Scottish Emigration to N. America before 1939.

Alan Cameron

11th March 2009 


A good turnout of members welcomed Alan Cameron with his presentation on Scottish Emigration from Lowland Scotland to North America between 1800 and 1939.

The most widely known emigration was due to the Highland Clearances. Much has been written and painted on the subject however the reality is that the clearances accounted for only about 20% of all emigration. Emigration from Lowland Scotland was for economic reasons due to changes in agriculture and industry and encouragement with sponsorship by emigration societies.

For example Robert Smail print works in Innerleithen was an agent for a Canadian emigration society and a liner company. From their records it is interesting to note that the vast majority of passages bought were one way only.

Much emigration was not forced but made economic sense. The Peeblesshire News in 1876 carried an advert for free emigration to Queensland, Australia where earnings were £30-50 per year. In contrast at Peebles Hiring Fair that same year a pay of £8-9 for 6 months was offered and the schoolmaster at Kintyre was earning £45 per year paid at Whitsunday and Martinmas. Older people and children often left behind. The younger men would emigrate first then send for their wives and families, the first 4-5 years being the hardest.

Emigrants to Canada were not really equipped for what they found there. Lots of Canada is heavy woodland and it was extremely hard work clearing virgin forest of massive trees. Apart from the very early settlers the Scots tended to be apprentices in the cities and later became the second buyers of land. In Canada the Scots formed 10% of the migrants and because of their standard of education they formed the political elite of Canada. Such migrants prospered quickly and from a timber shack in 1860 to a prosperous house by 1880 was not uncommon.

Not all emigration schemes were honest. The 17th laird of McNab tried to set up a colony and form an idyllic clan. They were all Gaelic speakers who couldn’t read so for 20 years he was able to cheat and abuse them work wise.

There were also the ‘ticketed leave’ men who were the black sheep or errant son of a wealthy family whose ticket was paid by the family often to avoid the family disgrace.

Travel to the Canadian west was hard. All worldly possessions were carried on a Red River cart, uncovered and similar to a handcart but pulled by oxen. It had wooden wheels with no metal rim.

As the railway companies built routes across the country settlers were rewarded with government land. It was in the railway company’s interest to encourage settling along their routes and parcels of land could be bought or rented first and then bought later.

Not all emigrants got as far as the west. Annie Mcleod who features in the audiovisual presentation at New Lanark had been part of a shipload leaving Skye. Their ship was shipwrecked off the Mull of Kintyre and when rescued were taken to Greenock where they stayed rather than continuing their emigration to North America.

From 1918-1925 war veterans were given grants to encourage emigration and in the 1920s and 30s there was much advertising to encourage emigration to Canada. Between 1900 and 1930 ¼ of all young men left Scotland for destinations around the world.

Reported by Helen Elliott.