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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


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A recruiting poster for the Canadian Mounted Rifles.

Crossing borders: Scottish emigration to Canada

Marjory Harper, University of Aberdeen

'The Scots', observed G. Bisset-Smith in 1907, 'are a notoriously migratory people'. (1) The tradition of global wandering, established in medieval times, enabled them to capitalise on imperial opportunities created by the parliamentary union of 1707, and in the nineteenth century almost three quarters of emigrant Scots (around 900,000 individuals) crossed the Atlantic. Although most were bound for the United States, they made a distinctive and lasting impact on Canada, where they had established a significant beachhead in the eighteenth century, and until 1847, more Scots went to Canada than to any other destination. The senior Dominion regained its primacy with Scottish emigrants in 1907, cementing that position in the 1920s, when the impact of US quotas and the Empire Settlement Act combined to steer emigrants north of the American border.

In recent years, a vibrant scholarly and popular interest in the Scottish diaspora has generated several studies that have explored how Scottish emigrants to Canada negotiated both the obvious physical borders involved in relocation, and the economic, social and cultural challenges of settling in a new country. (2) The initial hurdle was the decision to forsake familiar people and places in anticipation of better prospects overseas. That decision was particularly difficult for highlanders, whose emigration has provoked more debate and denunciation than any other aspect of Scottish emigration, even though after 1860 they were numerically eclipsed by the exodus of urban lowlanders.

Before 1800, highland emigrants were simultaneously driven away by economic, social and demographic dislocation resulting from rising rents and agricultural restructuring, and enticed by the offer of generous freehold land grants to former soldiers, many of whom came from the now-redundant tacksman class. (3) After 1815, when the highland economy crumbled in the face of post-war recession and repeated subsistence crises, the mercantilist antagonism of landlords and government to the haemorrhaging of the population was transformed into an active Malthusian approbation of emigration as the only alternative to tenant congestion and starvation, as well as proprietorial bankruptcy. On 25 August 1849 The Scotsman claimed that 20,000 highlanders had emigrated to Canada during the previous decade, a tally that increased in the early 1850s as Outer Hebridean landowners in particular responded to persistent famine with intensified subsidised emigration programmes.

It was in the mid-nineteenth century that the negative concept of enforced exile became firmly embedded in the psyche of emigrants and commentators alike. Canada's chief immigration agent, Alexander Buchanan, was scathing in his condemnation of the deliberately inadequate provision made by some landlords who, having chosen Canada for its proximity and cheap access, despatched maximum numbers of emigrants at minimum cost and expected his department to foot the bill for onward travel from port of landing. But greater opprobrium was heaped on infamous evictors, particularly John Gordon, for the brutal recruitment techniques allegedly used in rounding up emigrants from his estates in Barra and South Uist. As numerous instances of unwilling exile were publicised by bards, politicians and journalists, notably Alexander MacKenzie, highland emigration – in all eras and circumstances – was presented as an uninterrupted tragedy of savage, comprehensive clearance, and any concept of voluntary relocation was expunged from the popular and public mind. (4)

In 1883, the royal commission appointed to enquire into the eruption of highland discontent into the so-called crofters' war uncovered universal crofter and cottar hostility to a phenomenon that was equated unambiguously with eviction. Yet, following the commissioners' recommendation for selective state-aided emigration of the more impecunious cottars, in 1888-9 the government allocated 10,000 towards the settlement of 465 northern Hebrideans on Canadian prairie homesteads. That small-scale experiment in state-sponsored colonisation was beset by financial and administrative difficulties, and reinforced the highlanders' antagonism to emigration as a solution to poverty and congestion. (5)

Only in 1923 was there a remarkable about-face, when, within a single week in April, 600 Hebrideans embarked on two Canadian Pacific liners at Lochboisdale and Stornoway, many of them taking advantage of the year-old Empire Settlement Act to secure subsidised passages to Canada. That unprecedented state funding was even more heavily utilised by lowland artisans who grasped the opportunity to escape from the grip of depression and unemployment that blighted the heavy industries of the central belt after the First World War. (6) While many of them sought industrial work in the northern USA, it was common practice to emigrate to Canada and subsequently cross the border, often illegally, benefiting from subsidised passages and circumventing American quota regulations.

