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Sail away

In the early twentieth century, tens of thousands of people left Scotland for a new life overseas. But who were they, why did they go, and what are the lasting effects of this Scottish diaspora?

A free online resource, which was the product of an AHRC-funded research project, helps to provide some answers. The Scottish Emigration Database uses information from the passenger manifests that are held in the National Archives at Kew, to identify patterns of movement from Scottish ports between 1890 and 1960. And snapshots from this vast archival record for 1923 can now also be searched online, to pull out the stories of more than twenty thousand individuals who sailed from Scottish ports. Information, including what a particular passenger’s occupation had been, what their address was, and even whether they were a member of organised emigrant groups such as the Salvation Army, are included in the database.

As Nick Evans, who is Lecturer in Diaspora History at the University of Hull and who worked on the project, explains: ‘published statistical summaries of patterns of British migration had been available before the database, showing the broad trends in emigration from Scotland in this period, but other than that there had been a huge gap in our knowledge about social and economic information on who left Britain. Our project explored some of the finer detail of Scottish emigration, such as its effects on particular regions, occupational patterns among the people who left, and pivotal moments in the exodus from Scotland.’

‘For me as a migration historian, I was familiar with broad generalisations about emigration at certain times in our recent past, but there were some big surprises in what we found, when we began to look at the variations within this overall pattern. 1923, for example, turned out to be a peak year for Scottish emigration – probably in response to the First World War, when many Scots returning home from the front line found that there was little to return to, and then deciding to head overseas. What the database shows is that the profile of Scottish migration is much more complex than we’d thought.’

Some sailings had particular relevance for remote and rural parts of Scotland. Marjory Harper, who is Professor of History at the University of Aberdeen and who directed the project , points to two particular sailings in April 1923.  After embarking their initial complement of passengers at Greenock, each of these vessels called at a different port in the Outer Hebrides, where they took on board 600 islanders for the transatlantic crossing. ‘The sailings from Stornoway and South Uist were very public events, and had a huge impact on the islands. The departure of the Metagama from Stornoway has become part of the folk history of Lewis.’

Then there were the large numbers of highly skilled urban migrants, who left following the collapse of large parts of Scotland’s industrial base in the wake of World War One. In Nick Evans’s words, this was ‘not a case of shovelling out the paupers and undesirables’ – these were people with a lot to offer. And in particular, our analysis revealed a sizeable movement to the expanding motor industries of the US which was something of a surprise: ‘the US generally dominates stories of European migration, but it hadn’t been thought particularly to be a place that Scots went to. They were recalled as more likely to move to Canada and New Zealand. Our research showed the contribution of skilled Scots to the growth of the US in the long twentieth century: they weren’t just bolstering the Empire.’

Lessons of the diaspora

The Scottish Emigration Database was one of seven research projects, based at the University of Aberdeen’s AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, and funded through the Centre’s Diaspora Programme. At a time of important constitutional change, the Centre, which ran until 2010, aimed to shed light on the historical and cultural influences which have shaped relationships between Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And given the unusually high emigration rates of the Irish and Scottish peoples since medieval times, the Centre focused particularly on the various waves of departure from Scotland and Ireland, and the impact they have had on the countries where the emigrants settled.

And what of the lessons we can learn, from this period of Scottish emigration? For Nick Evans, it demonstrates the inadequacy of British official policy in relation to unemployment and industrial restructuring, especially in the Twenties and Thirties – something which still has implications today. ‘It showed the failure of Westminster to comprehend the plight of those in the more remote parts of the British Isles, and this continues to have repercussions. There is a need for economic models for different parts of the UK, and not just for each nation within it: the story of Scottish emigration in the twentieth century showed the dire consequences of Westminster failing to see that.’

For Marjory Harper, it is a reminder of the complexity and controversy that have always surrounded the whole story of emigration, not just from Scotland. “While the surge in departures was particularly contentious in the febrile economic and political climate of inter-war Scotland, the Scottish experience was not unique. This was an era when the pros and cons of migration and settlement  were hotly debated throughout the British Isles and the Dominions, and one of the key strengths of the database is that it allows a comparative lens to be applied to a vital and vibrant international phenomenon.”

Slow burn

The impacts of the Scottish Emigration Database have been many and wide-ranging, in the near-decade since it was set up, but many of its effects have been unpredictable. ‘The project has matured like the AHRC,’ says Nick Evans, ‘with impacts being generated in the longer term: it’s been a slow burn.’

First, the database has been a gift to academics and genealogists. ‘When we first conceived of the database, we assumed that the greatest interest in it would be in the US or Canada, but we’ve also had a huge amount of attention from Australia and New Zealand. Online engagement has been unbelievable, with a resurgence in genealogy: our website has had over two and a half million hits.’

Other uses have been more unusual – according to Nick Evans, the database may be about to contribute to a project that involves analysing DNA in parts of Scotland that emigrants came from, to look at the implications for public health in the places where they settled.

Then there have been uses of the database for economic regeneration, which again have been difficult to predict. ‘We’ve heard of a researcher who was making the business case for increased direct flights between Glasgow and Canada, for example, using data on the number of Scottish emigrants to Canada who lived within 75 miles of Glasgow Airport. One or two generations later the data helped the airline sustain a business model based on roots tourism? We hadn’t thought of that as a use of the database, but there’s sensible business logic there.

More broadly too, the Scottish Emigration Database has helped to bolster cultural tourism, which is so important to the devolved Scottish economy. The Scottish Executive has funded Homecoming events in 2009 and 2014, for example, which encourage people with Scottish heritage to come and visit the places where they came from: the database makes it easier to trace exactly where your Scottish ancestor may have lived, and so it provides an economic boost to the remoter parts of Scotland, as well as the big port cities.

For Marjory Harper, ultimately ‘it was very far-sighted of the AHRC to fund something like the Scottish Emigration Database, which might have looked like a dry exercise in number-crunching. So much can be done with a resource like this.’

For further information is available here: www.abdn.ac.uk/emigration

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