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Mac Exodus – Scottish Review of Books
by T. M. Devine

Mac Exodus

October 28, 2009 | by T. M. Devine

IN 1909, A CONTEMPORARY statistician, G.T. Bisset, remarked, “The Scots are a notoriously migratory people.” The statement if anything understated the legendary scale of Scottish international mobility. From at least medieval times the Scottish diaspora was an intrinsic and vital part of the national story. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Scots, especially young men, migrated to England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Poland and as far east as Russia, as soldiers, pedlars, merchants and scholars. Recent research has demonstrated that this exodus was truly massive in volume. Probably as many young Scots left their native land temporarily or permanently in proportion to the population of the time as during the years of extensive emigration to the Americas in the Victorian era.

That later period is documented in more detailed and precise terms and the evidence reveals the remarkable level of Scottish mobility. Over two million emigrated from a total population which fluctuated around the four million mark between the 1820s and the Great War. Throughout that period, three countries, Ireland, Norway and Scotland, topped the league table of those European countries with the highest rates of emigration per head of population. Inevitably, and not least because of the impact of the Great Famine, Ireland led the list in most decades. Norway and Scotland fluctuated in their relative positions over time. Yet, during three great surges of emigration in the 1850s, 1870s, the early 1900s, Scotland came a close second to Ireland in this unenviable championship. Then, in the 1920s the exodus from Scotland during the depression years was so great that Scotland became for a time the emigration capital of Europe. Edwin Muir, the poet and writer, in his Scottish Journey, published in 1935, predicted a demographic and social catastrophe: “. . . Scotland is being gradually emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character. If a country exports its most enterprising spirits and best minds year after year, for fifty or a hundred or two hundred years, some result will inevitably follow.”

Against this backdrop no one can doubt the key importance of emigration to the national history. Why did such levels of outward movement occur in what was in the nineteenth century one of the most advanced economies in the world? What was the effect on Scotland’s domestic history? To what extent did the Scots leave their mark on the world – because it truly was a global diaspora in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australasia? What are the connections and relationships between the diaspora and modern Scotland?

These are just a few of the many basic questions which are raised by the saga of Scottish emigration. Until very recent times the answers were normally given in celebratory pietistic, hagiographical and sentimental terms. That tradition still lives on but a more sophisticated and rigorous approach is also now evident. At the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Centre in Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen the Diaspora Research Programme is a major part of a collective research endeavour which has attracted over £2.2 million in funding since 2000. Gradually some of the answers are being teased out. But, alongside these academic developments, is a new interest in the emigration of the Scots among the general public both at home and overseas, fuelled, at least in part, by the extraordinary popularity of geneology and ‘roots’ history. The two volumes discussed here show that publishers are also keenly aware of this new interest.

Jenni Calder’s short book on Scots in the USA is a companion volume to her earlier examination of the Scots in Canada. One of the fatal traps of this kind of ethnic history is what might be termed the Burns Supper school of Scottish-American studies. This is notorious for the uncritical celebration, often in a spirit of blatant chauvinistic triumphalism, of the great deeds of great Scots who were seen to be the source of American constitutional government, rugged individualism, technological genius, the promotion of Protestant values in the emerging nation after 1783 and much else besides. Recent classic examples of the genre include Dun-can Bruce’s The Mark of the Scots: their Astonishing (sic) Contribution to History, Science, Democracy, Literature and the Arts and the slightly more sophisticated bestseller from Arthur Herman, How the World’s Poorest Nation invented the Modern World (2002). Even the most uncritical hagiographies of the Victorian period were not prepared to go quite that far!

Jenni Calder does not play down the huge Scottish impact on the USA at the intellectual, educational and political level (now alas forgotten in favour of the shenanigans of Tartan Week), but her judgements are also usually careful and sensible. The book is clearly written and takes account of the meagre recent publications on the subject. It does not attempt to be anything other than a summation of current knowledge and, in that sense, is a useful and accessible introduction to Scots in the USA. Frankly, however, what it also reveals are the massive gaps in our understanding. Over a hundred scholarly monographs have so far been produced on the Irish in America (whose influence in the formative years of the Republic was much less than the Scots’) compared to a mere handful on the Scottish factor in the American dream.

