Migration from Scotland

1560 - 1650

Scots in Poland, Russia and the Baltic States

The links between Scotland and the countries lying along the southern shores of the Baltic can be traced back as far as the late medieval period when Scottish knights accompanied the Teutonic Knights on their Baltic Crusade against the Heathen Letts. Since then there were economic links with merchants settling in ports such as Danzig. The main period of settlement was 1560 to 1650 due to good economic opportunity and religious liberty. Many Scots who fought as soldiers for and against Poland, Russia and Sweden settled in the area. By 1640 approximately 30,000 Scots lived in Poland - one of the greatest concentrations of Scots in continental Europe. By the mid-17th century Scottish immigration waned due to wars with the Cossacks and opportunities to the West; Ireland and America.


Some of the earliest Scots in North America (Virginia, Maine, and West Indies) were involuntarily transported, or exiled by the Commonwealth government in 1650 having fought for the crown against Cromwell. They worked in the colonies as indentured labourers.

17th Century Historical Overview

In the 17th century several factors were forcing Scots away from their homes. Compared to England, Scotland had much higher rates of literacy and five universities for a population of less than a million people. The emergence of a highly educated middle-class in an undeveloped Scottish economy meant than many of them migrated to England and continental Europe for work, and later in 18th century to the ‘New World’ (Americas), Asia and Africa. Furthermore, the end of the 17th century saw Scotland in state of crisis, due to a crippled economy and a seven year famine that drove people from their farms and increased the number of homeless and starving in the cities. This situation led to a need to migrate to seek better fortunes.


Darien Scheme

In an attempt to improve Scotland’s economy and be completive with England and the continental powers who were expanding their territory and trade into the Asia, Africa and the Americas, Scotland funded their own colonial venture known as the Darien Scheme. The idea was put forward by financial adventurer William Paterson, a Scot who had made his name as one of the founding directors of the Bank of England. Paterson returned to Edinburgh with a plan to turn Scotland into the major broker of trade across the Pacific Ocean. Whilst in London, he had met a sailor called Lionel Wafer, who had told him about a wonderful paradise on the Isthmus of Panama, with a sheltered bay, friendly Indians and rich, fertile land - a place called Darien.
The location of a trading colony at could have been incredibly lucrative as Pacific markets was a hugely expensive business, since all merchant ships had to make the hazardous trip round Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America, which added months to the journey, and the ships involved had a high chance of being lost at sea. A colony at Darien, could decrease the time and risk factor by transporting goods from the Pacific across Panama and loaded onto ships in the Atlantic.

On 26 June 1695 the Scottish Parliament passed an act establishing the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. On 18 July 1698 this first expedition left the port of Leith with around 1,200 people, including William Paterson, on board. However after two expeditions the the colony proved a failure for a number of reasons:

  1. The local indigenous people proved unwilling to buy European trinkets offered by the colonists.
  2. No fleets of merchant ships arrived to initiate the envisaged entrepôt trade with Asia and India. Meanwhile, the King had instructed his colonies in America not to deal with the Scots settlement.
  3. Inadequate provisions, combined with the unfamiliar hot and humid climate, soon caused fever to spread among the settlers.
  4. The Spanish attacked the colony, viewing the Scottish settlement as being in their territory.

Many of the colonists died and the colony was abandoned in 1700.


Act of the Union

The Act of the Union was supported by many Scots partly because the Darien disaster, which had left Scotland in even more dire financial straits, coupled with the ongoing famine. The Union was vital to the story of immigration in Scotland as it was vital to Scotland’s economic survival, with its provisions for free trade and navigation and its payment of £398,000 (known as ‘the Equivalent’) as compensation for Darien and to support Scottish industries. The Union gave Scotland legal access to British trading ports and colonies. This new trade agreement meant that many Scots migrated to partake in the British trade network.


First Jacobite Rebellion

Convicted Jacobites are transported or flee to the Americas.


Second Jacobite Rebellion

After the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and subsequent defeat of the Jacobites, their lands were confiscated and the 1746 Act of Proscription made it illegal for Highlanders to carry or own weapons, own or wear articles of Highland dress, including bagpipes, or teach Gaelic. A first offender could be sentenced to six months in prison, a second time could result in being transported to the colonies to spend seven years as an indentured labourer or in the service of the British military.


