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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > Jul - Aug 2019 > The politics of population

The politics of population

Understanding Scottish emigration in a post-war, post-imperial context

(part 1)

Harry, ten, and his sister Angela, five, arrive in Brisbane as part of a party of 103 British immigrants, 30 September 1960

In the opening half of a two-part study, Kajsa Louise Swaffer, winner of the 2018 History Scotland/Royal Historical Society undergraduate dissertation prize, analyses the nature of Scottish emigration in the post-war period, discovering a complex picture that was inextricably bound up with the economic and policy objectives of the British government

The process of outward migration has been a defining feature of Scotland’s population throughout the country’s history, persisting with varying character and intensity from prehistoric times and into the medieval and modern periods. From the later middle ages until the union of 1707, major phases of Scottish emigration included substantial commercial expansion and intellectual migration to continental Europe, military involvement in major international conflicts and overseas colonisation projects. With varying definitions in circulation, however, as to what constitutes an ‘emigrant’, and added to that the unique constitutional dynamics within the British isles since 1707, gaining a secure understanding of Scottish migration flows is difficult. Equally, it is not possible to construct a reliable picture of British emigration patterns in general until the emergence of reliable statistical data in the 19th century.

England is believed to have been the main recipient of Scottish emigrants until 1800, and absorbed over 600,000 Scots in the period 1839-1914. In terms of emigration further afield, the statistics for this period suggest that Scots were, relative to the population of Scotland, more disposed to emigrate than their neighbours in the rest of the British isles. Statistics indicate that in the period 1825- 1938, 2.3 million Scots emigrated overseas, of whom approximately 44 per cent went to the United States, 28 per cent to Canada and 25 per cent to Australasia. In the decade of heaviest Scottish emigration, 1920- 29, and when Scots constituted around ten per cent of the British population, the Scottish proportion of British emigrants to these destinations was 28, 26 and 20 per cent respectively. Even as heavy emigration became a Europeanwide phenomenon in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the annual rate of emigration from Scotland kept increasing, and averaged 10,000 in 1825-50, 20,000 in 1850- 75, 25,000 in 1875-1900, and up to 60,000 by 1914.

England is believed to have been the main recipient of Scottish emigrants until 1800, and absorbed over 600,000 Scots in the period 1839-1914

Contemporary political debates prove that migration is still a central criterion for how Scotland self-identifies amongst its political and geographical peers

The outbreak of the Second World War was a naturally disruptive force to Scottish emigration. What is perplexing, however, is that the war also marks an abrupt cessation within emigration scholarship. The vast majority of academic works on Scottish migration consider Scottish emigration up until 1945, which might suggest that emigration from Scotland ceased with the outbreak of the war. This is not the case, and the dearth in post-war emigration scholarship is in fact so noteworthy that it has been described by historian David Armitage as ‘one of the greatest continuous but least-heralded periods of Scottish migration’. The academic treatment of Scotland’s relationship with the British empire explains why such a scholarly void on emigration exists. Adademic exploration of Scotland’s role within the development of the empire is fragmentary, but the analysis of Scotland’s relationship with imperial decline is absent.

Emigration poster, c.1947, designed to attract migrants to Australia
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