Tom Devine tells how the true story of Scottish emigration since the 19th century is only just starting to emerge

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A YEAR ago, giving a keynote lecture at the University of Hong Kong, leading Scottish historian Tom Devine outlined part of the thesis of what might be – he’s still not sure – his last book.

He spoke, as he always does, eloquently and without notes, outlining the disproportionate contribution that Scots had made to the British Empire. “Yet hardly anything I’m saying to you today,” he told his audience, “is known to even well-educated people in my country.”

Maybe it’s true. Deep down, we know that Scots’ contribution to the Empire was enormous. It wasn’t just the soldiery – “the shock troops of Empire” said Devine adding, with reference to the Black Watch’s participation in the ceremonial handing over of Hong Kong in 1997, “but also its pallbearers”. Nor was it just the mercantile elite, like those opium-peddling plutocrat founders of Jardine Mathieson.

The story of the Scots who left this land to run the British Empire reaches right down into the sinews of this country’s past, and involves a hordes of ordinary Scots – between 1825 and 1938, no fewer than 2.3 million of us. That’s a figure that just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it, so let’s put it another way: 2.3 million would have been, in 1825, the entire Scottish population. And yet, as Devine argues in his latest book, To The Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010, this is a subject about which Scotland has only just stopped trying to forget.

Why this national amnesia about empire should have developed is only one of the questions Devine addresses in the concluding volume to his trilogy (after The Scottish Nation and Scotland’s Empire) on modern Scottish history. There are hosts more. Was Scotland’s empire built on slavery? Why did Scotland export masses of its people at a time when it was the second richest country on the planet? Why, in the 1950s, when the welfare state has just been introduced and the working man had indeed never had it so good, did Scottish levels of emigration rise again? And – here’s a biggie – why, when the numbers of people on the planet who can claim Scottish roots absolutely dwarfs the number of us who actually live here, do we hardly ever hear from them, and when we do, we discover that they’re making up their own weird version of our history?

Thomas Martin Devine OBE FRSE FRHistS FBA and until last month Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Paleography at Edinburgh University sits in an spartan office in the history department, pushes back his chair and begins to answer. As he does, I am reminded of all the times I have seen him before at this time of the year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – where, in all honesty, I must say I have seldom heard any speaker being listened to with as rapt attention. In public, in private, his conversational style is the same: analytical, punchy, confident, forceful, persuasive.

First of all, he apologises for the bare shelves. Technically, he has just retired from the university. There will, he says, be no more undergraduate seminars and tutorials. Goodbye Mr Chips, I’m thinking: and a good half of my questions were on that elegiac line – the good professor, the man who has done more than any to transform the way this country thinks about its past, bowing out into retirement, regretfully accepting that his own career has become history too.

But no: he’ll be staying on. “I’m not going into the wilderness. There’s no Captain Oates about it!” And he hisses with laughter and goes on to explain that he is taking a break until January, but he’ll still be the director of the Scottish Centre of Diaspora Studies and will still supervise doctoral students and pursue his own researches. But on top of all of that he has been asked to guide the department through a major funding review. Given that 25 per cent of the marks for the review will be based on the potential impact of research projects in the world beyond academia, this strikes me as a particularly inspired appointment.

Because if you are measuring a history department’s impact on society, you want its figurehead to be someone quite prepared to roll up their sleeves and engage in public debate. You need someone whose original research has been as groundbreaking as Devine’s The Great Highland Famine, about how the 1841 potato blight affected Scotland. But you also need someone whose work appeals to the general reader. As Devine has been known to point out on more than one occasion, his 2003 book The Scottish Nation at one point was selling more in Scotland than the latest hardback by JK Rowling.

So if it’s impact and influence you are looking for – along, incidentally, with a praeternatural ability to secure millions of pounds in funding for the academic institutions he has headed – the Motherwell-born historian is a good choice. What aspect of history is more relevant – or more potentially beneficial to Scotland – than examining the links between us and those Scots who left this land so many years ago? Will they no come back again? No. But what if all their descendants – 40 million of them, according to the Scottish Government’s latest figures – did?

All of which takes us back to the emigrants’ reasons for leaving Scotland in the first place, the very core of Devine’s thesis. And it’s here where you see his strengths. He cannot, on his own admission, write good narrative history, and he’s never going to be the person you turn to for a spine-tingling evocation of what it actually felt like to be alive at a particular time in the past. But if you’re looking for someone who can actually explain the dynamics of change in Scotia’s story, he’s your very man.

Take that great paradox about why so many Scots wanted to get away from their mid-Victorian land of plenty. We have the wrong idea in our heads about emigration, Devine insists. We think of painter Thomas Faed and The Last of the Clan, of the Clearances, and yes, of those poor unfortunates who were driven to the New World by the potato blight in the Old.

But change the focus. Look at the numbers. Look at what kind of people most of them were: not Highlanders, not destitute, but ambitious Lowlanders wanting to make more of themselves. Look at what they actually did when they got across the Atlantic, or settled in a colony. They were skilled or semi-skilled workers, la crème de la crème of the New World’s new proletariat. If they were from Lowland farms, they knew more about advanced agricultural techniques than practically any other nationality. They were worth their hire. They prospered disproportionately.