Scots in America and the West Indies

America/ Canada: The Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) is regarded as the first global war and involved Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria and Sweden and many Scottish soldiers who had fought in the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) were given generous freehold land grants by the government which allowed them to settle in Canada. This also provided a reserve of trained men should the need to defend the new colonies that were arising.
Many Scottish men also moved to America as merchants, especially in the Chesapeake Bay area, North & South Carolina and Georgia. There they partook in the tobacco trade, owned plantations or filled other mercantile positions.

West Indies

The main destination for Scots in the Caribbean in the colonial period was Jamaica, although other islands ceded after the Seven Years War (1756–63) such as St Vincent, Grenada and Tobago also became Scottish enclaves. Approximately, 17,000 Scots travelled to the West Indies during the period 1750 to 1800. Scots operated in networks and provided patronage for others in the form of jobs, credit and business opportunities, and worked in merchant firms or on plantations as overseers, attorneys or bookkeepers. Others outright owned sugar, coffee or cotton plantations run by slave labour. Many Scots in the West Indies were sojourners, coming to acquire wealth with the hopes of returning to Scotland.


Scots in South Africa

The British captured the Cape colony from the Dutch in 1795. Merchant and ship-owners seized the opportunity setting up trade within the colony. At the Cape, Scots discovered a port which linked the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and Pacific worlds, a key link between Europe, the Americas, South Asia, the Far East and Australasia. Scottish regiments were prominent in the garrison of the Cape. The Scots influence was mostly visible in the intellectual and religious institutions of the colony from the 1820s. They were central to the development of the printing and free press and were key figures in the educational, medical services, surveyors, engineers, builders, botanists and foresters. The Scots also established their own Presbyterian churches and had a highly significant band of missionaries.
South Africa is littered with Scottish place names such as; Aberdeen, Balmoral, Dundee, Dunkeld, Glencoe, and Scottburgh attesting to the Scottish presence in South Africa. Other places have been named after the Scots themselves: Cathcart in the Eastern Cape is named after George Cathcart, aide to Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo and Governor of Cape of Good Hope in 1852–3; the wine-producing Robertson in the Western Cape takes its name from the Scottish minister Dr William Roberston, minister of Swellendam, who preached for many years around the time the town was founded in 1853.

Later, Scots could be found at the forefront of the spread of British influence in southern Africa. They planned roads and railways, developed land for agriculture, founded banks, companies, educational and religious institutions. After the Second Boer War ended in 1902, some Scottish veterans chose to stay on in South Africa and re-enlist in a new Transvaal Scottish Regiment, a unit which still operates in the army today.

There was no truly large scale Scots migration to the Cape, although the gold mines of the Transvaal sucked in a surprising number at the end of the 19th and early 20th century.

1700-19th century

Scots in Asia

Approximately 80,000-100,000 Scots emigrated between the years of 1700-1815.

Before the union of 1707 a few Scots were already active in the East India trade, particularly the Swedish East Company, the Dutch East India Company and the Ostend Company. However, from the 1740s, the number of Scots visibly increased, especially within the British East India Company (EIC) and by the 19th century, Scots were involved in various enterprises - as civil servants, soldiers, physicians and mariners - fuelled by Britain’s focus on the East after the loss of the American colonies. From 1720-1780, 2000 Scots were recruited to the EIC. Often Scottish men tended to be over-represented in the officer class of the military.

Scots had a much higher profile by the early 1800s among the free or independent merchant houses and shipping companies which linked India to the lucrative markets of Southeast Asia. Scots were found in Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, and China and by the 1870s, even in Japan. At one point in time, Ceylon was referred to as a ‘Scotch Colony’.

It is thought that Scots constituted around a third of all colonial governors between 1850-1939.

Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances had a great impact on Scottish emigration. The Clearances were a forced eviction of inhabitants of the Highlands and western islands of Scotland, beginning in the mid-to-late 18th century and continuing intermittently into the mid-19th century. The removals cleared the land of people primarily to allow for the introduction of sheep pastoralism and resulted in the destruction of the traditional clan society. This began a pattern of rural depopulation and emigration from Scotland.

