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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Book cover: A Global Clan

Book review


A Global Clan: Scottish Migrant Networks and Identities since the Eighteenth Century

by Angela McCarthy (ed.)
London: I. B. Tauris
ISBN: 1845110676; pp. 248, 2006

Lucille Campey

This is a collection of nine essays on Scottish migration to the New World, to which Angela McCarthy has added an overview. The book explores what can be discovered by an analysis of so-called personal testimonies, by which is meant primarily emigrant letters, although in some cases wills, business correspondence, and interviews have been included. Personal sources can reveal a great deal about immigrant networks and identities, and it is these two central themes which determine the focus for much of the book. Of the subsidiary themes that are considered, the returning emigrant Scot is given particular prominence. Two chapters are devoted to 'career' emigrants, or sojourners, who emigrated for a limited period of time for business reasons, while two chapters follow the progress of individuals who, having intended to settle abroad, either yearned to return or did return. The female experience of migration is considered in David Gerber's 'network of two' while A. James Hammerton and Angela McCarthy analyse the testimony of migrants who left Scotland as children. Another theme, picked up by some contributors, is the interaction of Scots with indigenous populations.

Emigrant letters can give a personal perspective of the experiences, motivations and self-identification of individuals and as such are a valuable research tool. However, they have their limitations. It is often difficult to make meaningful generalizations from personal correspondence because of its very tight focus, narrow evidence base, and haphazard subject content. Some authors went to extraordinary lengths to extract the maximum amount of information they could from this one source and in so doing produced analyses worthy of a biblical scholar. However readers are left with a vision that, although valid on a microscopic level, is necessarily distorted. For example, the Scottish influx to Canada, the preferred destination of most Scots until 1847, is represented solely by the letters of one farming couple in Lower Canada, that were written in the early 1800s, and the letters of one migrant to Toronto, that were written in the 1920s. Moreover, because most contributors relied so heavily on personal testimonies and made little use of additional sources, they failed to seek wider explanations for the experiences and actions of some of their subjects. Why, for instance, did a Jacobite Scot abandon a fortune in South Carolina to prove his loyalty to the British crown?

However, personal accounts have considerable value when used in the study of immigrant networks, and it is on this theme that the book makes its most valuable contributions. Networks, both personal and formal, grew out of a shared Scottish identity and they usually had a practical role. These points are well demonstrated by Sarah Gibson in her analysis of the correspondence left behind by the Lower Canada farmer, Hugh Brodie, and his wife, Ann. Having achieved fame as an agriculturalist, Hugh received many letters from people in Lowland Scotland, 'requesting advice on whether to emigrate and what to carry with them, or for help in finding positions or advice on land purchases' (p. 133). Gibson unravels the wide geographical dispersion of the Scots who wrote to the Brodies and notes how people in this group relied on each other for economic and emotional support.

By following the career of John Rose, one of many Scots to have settled in Charleston, South Carolina, by the eighteenth century, Douglas Catterall uncovers the complex business and social networks, spanning both sides of the Atlantic, which were created to further the business prospects of the various participants. Business networks are also explored by Douglas Hamilton and Andrew Mackillop in the context of sojourning Scots who emigrated for limited periods only. Such migrants had clear, short-term objectives. They had to survive in a disease-ridden environment while acquiring sufficient money to make their fortunes which they then took home with them. For them, networks were an essential tool in establishing a profitable business and ensuring a successful return to Scotland. On the other hand, not all Scots were reliant on networks. Eric Richards provides examples of Scots in Australia who, 'coped with the rigours of colonial pioneering without any supporting network' (p. 151), and warns against, 'endowing the idea of ethnicity with automatic network status' (p. 175).

Because the book focuses primarily on individuals and their personal testimonies, it provides little coverage of group migration. Only the chapters written by Eric Richards and Tom Brooking offer this wider perspective. In his wide-ranging and valuable chapter, Richards relates the story of one large Gaelic-speaking group who negotiated their own arrangements when they arrived in Australia. Having refused to accept the employment opportunities on offer, which would have caused them to be split up, they demanded to be settled as a single community. Their clergyman explained how, 'they had been induced to emigrate by the hope held out to them of being enabled to settle in one neighbourhood, so as to be within reach of religious ordnances administered in their Native Language...' (p. 165). This is a re-run of a story that occurred many times over in Canada. Unlike Lowlanders, who often scattered to more attractive locations once they became familiar with their new surroundings, Highlanders usually remained in their initial communities because of the importance they placed on upholding Old World customs and traditions. The role played by language and religion in sustaining this sense of group identity cannot be overstated.

The book's overemphasis on individual businessmen, and returning or reluctant emigrants, does not give it the best of bases from which to consider the wider aspects of Scottish identities. Examples abound of Scots in an urban environment, while the more typical Scots, who settled as farmers in what were initially scattered rural communities, are not well represented. Moreover, the strong focus on written testimonies led most contributors to exclude non-literate Scots, thus denying Gaelic speakers their rightful place in a book that purports to be about a 'Global Clan'. However, the most glaring omission in the book is its failure adequately to deal with group identities within the context of settlement. Most contributors only considered the identities of people who operated within specific networks. While a study of such groups is perfectly valid, this perspective is highly limited. The Scottish propensity for group migration and settling together in close-knit communities led to the growth of distinctive Scottish communities in the New World. Yet, apart from Richards's and Brooking's chapters, this aspect of Scottish identity receives almost no coverage in the book.