That “disproportionately” bit is the key. Emphasise that too much – that Scots prospered just because they were Scots – and you’re guilty of what Devine refers to scornfully as “boosterism”, or the “Burns Supper School of Scottish history”. All the same, he insists, it is a provable fact that emigrant Scots did punch far above their weight: given their superior education, it would be surprising if they did not.

Measuring that success, I suggest, must be mind-numbingly tedious: surely some poor researcher has to look at whether a 19th-century Milkwaulkee department store owner came from Paisley, Pontefract or Pennsylvania, and then, if he turned out to be first generation Scottish, work out whether or not he did better than his rivals.

“Yes, “ says Devine, “my subject is indeed laborious. Before you can get to the stage of writing an article, much less a book, there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But you can’t do anything without the evidence. And the evidence is incontrovertible: people from here seem to have done exceptionally well out there in the world – it’s not even just the empire, it’s a global phenomenon.

“When I embarked on the research, I thought that this might just be a reflection of pro-Presbyterian, anti-popery attitudes, because comparisons were often being drawn between the Irish and the Scots immigrants and the commentators were always doing down the Irish. Well, that’s part of it, but you see the reality when you look at things statistically. You’ve got to have the numbers to make your point durable and cogent.”

When today’s diaspora historians compare and contrast Scottish and Irish immigrant experience something else becomes clear. “One of the biggest differences is the way in which they behave differently towards modern Ireland and modern Scotland. I don’t think our emigrants – beyond the first generation anyway – care much about modern Scotland. It’s the Scotland of the past that appeals. Whereas the Irish do care about modern Ireland and politically always have: just look at the number of home rule federations, or the number of Irish-Americans who were active in Irish politics.”

Even without “boosterism”, it should be clear why the Scots didn’t feel the need huddle together politically. They had already drawn the winning ticket in the 19th-century raffle just by virtue of being born where they were, in the world’s most advanced economy.

It was, though, still a far from perfect society. For all of Scotland’s claims to be an egalitarian country, the working man was slightly less exploited in England (where wage rates were at least 10 per cent higher and trade unionism more prevalent in the late 19th century). “This notion that we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns, this supposed egalitarianism,” says Devine, “is just another one of those Scots myths.”

So emigrants still had plenty reasons to get away, even from a relatively prosperous land. But when they made their fortunes, as so many did, they didn’t invest it back in Scotland; the money went straight out again overseas. “The lost Scottish billions,” Devine sighs. “It was inevitable that they went where more profits lay, and that certainly wasn’t at home. But supposing we had had a different tax system, with higher rates of tax, then some of that might have gone to the common good. As it was, the Scottish economy was wrecked for the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Yet at the same time, all these billions accumulated from overseas trade were then nationalised or taken over by other groups or had headquarters move to London. The only thing left, as Neal Ascherson once wrote, were “pseudo-baronial castles which were no longer suitable even for mental institutions”.

And yet, to a much greater extent than England’s imperial treasure, Scotland’s was used to change the world beyond these islands. Edinburgh’s financiers rebuilt Chicago. Scotland’s financial institutions poured billions into North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and countries such as Argentina that weren’t part of the Empire but had equally lucrative trade. Scottish educators and missionaries exported learning and religion. Above all, those 2.3 millions of Scots made the biggest change of all by exporting themselves.

For such a tiny country, Devine argues, Scotland has made a massive mark on the world, with consequences arguably even bigger than the Reformation. The national amnesia about this is all the more striking. “In England, it’s different. One of the litmus tests on this is what happened at the 2007 bicentenary of the ending of the British slave trade. In England, this was celebrated throughout the media, with exhibitions at museums and schools doing various projects. Yet here in Scotland, there was hardly anything.”

Why is that? Maybe one of the reasons is for most middle-aged people, Scottish history isn’t something that they were taught. In the 1950s, Devine points out, there were only eight academics studying Scottish history in our universities, and most were medievalists. “So there’s a generation which has been starved of it, there are people who regard the history of their own country as exotic.

“Put that together with the fact that in Scotland for the last 30 years we have been going through one of the most remarkable changes in our history – the whole devolution dynamic – and add that to there’s a greater depth of interest in the past anyway, and you start to see why Scotland’s got a new fascination with history.”

What would he really like to write about next? “Scots in England. That’s the biggest lacunae in Scots emigration studies, and what is fascinating is why, from about 1950-60 we get the first generation of inward migration of English, who are by far Scotland’s biggest immigrant group. But it’s going to be hard to get the facts on the Scots in England because we don’t have the kind of numerical detail we have of the overseas countries of settlement. There’s work appearing on it, anecdotes, the odd specialised study, but basically the Scots movement to England over the centuries is shadowland, mysterious ...”

Has he got the stamina to write it? “No.” And he rocks forward with an enormous wheezy laugh. “Not as we speak. Shall we say, there’s a question mark over it.”

l To The Ends of the Earth, by Tom Devine is published next week by Allen Lane, price £25. Tom Devine is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow at 8pm.