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Emigration

Emigration

While Highland emigration may evoke images of families being brutally evicted from their homes and shipped overseas, the reality was far more complicated. Many migrated voluntarily and many others found the experience rewarding. Nor did all emigrate overseas. There was significant internal migration within Scotland from rural to urban areas, and within the Highland area itself.

The 18th century
The breakdown of the clan system and opportunities to make a new start in the colonies led to the first wave of Highland emigration. The leaders were tacksmen of the old order. Some sought their fortunes in the plantations of the West Indies or the American colonies. Some took their tenants with them, seeking to re-establish the old order in a new setting. The Canadian Maritime provinces and Upper Canada saw significant Highland settlement and colonisation, and schemes established by Lord Selkirk attracted many emigrants. By 1815 there were 30,000 Highland settlers in North America.

The 19th century
While the kelp (seaweed) industry flourished a large population was needed collect and process it and emigration was discouraged. However, when the industry collapsed and large numbers of people found themselves unemployed emigration was again encouraged, and occasionally enforced.

The Potato Famine and the resulting destitution intensified the desire to emigrate. Between 1841 and 1861 the West Highlands and Islands lost one third of its population. Many were drawn by the rapid growth of shipbuilding and heavy engineering to live and work in and around Glasgow. Many more emigrated to North America. Assisted emigration also took many to Australia.

The 20th century
Migration from the West Highlands and Hebrides to Glasgow and the Clyde area continued into the early 20th century. The 1923 emigrations on the RMS Marloch and the Metagama were the last collective emigration schemes undertaken.

While emigration continued after World War II, notably to Australia and South Africa, the main issue facing the post-war Highlands and Islands was internal migration. This drift from the remote parts of the Highlands to the towns continues to be the major problem facing the Highlands.

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