NQ Scottish History

Emigration and Scottish society

Emigration from Scotland

In 19th-century Scotland, emigration was the result of both force and persuasion. Until about 1855, a number of the emigrants from the Highlands were actually forced to leave the land because of evictions. In the Lowlands, the decision to move abroad was nearly always the outcome of the desire to improve one’s living standards. Whatever the reason, Scotland lost between 10% and 47% of the natural population increase every decade.

The scale of the loss was only greater in two other European countries: Ireland and Norway. However, even these countries were dwarfed by emigration from Scotland in the years 1904–1913, and again in 1921–1930, when those leaving (550,000) actually exceeded the entire natural increase and constituted one-fifth of the total working population.

Leaving the Highlands

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The eviction of Highlanders from their homes reached a peak in the 1840s and early 1850s. The decision by landlords to take this course of action was based on the fact that the Highland economy had collapsed, while at the same time the population was still rising.

As income from kelp production and black cattle dried up, the landlords saw sheep as a more profitable alternative. The introduction of sheep meant the removal of people. The crofting population was already relying on a potato diet and when the crop failed in the late 1830s and again in the late 1840s, emigration seemed the only alternative to mass starvation.

The policy of the landlord was to clear the poorest Highlanders from the land and maintain those crofters who were capable of paying rent. The Dukes of Argyll and Sutherland and other large landowners financed emigration schemes. Offers of funding were linked to eviction, which left little choice to the crofter. However, the Emigration Act of 1851 made emigration more freely available to the poorest.

The Highlands and Islands Emigration Society was set up to oversee the process of resettlement. Under the scheme a landlord could secure a passage to Australia for a nominee at the cost of £1. Between 1846 and 1857, around 16,533 people of the poorest types, mainly young men, were assisted to emigrate. The greatest loss occurred in the islands, particularly Skye, Mull, the Long Island and the mainland parishes of the Inner Sound.

  • Photograph of evicted Family, Lochmaddy, Outer Hebrides, 1895

After 1855, mass evictions were rare and emigration became more a matter of choice than compulsion. Between 1855 and 1895 the decline in the Highland population was actually less than in the rural Lowlands and certainly much lower than in Ireland. The Highlands experienced a 9% fall in population between 1851 and 1891, while Ireland in the same period faced a 28% fall. The Crofters’ Holding Act of 1886 gave the crofters security of tenure and this also slowed down the process of emigration. Between 1886 and 1950, over 2700 new crofts were created and a further 5160 enlarged.

However, despite the increase in the number of crofts, the exodus from the Highlands continued. In 1831, the population of the Highlands reached a peak of 200,955, or 8.5% of the total population of Scotland. In 1931, the comparable figures were 127,081 and 2.6%. In the west Highlands, for every 100 persons in 1831 there were only 59 in 1951.

Destinations abroad


Photograph of emmigrants in New York, 1907
Although much of the decline in population was the result of permanent migration south, a substantial number left for the New World. Indeed, those who were removed from the land in the phase of evictions of the 1840s and 1850s generally refused to move to Lowland Scotland. They preferred to settle in Canada in places such as Ontario and Nova Scotia (New Scotland), where they could remain in touch with the land and maintain their style of life.

In Nova Scotia in the first half of the 19th century, 59% of UK settlers were Scots-born. From 1853, the USA became the main destination for over 50% of emigrating Scots, although in some years New Zealand seemed a better choice and by 1850 Scots made up a quarter of the population there.

The Lowlands

Keeping in touch with the land was not a consideration for the urban emigrant from the Scottish Lowlands. The decision to emigrate from this part of Scotland was purely voluntary. Indeed, emigration was seen by trades unions and other voluntary groups as a practical solution to unemployment and economic depression.

Lowlanders were moved to leave their birthplace by a combination of low wages, poor housing conditions and unemployment. The high points in emigration statistics corresponded with years of severe economic depression. These occurred in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the mid-1880s, and the period 1906–13.

Emigration was so heavy in the period 1871–1931 that it more than offset the increase in the population due to new births. This trend was brought to a halt in the 1930s as the world trade depression saw emigrants returning home. Indeed, the numbers leaving Scotland in the 1930s were at their lowest for a century.

Many emigrants of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were from middle-class backgrounds. Historians have commented on the ‘high quality’ of early Scottish settlers, among them doctors, merchants, farmers and a host of other occupations. But as concerns grew at home over the ‘surplus population’, the social status of emigrants underwent a significant transformation: from the Highlands it was landless peasants; from the Lowlands it was unemployed craftsmen, labourers and small farmers. The country of settlement tended to be Canada. In fact, in the period 1825–1835, over 70% of emigrants from Scotland settled there.

By the 20th century, things had changed substantially. The skilled worker was the largest category of all those social groups who emigrated from Scotland. Indeed, in 1912 and 1913, 47% of adult male emigrants from Scotland described themselves as skilled, compared with 36% of those from England and Wales. Only 29% classed themselves as labourers.

It seems also that, as the 19th century wore on and emigration became more of an urban phenomenon, with one’s social standing determining the country in which one settled. Unskilled labourers tended to opt for Canada and Australia, while skilled workers preferred South Africa and the USA. The middle classes strongly preferred South Africa.

Of course, many Scottish emigrants found a place nearer home, in England, particularly after the 1920s. In the period 1841–1931, around 749,000 Scots moved to other parts of the UK compared with over two million who emigrated abroad. It was during the economic depression of the inter-war years that there was a shift from emigration overseas to migration to other parts of the UK, mainly to England. By 1931, the number of Scots in England equalled those from Ireland, whereas 60 years earlier, the Irish outnumbered the Scots by a margin of two to one.

However, for the best part of the period 1830–1939, the opportunities were seen as being greater abroad, particularly in North America and Australia. The outflow of people was made easier by the revolution in transport. The steamship did not dramatically alter the cost of passage from Scotland to the USA, but it did reduce greatly the travelling time.

In the 1850s it took around six weeks to cross the Atlantic; in 1914 it took only a week. The reduction in travelling time allowed for temporary migration as well as permanent - something unthinkable in the days of sailing ships. Also, if things did not work out in the New World then the price of a steamship ticket brought you back to your native land in a week; indeed, by 1900, a third of those who had left had returned. Emigration seemed less risky in the age of the steamship.

Emigration in the 20th century

During the 1920s and 1930s the principal aim of the emigrants was to find work and wages and escape mass unemployment at home. This mostly 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.