Scots appear to have been among the earliest
European travellers: the Norse saga of Leif Eirikson recounts that
on a voyage to what is now assumed to be North America around the
year 1000AD, two Scots were the first to be sent ashore to explore
the New World. Scots took part in the First Crusade in the 1090s and
some may have survived to settle in Palestine. Throughout the middle
ages thousands of Scots emigrated, both temporarily and permanently,
to England, Scandinavia, Poland and the low countries, as mercenary
soldiers, pedlars, and merchants In the seventeenth century the Scottish
diaspora turned westward with the settlement of the Ulster plantation
and the opening up of the New World, especially after the Union of
Parliaments in 1707. The Union also gave Scots improved access to
opportunities in Africa and the East Indies, in the form of appointments
to the civil administration, missionary churches and, not least, the
army and navy. Not all emigrants were voluntary. In the seventeenth
century many Covenanters were banished to the North American colonies.
Their descendants were joined by Jacobites captured in the 1715 and
1745 rebellions. Transportation to North America continued until 1776.
Between the 1790s and 1868 many Scottish criminals, including radicals
from the 1820 uprising, were transported to Australia.
Mass emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries
The trickle of emigrants leaving Scotland
became a flood from the middle of the nineteenth century until the
third decade of the twentieth century. It is estimated that over
44 million emigrants left Europe between 1821 and 1915, over 2 million
of them Scots. The most important factor in the advent of mass emigration
was the development of the steam engine. Steamships could cross
the Atlantic in a week compared to a sailing ship crossing of six
weeks. Rapidly expanding railway networks in Scotland and in North
America allowed people to travel rapidly both to ports of departure
and away from ports of arrival. Emigration was facilitated by specialist
‘passenger line’ steamship companies; newspaper advertising; the
improvement in communications brought about by the creation of postal
services and the telegraph; and British government encouragement
via emigration societies.
From Highlands and Lowlands
The popular image of the emigrant Scot is
of a refugee from the Highland clearances, and in the first half
of nineteenth century emigrants from the Highlands and Islands made
up a disproportionate amount of the total number of people leaving
Scotland. However, there were many reasons for emigration, and emigrants
came from all areas of Scotland. In the later nineteenth century
emigration to the USA was predominantly from towns, while Canada,
Australia and New Zealand attracted tenant farmers and farm servants.
Although poverty and land hunger account for a high proportion of
emigrants, many skilled and semi-skilled urban tradesmen were inspired
to emigrate for periods of a year or less to take advantage of high
wages at certain times in growing American towns. Indeed, it is
estimated that by the end of the nineteenth century around a third
of emigrants returned to Scotland sooner or later. Among the most
famous emigrants were the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and the
author Robert Louis Stevenson. The latter emigrated to the United
States in 1879, publishing an account of the crossing, The Amateur
Emigrant, in 1883, and a moving account of an emigrant ship
sailing from Lochaber in the mid-eighteenth century appears in his
Bibliography and links
There are many published books on emigration
from various parts of Scotland to various parts of the world. One
of the ‘Scotland’s Past in Action’ series by the National Museums
of Scotland deals with emigration: Mona McLeod, Leaving Scotland
(Edinburgh, 1996), while two collections of essays on aspects of
emigration are R A Cage (ed), The Scots Abroad (London, 1985)
and T M Devine (ed), Scottish Emigration and Scottish Society
(Edinburgh, 1992). On transportation to Australia read Ian Donnachie’s
article on Scottish criminals transported to Australia in Scottish
Social and Economic History, vol. 4 (1984). The National Archives
of Scotland publish source lists: The Emigrants, The Scots
in America, The Scots in Canada, The Scots in Australia
and The Scots in New Zealand. For a more detailed account
of transportation records go to the NAS site. For details visit
the National Archives of Scotland website (see contact details in
the SCAN Directory).
Rosemary Gibson, Alison Rosie, David Brown,
Tristram Clarke, Alison Lindsay (all National Archives of Scotland);
Fiona MacLeod (Highland Archive); Robin Urquhart, Joanna Baird (both
I am emigrating (or have emigrated) from Scotland and require school
examination certificates or evidence that I attended school in Scotland.
Where can I find these?
My ancestor emigrated from Scotland. How can I trace information
Where will I find information about emigration societies and other
bodies that assisted emigrants?
How do I find the trial records and other records of someone transported
to Australia or New Zealand?
How do I find the trial record of someone transported to North America?
Where can I obtain photographs and other illustrations of emigrants
and emigrant ships leaving Scotland?
can I obtain a photograph or illustration of a specific emigrant-carrying