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Stories from the Scotsman
A far-flung people

THE Scots have always been wanderers, from the days of the itinerant Celtic monks. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, Highland regiments, recruited from a wrecked, post-Culloden clan system, were often in the vanguard of imperial expansion. The Scottish soldier found favour as a mercenary in the armies of Sweden, Denmark, Bohemia, France, and as far back as the Hundred Years’ War, Joan of Arc’s triumphant soldiery is said to have sung the tune later used for Scots Wha Hae.

But it was in the past three centuries that emigration reached endemic proportions. Romanticised images such as Thomas Faed’s The Last of the Clan or grainy photographs showing emotional farewells on packed quaysides have embedded themselves in Scottish iconography .

Other waves of migration that tend not to come under the romanticising spotlight are the 17th-century "plantation" of Ulster, for instance, which helped sow the seeds of today’s divisions in Northern Ireland; or the spread of our "forgotten diaspora" along trade routes into the Baltic countries and eastern Europe, with Scots merchants, soldiers and others stepping ashore and putting down roots in places such as Riga, Gdansk, Gothenburg and Archangel.

Emigration of large numbers of Highlanders began in the 1730s, when the Duke of Argyll got rid of the "tacksmen", the farmer-soldiers who had been integral to the clan system.

The years following Culloden made life untenable for many Highland communities, and between 1763 and 1773, some 20,000 Gaels crossed the Atlantic . Whole communities might emigrate, such as the 33 families and 25 single men from Ullapool who sailed to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773.

The landowners’ drive for agricultural improvement advanced the displacement , most notoriously during the clearances when thousands were evicted from their townships, often to non-viable coastal sites. In Sutherland, between 1807 and 1821, almost 10,000 people were cleared.

There were other ways out - the emerging Highland regiments, or the lure of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which by 1800 was recruiting more than three quarters of its personnel from Orkney.

Meanwhile, Australia started to beckon. In 1839 Melbourne was described as "almost altogether a Scotch settlement" . The diaspora infiltrated every corner of the globe, which is why you can still hear Gaelic spoken in Tierra del Fuego .

While the songs of the Gael echo the anguish of exile, the oppressed weren’t beyond oppressing either. The songs neglect the shameful episodes, such as the Warrigal Creek massacre in Victoria, when 100-150 Aboriginals were herded into a river and shot dead by Highland settlers. Similar atrocities occurred in Tierra del Fuego, where Scots were among those responsible for the genocide of the Ona Indians. Elsewhere, cultural contact was more amicable.

An inordinate number of Scots found themselves at the sharp end of empire-building, as soldiers or administrators - during the second half of the 19th century, a third of all colonial governors were Scots.

Emigration continued well into the 20th century. While many simply moved south, some half a million Scots left for foreign shores. In talent, enterprise and expertise it was Scotland’s loss but the world’s gain, immeasurably so.

Thursday, 13th September 2001
The Scotsman

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