Bringing it all back home – The message of Tom Devine’s book on Scottish emigration is ultimately a postive one


by Joan McAlpine

Professor Tom Devine’s To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora is one of the most important books written about Scotland in recent years. It debunks myths while at the same time demonstrating, through fact and statistic, that Scotland’s mass migration was no fiction. The myth is that all migrants were victims, burned off their land. In fact, while the clearances were very real, many more migrants were positive, well qualified people, ambitious for a better life.

Scotland produced more migrants per head of population than almost any other country in Europe. We travelled further and continued leaving long after other restless natives had decided home was best. My own interpretation of Devine’s book is the subject of my Scotsman column.

While the reasons for the exodus were complex, its scale and longevity destroys another myth ie that Scotland prospered under the union. Clearly all Scots didn’t see it that way. Much of the profit made from our raw materials and heavy industry was invested elsewhere in the empire, meaning that the domestic economy didn’t diversify. Wages in Scotland were lower that elsewhere in the UK and housing and health much worse. Our people were the raw material that never ran out. Literate, skilled, hard working – they were willing to administer the empire, fight for it, and supplement its labour force elsewhere in the UK as well as around the world. It seemed like the best option available. But a domestic market failed to develop because of the artificially low wages, and the flight of both capital and labour. It was a vicious cycle.

Continuing emigration, even when times were good such as after the Second World War, could be interpreted as an unconsious political act. Scots were frustrated in their own land, so sought fulfilment elsewhere. Now why might that be? One of the most striking facts uncovered by Devine was that Scotland, Ireland and Norway were the premier suppliers of emigrants from 19th century Europe. By the 20th century, Scotland had overtaken the other two, who by then had achieved political independence, and the optimism, self respect and confidence that accompanies such a change in status.

Recent political events suggest Scotland has changed utterly, and we recognise, at last, some of the forces that shaped us historically. We see more clearly what needs to be done to build a new Scotland here at home. Yet we also benefit from the shrinking of the world around which our people have been scattered. There is an upside to hundreds of years of saying goodbye – the 40 million of Scottish origin across the globe who want to reconnect. As people increasingly look to their roots for meaning and definition, Scotland, or more precisely Scottishness, emerges as a powerful force. There is also the phenomenon of affinity Scots: other migrants who have come to us from Ireland, Poland and Pakistan and find our identity inclusive enough to buy into and celebrate along with their own. The imagined community is real – and increasingly powerful. Diaspora isn’t all about loss.

Prof Devine’s book is available here on Amazon.

And here is a review of it by the Scottish Canadian academic Harry McGrath