The urban artisans who emigrated under the auspices of the Empire Settlement Act found it difficult to make the transition back to the farming careers that they were required to pursue in Canada – and the other dominions – under the terms of the legislation. During the nineteenth century, however, rural lowlanders had been attracted to Canada precisely because it offered the prospect of crossing the border from precarious tenancy to independent owner-occupation of land, in direct contrast to the erosion of farming opportunities at home. Since the eighteenth century, the steady commercialisation of lowland agriculture – involving the eradication of smallholdings and swingeing rent increases – had been frustrating the landholding ambitions of small tenant farmers and farm labourers alike, as proprietors sought to maximise production by creating ever bigger farms. In such circumstances, disgruntled agriculturists were highly receptive to assurances that, in Canada, they could purchase a good farm for the equivalent of a year's rent at home, and in due course bequeath the property to their children. (7) They anticipated that such a step would bring not only economic betterment, but also the enhanced status associated with Canada's allegedly classless society.

Encouragement and assistance to cross the boundary of the broad Atlantic was mediated in various ways. The most powerful persuaders were pioneer settlers, particularly if they enclosed remittances in their letters of advice, or returned home to orchestrate the removal of family, friends and neighbours. Those who lacked access to family networks could be persuaded by newspaper advertisements, guidebooks, or the recruitment campaigns of paid agents. By the end of the nineteenth century, battalions of professional agents had extended their tentacles into the remotest corners of Scotland, delivering lectures, and arranging passages, land settlement or employment. The federal government, acutely aware of the need to populate the empty prairies, stationed resident government agents at strategic locations throughout the British Isles, including Glasgow from 1869, Aberdeen from 1907 and Inverness from 1923. As well as supervising the recruitment activities of itinerant representatives of the dominion and provincial governments and railway companies, they were responsible for overseeing the work of thousands of amateur booking agents and were expected to counteract American and Antipodean competition. (8)

From time to time, those who lacked financial resources, as well as access to networks, might be sponsored by charitable societies. In the late 1810s around 4,000 Scottish handloom weavers, victims of the post-Napoleonic depression and the invention of the powerloom, were assisted to Upper Canada by a combination of government subsidies and the funds raised by 35 emigration societies that sprang up in Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire. (9) Half a century later, the Victorian commitment to evangelical philanthropy spawned a clutch of emigration societies, devoted to the care and relocation of disadvantaged women, unemployed artisans and destitute children. The Aberdeen Ladies' Union (1883-1914) was one of a number of small organisations that attempted to meet Canada's incessant demand for domestic servants, with the objective of redressing the imbalance of the sexes in both locations, offering recruits better employment prospects than were available at home, and providing supervised passages for a category that might otherwise hesitate to cross the transatlantic border into the unknown.

The Salvation Army, which in the early twentieth century claimed to be the world's largest emigration agency, was active in Scotland both before and after the war, providing assisted passages and employment advice for single women, unemployed men, and juveniles. Child migration was more commonly – and controversially – associated with institutions such as Quarrier's Orphan Homes of Scotland, which between 1872 and 1930 sponsored the emigration of 7,000 of its wards to Ontario as part of its wider programme of rescue and rehabilitation. Pejoratively described as 'home children', these emigrants, sent out by a host of British institutions from largely urban backgrounds, had to negotiate not only the obvious physical transition to rural Canada, but also the more challenging cultural borders that separated them from their Canadian counterparts and often led to their long-term stigmatisation. (10)

Once the decision had been reached, and the arrangements made, the Atlantic itself posed an obvious border – or limbo-land – between the emigrant's old and new life. Until 1835, emigrants were told to prepare for a twelve-week voyage, and to leave as early in the season as possible, in order to plant a crop and effect a settlement before winter. If they could afford it, they were advised to enter the country via New York and the Great Lakes, thus avoiding the hazardous St Lawrence, which was also ice-bound between October and May. The replacement of sailing vessels by steamships in the second half of the nineteenth century drastically reduced the hazards – as well as the length – of the voyage, although the transatlantic crossing remained an endurance test, particularly for steerage passengers, well after 1900.

