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Issue 36 - The great departure

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


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The great departure

During the 18th century, thousands of Scots left their homeland for a new life in America. James Irvine Robertson finds out why.

History is never as simple as one would like. The English did not beat the Scots at the Battle of Culloden, nor did the Campbells slaughter the MacDonalds at Glencoe. And the Highland Clearances, still an emotive subject to millions of Scots and their descendants, were not always quite as they have been painted.

In 1802, Alexander Irvine published An Inquiry into the causes and effects of Immigration from the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland. He was the 29 year-old minister of Rannoch, a remote and backward Highland district, his first charge after being missionary at Kintra on Islay. Not only was he a native Gaelic speaker, but he was the son of a small tenant from Fortingall in Highland Perthshire where his father and brothers still farmed 20 acres of hillside. He knew what he was talking about. Which makes his observations particularly interesting.

When he wrote his book the Sutherland Clearances were still to come (the term first appeared in print in 1851 some 40 years after the event), as were many other forcible removals. Nonetheless, huge numbers of people had already emigrated. Irvine reckoned that 100,000 people, a quarter of the population of the Highlands, had crossed the Atlantic during the previous 30 years. In the two years from 1773 to 1775, upwards of 30,000 had sailed. He did not approve. He believed it was bad for the country and bad for the emigrants at a time of great opportunity at home when “wages have increased fourfold in the last 12 years.” Some of the reasons Irvine gives for leaving the country are logical, but others are not, and stem from the character of the people. Highlanders, he says, are adventurous, curious, and used to strangers.

Their maritime culture means that sea voyages have no fear for them. Their romantic nature fills their heads with imprudent projects and their expectations are unreasonably high. Their temperament makes them prone to envy of the success of others. “A puny tailor assures himself, if he got his foot once in America, he would be a laird. Alittle giddy country lass, of no beauty, puts on a new ribbon, buys a calico smock, and assumes airs at the thought of getting a great match in America... Those who are once infected by the fever of emigration, make America everything they please.” The infectious nature of emigration was confirmed by James Boswell, on Skye in 1776 with Dr Johnson. “In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance, which, I suppose, the emigration from Skye has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couple, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to show how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.” The changes in the social structure of Highland culture also gave motives for leaving the country. Before Culloden, the chiefs and their people were “indissoluble, like the ivy which entwines the oak, they had the same fortune, enjoyed the serenity of sunshine, or braved the tempests together. So long as this principle of union retained its energy, the idea of emigration had no room to exist.” When this was swept away, the Highlander “conceived a dislike of his country, lost his activity, became disheartened, and felt himself injured, because no longer flattered, caressed and feasted.” A significant reason for discontent came from the development in agriculture which, in spite of emigration, had supported a 15 per cent rise in population between 1755 and 1800. “Would be tenants are so numerous, and the land fit for cultivation so scanty, that all cannot be satisfied. The disappointed person, feeling himself injured, condemns the landlord, and seeks happy relief in America.” And agricultural improvements made it “necessary to deprive some persons of their possessions to make room for others more industrious or more fortunate. The landlord actuated by principle of benevolence, finds it expedient to discourage every species of idleness, therefore removes the lazy, the indolent, to encourage the active and the industrious.” Alternatives are offered but “pride and irritation scorn to accept his provision” and folk resolve to quit the estate although “no people on earth are more attached to the customs of their fathers than the Highlanders.” The introduction of sheep grazing increased wealth by exploiting under utilised wastes. But if “provisions for those who are dispossessed, displease, or are deemed inadequate by them, they leave the country, though these provisions better suited their limited capitals... This plan of improvement has put the whole Highlands into commotion. They who are deprived of those possessions to which they thought they had a sort of hereditary right, feel a reluctance in settling anywhere else, conceive a disgust at the country, and therefore prefer leaving it.

Or if they do not act with this perversity, they offer for other farms; and in these cases, being seldom matters of prudence, while they are under the dominion of passion, they run the hazard of ruining themselves by their extravagance. This revolution of farms and masters increases by duration, and like a stone thrown into a pool, one estate moved, moves perhaps many hundreds around, and by necessary consequence, obliges many to leave their country; and the connection once broken, they care not where they go.” Irvine admits that there were some good reasons for the discontent which made people want to leave the country. Bad factors – those hired to manage estates by the owners – with remote employers were one. “Aman of spirit, fatigued, harassed, and disgusted by the neglect or ignorance of a factor, finds a happy asylum for his sorrows in another country.” Lack of leases led to uncertainty, but leases themselves could lead to subletting, and if a farm was expected to yield an extra tier or more of rent, it led to misery for the occupiers and impoverished the land.

Civil or religious disagreement were another cause. And poor harvests, particularly between 1782 and 1784. “Guided by passion, or deluded by fancy, they ascribe what is only the common lot of humanity, to the administration of the country.” And, finally, Irvine admits that some people simply wanted to improve themselves.

Irvine ended up as minister of Little Dunkeld and an important figure in the preservation of the Gaelic language and literature. Since he depended on patronage from lairds to obtain his pulpit, it may be that he showed some bias in his judgment of their behaviour. However, his is still a significant contemporary view of one of the most controversial topics in our history.