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  Scots have been emigrating to other parts of Europe and beyond since the middle ages. Over 2 million people left Scotland for North America, Australia and other colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries. For more information about Emigrants and frequently asked questions about emigration answered by Scotland’s archivists read on.


  Early Scottish Emigrants
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 novel Kidnapped.

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 SCAN).


1. 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?

2. My ancestor emigrated from Scotland. How can I trace information about him/her?

3. Where will I find information about emigration societies and other bodies that assisted emigrants?

4. How do I find the trial records and other records of someone transported to Australia or New Zealand?

5. How do I find the trial record of someone transported to North America?

6. Where can I obtain photographs and other illustrations of emigrants and emigrant ships leaving Scotland?

7.Where can I obtain a photograph or illustration of a specific emigrant-carrying ship?