Settlement patterns were often shaped by ethnic considerations. Highlanders in particular, with their penchant for extended family and community emigration, prioritised the companionship of their countrymen in the new world, and built up Gaelic-speaking enclaves in Cape Breton Island, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Glengarry, and the prairie colonies of Killarney and Benbecula. Painful experience of congestion and eviction in Scotland probably led them to crave larger acreages than lowlanders, as well as immediate land acquisition, which they sometimes coupled with widespread squatting and a reluctance to cultivate large parts of their holdings. Lowlanders, who favoured Upper Canada, tended to be more cautious and commercial, were willing to work for wages at first in order to secure a better property, and took greater care in choosing and operating their farms. Yet although they were more likely to emigrate as individuals or in nuclear families, and the proximity of compatriots was a bonus, rather than a requirement, lowlanders too established regional frontiers and networks within Canada. Initial group settlements such as the Aberdeenshire township of Bon Accord, established in the 1830s fifty miles west of Toronto, were reinforced by chain migration of north-eastern Scots from within Canada, as well as new arrivals from the other side of the Atlantic, while the city of Hamilton provided a network of Scottish banks, insurance companies and tradesmen to service the needs of its hinterland of lowland farming communities. (11)

Emigrants' expectations embraced far more than the practicalities of finding a farm or a job, making a living, and passing on a material inheritance to their children. 'We'll take Scotland with us, a kingdom of the mind', declared the patriarch of the highland emigrant family in Frederick Niven's western Canadian novel, The Flying Years. (12) Many emigrants negotiated the cultural borders of relocation by planting a series of ethnic anchors that rooted them simultaneously in two worlds, allowing them to integrate memories and institutions of the homeland into an unfamiliar environment. For highlanders, the Gaelic language was the most obvious symbol of their heritage, but emigrants from all over Scotland reproduced the place names, architecture, hierarchies, and institutions of their former life.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, founding or joining a Scottish church was probably the major mechanism through which emigrants transferred their identity to Canada. Although they also exported their sectarianism, many settlers, clergy and observers acknowledged that, irrespective of denomination, the church provided a strong social cement, offering a blend of spiritual and ethnic support to its adherents. Closely allied with the church as a marker of Scottish-Canadian identity was the school. Emigrant clergymen often doubled as schoolmasters, and the Glasgow Colonial Society – which in the mid nineteenth century was almost solely responsible for providing Presbyterian ordinances to emigrant Scots in Canada – despatched teachers as well as minister and catechists. Within five years of its birth in 1873, the 800-strong 'Scotch Colony' of New Kincardineshire in western New Brunswick had established two churches and four schools in different corners of the 50,000-acre settlement and in 1892 called a Scottish pastor, who remained in post for the next 52 years. (13)

Identity and solidarity were also demonstrated through secular organisations, such as the St Andrew's societies, Burns' clubs and sporting associations that proliferated throughout Canada. Some had a purely social function, but others had philanthropic objectives, including the Scots Charitable Society of Halifax, founded in 1768. Financial assistance given to a party of 229 newly-arrived Hebridean settlers in the Eastern Townships in 1841 by the St Andrew's Society of Montreal allegedly saved them from starvation and a 'horrid death', (14) while Masonic lodges also provided assistance and advancement, not least in the provision of employment.

Emigrants' efforts to preserve or recreate the linguistic, religious and social symbols of their identity were often made in the face of challenges, not least from within the Scottish settlements themselves, and by 1911, Scots had allegedly become 'afraid to act as a community, and... uphold their most sacred ideals'. (15) Loss of identity was perhaps most noticeable in Gaelic-speaking communities, where the linguistic boundary was breached by exogamous marriages and a perception that English was the language of progress. Scots who abandoned their religious heritage risked clerical censure, but others were divided over whether the retention of religious and cultural identity was a help or a hindrance to successful settlement, and whether special ethnic colonies were a blessing or a curse.

Distinctiveness was certainly interpreted negatively in a stinging diatribe against the Scots of Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1859, which depicted them as 'a canting, covenanting, oat-eating, money-griping tribe of second-hand Scotch Presbyterians' (16), while further west, in Killarney, the sabbatarianism of the Hebridean emigrants in the 1880s irritated their less legalistic Protestant neighbours. The Gaelic language too isolated these emigrants unhelpfully from their more experienced neighbours. 'Gaelic may be a very nice and expressive dialect but you cannot raise wheat from it, and these people had nothing else', observed the merchant who supplied the new arrivals with seed corn and seven years later reflected on the reasons for the colonists' limited success. (17)

The decision to emigrate to Canada was shaped by a combination of structural, push-pull forces and personal circumstances. Most settled down permanently, a significant proportion – perhaps up to a third – returned home, and others became serial migrants, moving on beyond Canada's borders, to the United States, other parts of the British Empire, or elsewhere in the world. For a few, like twelve-year-old Wellwood Rattray, who emigrated from Glasgow to Saskatchewan with his parents in 1887, the toss of a coin determined whether the destination would be Canada or elsewhere. (18)