Angela McCarthy refers to the North American Scots' use of clan societies, bagpipes, kilts, and so on as, 'a colourful and noisy expression of their cultural identity' (p. 13). However, underlying these ritualistic displays are serious points that should have been considered. When Scots emigrated to one location in sufficient numbers to become the predominant ethnic group, they stamped their Scottishness on their adopted land. They had a strong community identity that stemmed from their shared geographical origins. For instance, John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir) found vibrant Scottish communities in Cape Breton during his 1937 visit as Governor-General of Canada. According to Buchan, Cape Breton was 'more Highland than the Highlands'. He was welcomed by six pipers 'all MacDonalds in faded tartans–long lean men from the [coal] mines whom one could easily picture leading a raid through the Lochaber passes'. He was constantly addressed in Gaelic: 'I wish to goodness I knew some Gaelic', he said, since, 'I can only look sheepish. The worst of it is I have a bogus reputation, for at first, when I received letters of welcome in Gaelic, with the help of Ian Mackenzie, my Minister of Defence, I answered in Gaelic. Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!' (1).

By contrast, when Buchan visited the Eastern Townships in Lower Canada he found it 'almost entirely French' (2), even though it had experienced an influx of many hundreds of Hebridean settlers some 100 years earlier. Most of their descendents had moved to Upper Canada and the United States by 1937 but, even so, the settlers had left their mark on the ground. The numerous Hebridean place names, which continue to be respected by the French population, the string of memorial cairns, and the beautifully-manicured Presbyterian cemeteries speak volumes about the lingering sense of identity which the descendents of the original settlers continue to feel for this region of North America. The Canadian-born economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, wrote eloquently about the pride felt by people who are descended from pioneer stock: 'At political meetings, on St. Andrew's Day, in sermons, in homilies for the children at the Christmas concert and even in conversation, the intellectual and moral leaders reminded themselves and others of the fortitude of men and women who had left the Highlands to make their way in this strange land and of the legacy of strength and courage which they had left to their children and grandchildren' (3). This too is an important expression of identity that only reveals itself when Scottishness is studied within the context of settlement.

Accepting these limitations, the book's analysis of immigrant networks has provided some valuable insights of Scottish identity. Mackillop notes the British, as opposed to Scottish, dimension of life in the East India Company, while Hamilton reveals the ongoing emotional commitment felt by Scots in the Caribbean to their homeland. For instance, 'James Stirling actively considered making the enslaved on Frontier Estate in Jamaica wear tartan, "as it will help encourage our Woollen manufactory"' (p. 62). This sense of lingering Scottishness is also uncovered by Mackillop. When James Pyper died in India, his will directed that money be given to his Scottish relatives and for the erection of a headstone to be carved for his father and mother stating that he had commissioned the stone while living in Madras (p. 38). Meanwhile, Gibson came across examples of the 'old Scots language' (p. 137) in her study of the Brodie network and emphasizes the important role which was played by religion in expressing and preserving cultural identities. Brooking also notes 'how central Presbyterianism was to life in Otago' and concludes that in New Zealand religion, 'a belief in universal education' and 'a hefty emphasis upon the centrality of family represented the core of Scottish identity' (p. 196).

Scottish interaction with indigenous populations also has implications for identity. Richards draws attention to the Aborigines in Australia who 'knew Gaelic, including two who had lost their mothers "and had been brought up by a worthy Scotch couple in a home where Gaelic was spoken"' (p. 170). Brooking's reference to the Scots in New Zealand who drew agricultural lessons from Maori land use practices, noting that they 'learnt this lesson much more quickly than their English peers' (p. 194), demonstrates that ethnic influences worked both ways. Mackillop discusses the relationship between sojourners and their Indian concubines and the financial provision that was made for them in wills. There are marked similarities here to the relationships between servants of the Hudson Bay Company and the First Nation women of Canada who became their 'country wives'.

This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the role and nature of Scottish immigrant networks in New World settings. While some chapters are repetitive in places, taken together they allow valuable comparisons to be drawn of Scottish migrant behaviour and experiences in different parts of the world, and offer new insights on issues relating to identity. However, by relying so heavily on personal testimonies and the networks that formed around individual migrants, the book fails to meet the rather grandiose aims which are set out in the opening chapter; it is also regrettable that the book has no index. Nonetheless, there is clearly a need for a much more broadly-based thematic study of this overall subject area.

November 2006

  1. J. A. Smith, John Buchan. A Biography(Oxford, 1985), p. 406. Back to (1)
  2. Smith, John Buchan, p. 386. Back to (2)
  3. J. K. Galbraith, The Scotch (Toronto, 1964) pp. 141 - 2. Back to (3)

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