The evicted tenants were resettled in coastal crofts (small tenant farms), which was marginally cultivable land. They were forced to subsist by collecting and smelting kelp (a source of potash and iodine), or by fishing, an occupation that was foreign to them. The decline of the kelp industry, falling cattle prices, and, later, the potato famine in the Highlands that began in the mid-1840s were major blows to the subsistence economy of the crofters. Disease and starvation spread. Mass migrations occurred, mainly to the Scottish Lowlands for factory work, Canada, the United States, or Australia. Often, Highlanders departed as indentured servants, hoping one day to own their own land. In 1883, in response to growing sympathy for the plight of the crofters, the Napier Commission was established to investigate their condition. In the meantime the Highland Land Law Reform Association (better known as the Land League) was established. Finally, in 1886, the possibility of future evictions was legally eliminated with Parliament’s passage of the Crofters Holdings Act.


Scots in Argentina

In 1825 the schooner "Symmetry" arrived with 220 Scottish settlers who settled in Monte Grande, Province of Buenos Aires. Although the settlement failed, the settlers dispersed into different areas of Argentina and set a number of Church of Scotland kirks in the country.

Scots were some of the first merchants and immigrants to form an organised European “colony” or enclave in Argentina. This was partly because the regime of Bernadino Rivadavia sought to foster a European culture in Argentina and offered land grants to European immigrants. Scots introduced Angus and Aberdeen cattle to Argentina. Railwaymen, engineers and architects born in Scotland or trained there constructed railway lines and stations.

Sheep farming in Argentina

Scots also played a key role in sheep farming in Argentina. George Anderson migrated to the Falkland Islands in 1884 with a five-year contract to work as a shepherd. In 1891 he formed a company with four other Scottish shepherds to start a sheep farm in Patagonia, Argentina.
However, the migration of Scots and European farmers and the fostering of a ‘European culture’ also meant the forcible movement of indigenous people from their lands, they were forced in to mining and the Pampas and northern Patagonia region was seized from them.

Migration To Scotland


First official record of Roma/Gypsies in Scotland, noted in the Book of Gypsies in Scotland and noted in the Book of the Treasurer to the King.


First anti-Gypsy laws enacted in Scotland. The introduction of punitive measures designed to deter Gypsies from entering Scotland. In 1571 the legalisation of hanging and drowning Gypsies occurs.


Black People in Scotland

It is known that the presence of African people in Britain can be dated back to the Roman Empire. During Tudor England and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Africans visited the court or worked within it. In the 17th century and with the rise of British involvement in West Indian plantation cultivation and the enslavement of Africans as labour, more black people were brought to the United Kingdom as part of the wider Triangular Trade.


First slave runaway advertisement recorded.

“These are to give Notice, that there is run away from a West-Country Gentleman, a Black, he is a handsome gentile young Fellow as any of his Kind: Any Person or Persons who shall apprehend and secure said Black, so as that he may be got back to the Owner, let them come to Mr. Colin Mackenzie Gold-Smith in the Parliament-Closs in Edinburgh, or to Mr. Patrick Huston Merchant in Glasgow, and they shall have Three Guineas Reward, and Charges born them, and the Gentleman’s Kindness besides.”

-Edinburgh Evening Courant


Scipio Kennedy granted his freedom

At the beginning of the 18th century, when Scipio was around six years old, he was taken from Guinea and forced onto a slave ship bound for the West Indies. He was bought by Captain Andrew Douglas of Mains in Dunbartonshire. In 1705 Captain Douglas' daughter, Jean, married John Kennedy who, five years later, inherited the family home of Culzean Castle, Ayr, Scotland.

A contract of 1725, held at the National Archives of Scotland, granted Scipio his freedom. In the document, signed by John Kennedy and Scipio, he agreed to remain in Kennedy's employment for a further 19 years. He married a Scottish woman, had eight children and, when he died at the age of 80 in 1774, his son Douglas erected a gravestone to his memory in Kirkoswald graveyard.


