The writer Edwin Muir spoke for many in 1935 when he expressed his alarm at the country’s extraordinary high rate of outward migration. “Scotland is gradually being emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, its industry, art, intellect and innate character,” he said. “If a country exports its most enterprising spirits and best minds year after year, for 50 or 100 or 200 years, some result will inevitably follow.”
Given the flowering of Scottish culture in the last 20 years, together with the growth of new industries like the creative sector, offshore oil and gas, renewables, and our continuing record of scientific and engineering innovation, his pessimism was misplaced. Scotland’s still flourishing. It’s a lot more lively than the apocalyptic future envisaged by Muir’s own famous poem, The Horses.
Was Muir therefore conjuring up a romantic, mournful picture fashioned from anecdote and old song? We are so used to debunking myths that a study showing Scotland as little different from other European countries in this regard would come as no surprise.
But Muir was correct to draw attention to the great exodus. Though migration is an experience shared by many countries, it does seem Scotland was a special case. Professor Tom Devine is a scholar respected for his rigorous attention to detail, lack of sentimentality and wiping all the tartan trimming off his subject.
The figures in his latest book on migration, To the ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, are startling. Scotland had a long history of emigration and adventure. But after 1707 it kept on growing, right through the 19th and 20th centuries and long after many other European peoples had lost their wanderlust. The size and scale of Scotland’s migration over an extended period of time distinguishes us – as does the global reach of our restless citizens. Between 1825 and 1938 Scotland was the premier European country of emigration, with 2.3m moving overseas, and 600,000 heading to England between 1841 and 1911.
Industrialisation tended to slow down the flight of the indigenous population of other countries. But not Scotland. We just couldn’t get out quick enough. This is particularly striking in the 20th century. Between the two wars, Scotland had a tenth of the population but accounted for 28 per cent of UK emigration to the United States alone.
Even in the post-World War Two period, a time of prosperity and low unemployment, we were snapping up one way tickets to Canada, South Africa, Australia and England. Devine is in the business of debunking some myths, however. Only a minority of Scots matched the victim profile of the clansman burned out by rapacious landowners. Most migrants were skilled and literate, a product of our egalitarian education system. They embraced the opportunities offered by the British Empire, spreading across the red coloured imperial atlas.
While Devine is scrupulous, one cannot read his book without questioning some orthodoxies. Even pragmatic nationalists have in the past accepted that the Union brought benefits. They suggest Scotland followed its best interests and made the most of the new markets, but the decline of the empire meant the UK had outlived its usefulness.
And yet, how much did we really benefit from being a junior partner in this imperial project? Our average wages were lower, the housing and social care far worse than in England. Infant mortality was higher well into the last century. All this acted as an incentive to individuals to access opportunities more commensurate with their ambition.
It is notable that those opportunities could not be met at home. Even when it boomed, the economy was export orientated, driven by the needs of Empire. The colonies required people as well as products – Scots were its administrators and soldiers. And although Scottish exports generated enormous profits for the factory and mine-owners, much of this was invested elsewhere. Scotland did not develop the same consumer-led domestic demand as England – perhaps because so many people were leaving and those who remained behind earned washers.
There is also the harder-to-quantify matter of national psyche. If you tell a country it is too poor to fend for itself, that it’s a little bit rubbish, the aspirational are less likely to stick around. That was my own mentality growing up in industrial Scotland in the 1970s. It was simply assumed that if you wanted real success you got out – you didn’t stay home and build a better future. One of the most striking facts presented by Devine is that Scotland, Ireland and Norway were Europe’s biggest providers of migrants up until the early 20th century, when Scotland became the front runner. Can it be coincidental that the two other countries became independent?
Lest we get too gloomy, the main message of Devine’s book is one of optimism. Scotland’s global diaspora is enormous at 40 million, and unusually widespread. Already we have started to exploit it for business purposes – both through a government engagement strategy and private sector networks such as KILTR, which uses social media to connect affinity Scots. In a world where the search for meaning and identity consumes ever greater numbers, Scotland is out front. There has been an explosion of interest in Scottish roots. That matters in a world where geographical distances are smaller. At home we may be outnumbered, and therefore unfairly treated in the politically centralised UK. But globally we are loud and proud. Our cultural footprint is far more distinct than many independent countries. We are probably more recognisable than any stateless nation bar the Jews before 1948. Far from losing our innate character, talent and spirit, as Muir feared, we were spreading it around. Now, after years of loss, we may reap a new harvest from the world.
l Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the South of Scotland.