The stereotypical image of the Scot in Canada was that of a shrewd, pious, hard-working – if sometimes stubborn and clannish – farmer or businessman, who succeeded in his calling through his own ability and integrity, along with a little help from his friends. There was, however, nothing unique about the Scots' determination to defend, assert and exploit a common identity in British North America: it is a characteristic of emigrants in all eras and areas. At the same time, the ethnic mosaic of Canadian society, coupled with its long history of Scottish settlement, allowed the Scots, like other immigrant groups, to retain and promote their ethnicity with greater confidence than in the melting-pot culture of the United States. Perhaps we could even claim that in Canada, issues of identity, integration and isolation were more sharply defined and more hotly debated than in any other sites of the Scottish diaspora.

  1. G. T. Bisset-Smith, Vital Registration: a manual of the law and practice concerning the registration of births, deaths, and marriages (Edinburgh, 1907), p. 168. Back to (1)
  2. See, for instance, T. M. Devine, Scotland's Empire 1600-1815 (2003); M. Harper, Adventurers or Exiles. The Great Scottish Exodus (2003); J. Calder, Scots in Canada (Edinburgh, 2003); Canadian Migration Patterns from Britain and North America, ed. B. J. Messamore, (Ottawa, 2004); A Kingdom of the Mind. How the Scots helped make Canada, ed. P. E. Rider and H. McNabb (Montreal and London, 2006). Back to (2)
  3. J. M. Bumsted, The People's Clearance: Highland Emigration to British North America, 1770-1815 (Edinburgh, 1982). Back to (3)
  4. A. MacKenzie, A History of the Highland Clearances (Inverness, 1883). Back to (4)
  5. The 1880s experiments are discussed in W. Norton, Help us to a Better Land. Crofter Colonies in the Prairie West (Regina, 1994). Back to (5)
  6. For details of the 1920s exodus, see M. Harper, Emigration from Scotland between the Wars. Opportunity or Exile? (Manchester, 1998). Back to (6)
  7. M. Gray, 'Scottish emigration: the social impact of agrarian change in the rural lowlands, 1775-1875', Perspectives in American History, 3 (Cambridge, 1973), 95-174. Back to (7)
  8. The influence of recruitment agents is explored in M. Harper, 'Enticing the emigrant: Canadian agents in Ireland and Scotland, c. 1870 - c. 1920', Scottish Historical Review, LXXXIII, 1: 215 (2004), 41-58. Back to (8)
  9. M. E. Vance, 'The politics of emigration: Scotland and assisted emigration to Upper Canada, 1815-26', in T. M. Devine ed., Scottish Emigration and Scottish Society (Edinburgh, 1992), pp. 37-60. The 4,000 emigrants represented only 30 per cent of the societies' membership of 13,000. Back to (9)
  10. Home children have been subjected to considerable scholarly and popular scrutiny. See, inter alia, The Home Children: their personal stories, ed. P. Harrison, (Winnipeg, 1979); M. Kohli, The Golden Bridge. Young Immigrants to Canada, 1833-1939 (Toronto, 2003). Back to (10)
  11. M. Harper, 'Patterns of Scottish settlement in nineteenth-century Canada', in Frontiers of European Culture, ed. P. Dukes, (Lewiston, 1996), p. 154. Back to (11)
  12. F. Niven, The Flying Years (London, 1935), p. 19. Back to (12)
  13. M. Harper, 'A family affair: the colonisation of New Kincardineshire', History Today, 37 (October 1987), 42-8. Back to (13)
  14. MacKenzie, Highland Clearances, p. 313. Back to (14)
  15. W. Campbell, The Scotsman in Canada (London, 1911), p. 422-3. Back to (15)
  16. F. S. Cozzens, Acadia: or a Month with the Blue Noses (New York, 1859), pp. 150, 199. Back to (16)
  17. National Archives of Scotland, AF51/198/514, T. J. Lawlor to Sir George Trevelyan, 21 January 1895. Back to (17)
  18. M. Harper, 'Probing the Pioneer Questionnaires: British Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1887-1914', Saskatchewan History, 52: 2 (2000), 28-46. Rattray's parents had tossed a coin to decide whether they would emigrate to Canada or South Africa. Back to (18)

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