Montgomery v Sheddan Trial

This case featured James (or Jamie) Montgomery, formerly 'Shanker', the slave of Robert Sheddan of Morrishill in Ayrshire. Jamie Montgomery had been baptised by Reverend John Witherspoon in Beith. His owner forcibly removed him to Port Glasgow and placed him on a ship bound for Virginia, but on 21 April 1756 Montgomery escaped to Edinburgh. He was apprehended following newspaper advertisements about his escape, which Sheddan had placed, and was incarcerated in the Edinburgh Tolbooth. Montgomery pursued his claim for freedom at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, but died before the case could be decided.


Knight v Wedderburn Trial

Joseph Knight was a man born in Africa acquired on the Guinea Coast at Anomabu and Cape Coast Castle and sold as a slave in Jamaica to John Wedderburn of Ballindean, Scotland. Wedderburn had Knight serve in his household, and took him along when he returned to Scotland in 1769. Inspired by Somersett's Case (1772) in England, in which the English courts had held that slavery did not exist under English common law, Knight brought a freedom suit against his master. Knight won his claim after two appeals in 1778, in a case that established the principle that Scots law would not uphold the institution of slavery.

1850s-20th century

Lascars: Asian Seamen

The British merchant marine throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries employed a large contingent of overseas colonial labour drawn mainly from the sub-continent of India. These sailors were known as Lascars. The term ‘Lascars’ is derived from the Persian word for army or camp follower, but in the colonial seafarer context carried the connotation of a low, subordinated status and of inferiority to ‘white’ workers.

Lascars were originally recruited by British ships plying between UK ports and India because of the ready supply of experienced seamen. Lascars usually were paid less and received less rations than white sailors. Parliament finally passed a law to regulate the pay and conditions of employment of Lascars, though this legislation was both beneficial and harmful to the Lascars. It established minimum standards of shipboard food and accommodation (which were initially lower than that of British seamen) but it also stipulated that Lascars could only leave their assigned ships when docked in Indian ports, which meant they were never allowed on British soil. This meant that they were technically deemed ‘illegal immigrants' if they chose to ‘jump ship.’

Glasgow was second only to London in the number of Lascars docked in the ports. In 1897, a ‘Mission to Lascars’ was established in Glasgow to ‘evangelise the Lascars’. The Mission House was headquartered in Hillhead and established by Aziz Ahmad who was initially taken to Trinidad as an indentured servant.

By the start of the new century the Indian, Chinese and other colonial seafarers were seen as an economic threat.


Irish Migration

The Irish were the largest group of people to migrate to Scotland. The Highland Potato Famine and the Irish Great Famine in the mid-1846-47 led to the influx of Highland and Irish migrants to the more-manufactory centred Lowlands. Approximately, 1000,000 Irish people settled in Scotland over the following decade influencing the social, religious and political landscape of Scotland.

Irish immigrants usually settled in or around their point of disembarkation, which tended to be on the west coast of Scotland, because of poverty and ill health. However, they also settled on the east coast, particularly Dundee, where a large female Irish community was established. Edinburgh, however, only had a small Irish community of 6.5% of the total population in 1851. The industrial towns of the west of Scotland saw large concentrations of Irish immigrants, with almost 29% of all Irish migrants settled in Glasgow.

Apart from some shared famine trends in the mid-1840s, Irish Famine migrants proved crucial to the growth of the Roman Church in Scotland. Three-quarters of the Irish incomers were Roman Catholics – and their arrival and installation contributed to a rebirth of Catholic institutions in Presbyterian Scotland. Throughout the Lowlands, new churches were built to accommodate the Irish – this contributed to the transformation of the urban landscape too.  The restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850 – although it was not re-established before 1878 in Scotland – made an impression on Scottish society. The ‘No Popery’ movement in Britain affected Scottish society faced with the incoming papist Irish. In Greenock, the July 1851 riots were directed against the Irish Catholics of Saint Mary’s parish and the sectarianism continued through to the 20th century.