James Hunter’s volume is of a different kind entirely though sharing the same aspiration to open up aspects of the Scottish diaspora. Hunter’s study does consciously try to break new ground. It has a full scholarly apparatus and a bibliography which contains original sources as well as the usual secondary works. Above all, Scottish Exodus adopts an innovative approach. Instead of the generalities, which are the stock in trade of most diaspora studies thus far, Hunter attempts to put a human face on the great movement of Scots overseas by focussing on individual stories. He was able to do so because the book was commissioned by the Associated Clan MacLeod Societies, an international network which gave Hunter access to a global membership several of whom he has interviewed.

As one would expect from the author of The Making of the Crofting Community, Hunter had concerns that if he accepted the commission he would come under pressure to play down hardship and wrongdoings especially if any of this could be laid at the doors of clan chiefs whose conduct, in some clan society histories, is deemed beyond reproach. Only when he was reassured that “an honest, warts-and-all explanation” was wanted did he accept the job. In fact, the sections of the book which deal with such factors as clearance, famine and forced removal do not spare the landed élites, although, at the same time, the discussion of Highland history which serves as the context for the book is fairly conventional, predictable and conforming to current orthodoxies.

Where the value of the volume lies, however, is in the stories of the descendants of the emigrants themselves. Here Scottish Exodus should not simply be of historical interest but also, as the author indicates, provide an insight into the attitudes of the diaspora towards the homeland in the early years of the new millennium. As Hunter argues, modern Scotland’s relationship with its overseas diaspora has been far from easy and dramatically different from Ireland which has managed to mobilise its emigrants and their descendants to brilliant effect. We welcome those who return on holiday or to visit friends and family but, in Hunter’s words, “It is their collective behaviour, as can be seen from the Scottish media’s treatment of New York’s annual Tartan Day, we find mystifying or, worse, embarrassing.” At a time when the Scottish Executive is striving once again to forge new links with the global Scots diaspora, a discussion on this topic should be of more than usual interest.

In the event the book is something of a curate’s egg. As one would expect from the author’s previous works it is clearly and attractively written. Moreover, some of the emigrant stories are genuinely fascinating. The descendants of the MacLeod diaspora became everything from French aristocrats and Australian gold miners to Canadian mounted police and Texan ranchers. Through one clan history the extraordinary reach of the Scottish emigrations of the last six centuries is brought alive. My own favourite sections are not on the relatively familiar accounts of North American and Australian settlement but in the surviving traces of pre-1700 movement to Europe. Thus, the descendants of a seventeenth-century soldier from Skye live on in modern War-saw under the name Machlejd while, in France, Macleod has long ago metamorphosed into Maclot.

The problem with the book, however, is the question of what all these recollections mean? There is no conclusion which might have drawn out patterns, issues or points of significance. Instead, the stories are left to speak for themselves, an approach which can easily degenerate into antiquarianism. Again, the fascinating question of the diaspora’s attitude to modern Scotland is rarely answered. Hunter’s respondents seem to be much more interested in the lineage of the past rather than the present. A major issue, for instance, is Celeste Ray’s provocative contention in her Highland Heritage. Scottish Americans in the American South (2001), that the diaspora’s only interest in Scotland is in its sentimentalised history while indifferent to the modern nation.

There was an opportunity to test this proposition which here has not really been exploited. Hunter argues that the native Scot’s difficulties with their overseas cousins is that the latter do not conform to modern Scottishness and prefer instead tartanry and joining clan societies. But this is too simple. The Irish diaspora seem capable of combining historical sentimentality and heritage with great interest in, and indeed, financial generosity towards modern Ireland. Moreover, as Hunter concedes, some sceptical voices also emanated from the diaspora. He quotes Hugh MacLennan from Cape Breton, who was scathing about the rise of reinvented clanship in his native island which, writing in the 1960s, he saw not as “tradition” but as a recent fashion: “Every summer there is a highland Mod …. and chiefs are invited from the other side, most of them arriving with Oxford accents and not a word of Gaelic. Now there is a trade in tartans, and you occasionally see, as you never did thirty years ago, Cape Breton boys and girls wearing kilts. An older generation would have known that the romance about the kilt as a distinctive uniform of the clan was largely a Victorian invention . . . I regard it as a plain fact that the kilt was never worn in Cape Breton before the tourists came.” It would have been intriguing to learn what James Hunter’s interviewees made of MacLennan’s critique but on this key issue the book is silent.

by Jenni Calder
Luath Press, £7.99
pp.192 ISBN 1905222068

by James Hunter
Mainstream Publishing, £17.99
pp.416 ISBN 1840184698

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