Jane Anderson: Scots made emigration a success story

A previous article on the opinion page described the abiding impact of 18th and 19th century emigration on the Scottish collective memory.

A Highlander facing evicition rolls up his sleeves as John Bull listens to the landlord explain his case in this satirical cartoon
A Highlander facing evicition rolls up his sleeves as John Bull listens to the landlord explain his case in this satirical cartoon

Certainly thousands of people left Scotland. For example a descendant of Alex McTavish from Glenquaich states 66,000 went to Canada in 1832 and James McLagan writing from Pitgirr near Pilochry mentions 51,000 in Quebec for the same year.

However the latter, writing in 1834, clearly explains the reason. Barley was 8/- per bushel while two years before it was £1, oatmeal was 11/- whereas two years before it was 16/-. In 1832 prices were already depressed, there was no demand for cattle, which were selling for half the rate of two years before but there was no alteration in the rent.

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He is clear what was happening. “I suppose in the course of a few years it [rent] must be lower as there is a great body of people leaving the country every year”. The small size of holdings in many parts of Scotland made it impossible to increase saleable production to make up for a fall in price but la”canadand was available elsewhere.

The process of leaving was not always the traumatic one that is sometimes presumed. James’s letter from Pitgirr in 1831 describes the process. “There is advertisements through this country just now encouraging people to Lower and Upper Canada with direction to ship captains, who will land them in any place they choose upon lakes and rivers after crossing the main ocean for £3”.

Those recounting the reality maybe found it tougher, as McTavish states “from Montreal by small boat and on foot they backpacked”, but it was an ultimately rewarding journey “to the recently opened Huron Tract one hundred acres, untold wealth, was theirs to clear”.

Neither was emigration the irrevocable severing of connection with the homeland that is sometimes portrayed, as James McLaggan berates his brother Patrick for not sending a letter: “I can’t excuse you as your neighbours comes to this country almost every year.”

None of this is to deny that clearances did happen and many were forced out against their will. But it is wrong to ignore what was in many cases a success story of great enterprise. In his statement to a commission that took evidence from settlers from across Scotland, John Stewart stated “he came from Turrerich in Glen Quaich in 1832, where his neighbours were similar, possessing only what may be called small holdings from 5 -15 acres. He applied to the Canada Company for three lots of 100 acres … he has 102 acres of cleared land, barn, stable and his house is two storey with brick chimney.

“He states all his neighbours have succeed well and expects that next year nearly all his old friends from the Glen will be in Canada.”

Scots were masters of their own destiny and made emigration a success.

Jane Anderson lives in Strathbraan, Perthshire. She is former archivist to Atholl Estates.