As Catholic Irish immigrants declined in number in the late 1870s and 1880s, the population of Protestant Irish increased. Most of these new immigrants came from the most Orange counties of the north, such as Armagh. There had been historic links of an economic and religious kind between the west of Scotland and Ulster. Thus, the Protestant Irish faced nothing like the level of discrimination endured by the Catholic Irish.


Trespass Act

Scotland passes a law that criminalises camping on private land, on a road or cultivated land. The law therefore effectively curtailed the nomadic culture of the Gypsy Travellers.


Jewish immigrants in Scotland

Jewish immigrants arrived in Scotland from continental Europe throughout the 19th century, but larger migration occurred in the 1880s when Jewish people from Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia fled Eastern Europe due persecutory policies initiated by Russia against a number of minority groups. In 1881, 3.5% of the total foreign population of Scotland were Russian Jews. In 1901, this number had increased to 24.7%. In the early 1900s a strong Jewish community also emerged in the Gorbals due to the availability of affordable houses. In 1914 approximately 7000 Jews resided in Glasgow and about one thousand in Edinburgh.

Another wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in the 1930s as a result of Adolf Hitler’s persecution across Germany and German-occupied territory. The Glasgow Jewish community had increased to 10,000 by the 1930s.


Italian immigrants in Scotland

Italian people began to migrate to other European countries and the Americas in the 1870s due to the famine and poverty spurred by the Unification of Italy. The Unification broke down the existing feudal land system, which had survived since the Middle Ages, and whereas land had been the inalienable property of aristocrats, religious bodies or the king, it was now redistributed throughout the population. However, the redistribution of land did not lead to small farmers, especially in the south, being granted their own land or being granted land that could turn a profit. Many remained landless, and plots grew smaller and less productive. This prompted a mass migration of 25 million people from Italy.

Some Italians settled in Scotland during the 189os and many found work selling Catholic statues in the growing Catholic communities in Scottish towns and cities and establishing ice cream carts, shops, cafes, restaurants and pizzerias. By the end of the Great War a sizable Italian community had been established in Glasgow.

There were approximately 4,000 Italian people in Scotland by 1920. By the end of World War One, there were large communities in Glasgow, Inverclyde and Edinburgh.

During World War II the Italian community in Scotland faced internment and deportation. Hundreds of interned Italian men died when the ship they were on, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 2 July 1940.

Late 1800s-present

Polish Migration to Scotland

From the late 19th century to the beginning of the Great War many Poles came to Scotland to find work. Many worked in coal mines or in iron and steel making. Polish communities thrived in villages and towns in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, as well as in Glasgow.

During World War II after the fall of France, Polish troops were evacuated alongside the British from Dunkirk. Once they arrived in Scotland, the Polish created the 1st Polish Army Corps. The Polish forces helped build and man anti-invasion defences along the Scottish coast, including at Lossiemouth and Tentsmuir.. During the Clydebank Blitz the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun defended the Clyde shipyards - putting up heavy anti-aircraft fire against the Nazi bombers. Around 10,000 Poles stayed in Scotland after WWII.

Today Scotland has become home to a new generation of Polish immigrants. Since Poland became part of the European Union in 2004, many Poles have come to Scotland to work and live.


Lithuanian Migration

Following the failure of the Polish-Lithuanian uprising against the Russian Empire in 1863, Russia reacted by implementing so-called ‘Russification’ policies. These were processes of cultural and political assimilation. Public use of the Lithuanian language was forbidden, there was anti-Catholic discrimination by the Orthodox Church, and some areas of Lithuania were repopulated by ethnic Russians.

The Lithuanians who arrived in Scotland from Tsarist Lithuania came primarily from peasant stock and were predominantly Catholic and left Lithuania mainly because of the rapid deterioration in their standard of living due to the Russification policies, an increase in population, heavier taxation and a fall in grain prices. Between 1868 and 1914 about one in four Lithuanians migrated and approximately 7000 Lithuanians settled in Scotland during this period.

Many Lithuanians in Scotland worked in the iron and steel companies to dig coal in company-owned mines. As a result, a small Lithuanian community was established in the west of Scotland, particularly in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire where there was a local mining community.

