scale conflict.

As the Irish made few inroads into skilled employment and kept themselves very much to themselves, there was little for the native population to fear. Although certain parts of Glasgow and other towns became associated with Irish Catholics, there never occurred a process of ghetto-isation as had developed in Liverpool or Belfast. Residential mixing created a shared sense of grievance among slum dwellers, whether Catholic or Protestant, and this did much to reduce tensions.

Moreover, there was little political danger from the Irish in the 19th century. Most Irish males did not qualify for the vote as they failed to put down roots long enough in any one constituency to satisfy residential qualifications. Disqualified in large numbers from voting until reform of the franchise in 1918, the Irish, with the encouragement of the Catholic hierarchy, directed their political energies towards Home Rule for Ireland. Those that could vote gave it to the Liberal Party as the only party which might deliver on the subject of Home Rule.

With the partition of Ireland in 1921, the Irish became more embroiled in the politics of their adopted country. They overwhelmingly supported the Labour Party and this allowed them access to mainstream political life in Scotland. As part of this concord, the state provided for segregated religious schooling out of income from the rates, which led to numerous protests from Protestant churches about putting ‘Rome on the rates’.

The greater the progress of Irish Catholics, the greater it seems was the paranoia of the Protestant community. In the 1930s, Protestant extremist groups, such as the Scottish Protestant League (SPL) in Glasgow and the Protestant Action Society (PAS) in Edinburgh, made significant short-lived political capital out of sectarian rivalries. In Glasgow, the SPL won 23% of the total votes cast in the 1933 local elections, and similar impressive gains were made in Edinburgh by the PAS a few years later.

The Second World War brought an end to sectarianism as both communities put themselves behind the war effort. After the war there was a greater spirit of ecumenicalism and in this atmosphere sectarianism was pushed to the margins of Scottish society. Scots of Irish Catholic descent were able to make their way in Scottish society and many took advantage of the greater opportunities opening up in education. Moreover, the economic supports of sectarianism were breaking down as the old heavy industries went into decline and new companies, usually of foreign ownership, adopted religiously blind hiring policies.

Sectarian rivalries still exist in Scottish society, but on a much reduced scale. However, the assimilation of Irish immigrants into Scottish society has taken place without the level of violence found in other places, such as Liverpool, and this remains one of the major achievements of modern social history.