The First World War had repercussions for entire Russian population of Scotland, but Lithuanians suffered greatly. Under the Anglo-Russian Military Convention of March 1917, male Russian nationals in Britain between the ages of 18-41 were compelled to join the British Army or return to Russia to serve out military service. About 1000 Lithuanian men residing in Scotland were repatriated to Russia, with only a third returning to Scotland following the war.


Scottish Gypsy Traveller Report

The report recommends extermination, deportation (to the colonies) and re-education programs as a means to eradicate nomadic culture.


Second World War Migration

One of the most important but unforeseen results of the upheavals caused by the Second World War and the long post-war European economic boom, which was fuelled by reconstruction and American investment, has been the creation of substantial immigrant communities in most West European countries.

The war was a major factor stimulating migration. In Britain the mobilisation of people in the armed forces, the expansion of the Merchant Navy and the harnessing of industry and agriculture for the war quickly caused serious labour shortages. These were only partly met by the recruitment of women, young people and Irish workers. Colonial workers were therefore recruited and brought to Britain, and others came voluntarily. The major examples of official government recruitment schemes were firstly a group of 1,200 British Hondurans who were recruited to fell timber in Scotland.


A wave of immigration post-WWII has transformed Scotland into a modern, multicultural nation, enriched by many customs, traditions, languages and beliefs. Far less has been documented on the 20th Century experiences of a generation of immigrants from India, China, Africa and the Caribbean. During the 19th Century and early 20th Century, Scottish immigration was dominated by largely white ethnic groups including Irish, Italians, Jews, Russian and Poles. A new pattern of immigration emerged during the 1950s and 1960s. The end of World War II drastically changing the British Empire and movement from ‘Commonwealth’ countries to the metropole dramatically increased, partially due to Britain’s much more open immigration policy.

Post-war immigration also attracted, for the first time, large numbers of workers and their families from outside Europe - mainly from the Caribbean and from India and Pakistan, the two separate states created by 'partition' after Britain relinquished its Indian empire in 1947. During the 1950s, in particular, Britain's non-white immigrant population increased rapidly in size. From the Indian subcontinent, the majority of immigrants arrived in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s. Although often lumped together as one group by white Britons, these newcomers in fact came from a variety of backgrounds. They included Hindus from the Gujarat region of western India, Sikhs from the eastern Punjab region, and Muslims both from the west part of Pakistan and from East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971.

The Asian population is the largest minority ethnic group (3% of the population or 141,000 people), representing an increase of one percentage point (69,000) since 2001.


Scotland and Poland: Historical Encounters

John M. MacKenzie and Nigel R. Dalziel, The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Identity, Gender and Race, 1772-1914, 2012

Stephen Mullen, Association Scots in the West Indies in the Colonial Period: A View from the Archives, SCOTTISH ARCHIVES 2016 Volume 22 © The Scottish Records

T.M. Devine & Angela McCarthy, The Scottish Experience in Asia, c.1700 to the Present: Settlers and Sojourners, Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series, Springer 2016

From Caledonia to the Pampas. Two Accounts by Early Scottish Emigrants to the Argentine. Edited by Iain A. D. Stewart. Pp. ix, 133. ISBN 1 86232 076 4.[tab] Phantassie, East Linton: Tuckwell Press. 2000. £16.99.

Italians in Scotland during World War II : https://www.ed.ac.uk/history-classics-archaeology/diaspora-studies/research/research-projects/italians-scotland


Lithuanians in Lanarkshire http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/immig_emig/scotland/strathclyde/article_3.shtml

T.M. Devine & Jenny Wormald, The Oxford Handbook of modern Scottish History

Géraldine Vaughn, The Irish Famine in a Scottish Perspective 1845-1851, https://journals.openedition.org/mimmoc/1763
Anne Dunlop & Robert Miles (1990) Recovering the history of Asian Migration to Scotland, Immigrants & Minorities, 9:2, 145-167.

The New Commonwealth Migrants 1945-62, https://www.historytoday.com/zig-henry/new-commonwealth-migrants-1945-62

National Archives, Post-war immigration, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/brave_new_world/immigration.htm

Subscribe to Our Newsletter?

Keep updated with all our news!