‘Idly sauntering and lithering about’: The Scots in early modern England

25 September 2018
4-06511.jpg Bristol, a major centre of Scottish settlement because of its links to the Atlantic sugar and slave trades
An exclusive extract from a new study of the migration of Scots to England in the 17th and early 18th centuries. By Professor Keith Brown and Dr Allan Kennedy

Writing under the pen name ‘Andrew Scriblerus’, one anonymous English writer declared in 1731 that England was, and had been for decades, awash with Scottish immigrants ‘idly sauntering and lithering about’. 

His complaint – allied to much mockery about the rude, avaricious and poverty-stricken nature Scottish settlers, characteristics which he saw as reflecting their rugged and unappealing homeland – was typical of a certain style of ‘Jock’-bashing popular in 17thand early-18thcentury England. It also reflected an undeniable truth. There really were many Scots living south of the border in this period, so much so that they made up one of England’s most prominent minority groups. Yet historians know very little about this Scottish community, what it did, how it was composed, and how the English reacted to it on an everyday level.

Studies of Scottish migration

Our relatively sketchy knowledge about Scottish migration to early modern England is all the more surprising because diaspora studies has been one of the major growth areas in recent Scottish historical scholarship. Important, pathfinding studies on Scottish migration to the Low Countries, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia have vastly improved our understanding of the Scot abroad, and to this body of work can be added a better-established, but still growing historiography of Scottish settlement in Ireland and North America. 

But historians have been loath to turn their attention to England, perhaps because, after 1603, and still more after 1707, migration south of the border could be written off as merely a domestic affair, lacking the drama and glamour of overseas migration.

A project at the University of Manchester, running since 2011, has aimed to redress this balance by surveying Scottish movement to England between 1603 and the 1760s, assessing how the Scots were received, and how they assimilated into English society. This study gives an overview of the results. 

While part 2 will deal with questions of identity and assimilation, this opening instalment looks at more fundamental questions. How substantial was Scottish migration in this period? What type of person migrated and why? Where in England did the Scots go? And how did they support themselves once they got there?

Content continues after advertisements

Where were the Scots?

Assessing the experience of Scottish migrants in early modern England is made more complex by the substantial difficulties involved in finding them. The central problem is the absence of a coherent run of sources. 

Much of the documentation traditionally used by migration historians to trace population movement – passenger lists, registers of aliens, or census data, for example – was either not compiled in England at this time, or did not apply to the Scots, especially after the legal judgement of 1608, known as ‘Calvin’s Case’, that granted Scots born after 1603 de factonaturalisation as English. 

To make matters worse, it is probable that many Scottish migrants who did find their way into written records were mis-recorded as being Irish or northern English. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to measure such errors, let alone adjust for them. 

We are left, as a result, trying to scrabble together a picture from random data-points contained in a diversity of sources, ranging from newspaper coverage to poor relief documents to institutional registers. Consequently, firm conclusions are difficult to reach, particularly in terms of quantitative information like, for example, the overall size of the Scottish diaspora south of the border.

Scots in LondonWhere did Scots settle?

Nonetheless, enough information is available to suggest some broad trends. For example, scattered small-scale studies conducted at the time imply that about 6% of London’s population was Scots-born by the 18thcentury, which would suggest up to 35,000 London-Scots in 1700 and closer to 60,000 by 1750 – figures (admittedly tentative) that imply a migration from Scotland to England as a whole numbering in the hundreds, rather than tens, of thousands. Equally, while quantification is impossible, it seems fairly clear that Scottish settlement was not evenly distributed. 

No part of England was completely terra incognitafor 17th- and 18th-century Scots, and at least one migrant has been identified settling in every county. But some areas were less popular; the Midlands, for example, yield little evidence of Scottish settlement, as do East Anglia and Cornwall. 

Conversely, substantial numbers of Scots certainly made their way to the northern counties, particularly Northumberland and Yorkshire, and there seems to have been a sizeable Scottish presence in the Gloucestershire area. In each of these cases, it was apparently the towns that drew Scots in; Berwick, Newcastle, Hull, Bristol and other urban centres housed the bulk of the Scottish community within their respective locales.

Scots in London

The primary target for Scottish migrants, however, was London. This is hardly a surprise because, even though the position of the capital may have been declining relative to other English towns during the early part of this period, it remained easily the largest, richest and most diverse city anywhere in Britain or Ireland. It was thus a magnet for upwardly-mobile migrants of all extractions, and the Scots were no different. 

Indeed, if the estimates offered above are even in the correct ballpark, they suggest that there were probably more Scots living in 18th-century London then in any other town or city in the world, with the exception of Edinburgh. The Scots were abundant enough to begin developing a distinct settlement geography; while it would be wrong to speak of Scottish ghettoes in this period, parts of the city – such as the Strand or St Martin the Field – were particularly thickly settled with Scots. 

London was unique among English cities in that there were sufficient Scots for recognisable ethnic institutions to emerge, albeit at low intensity. The Scots Corporation, formally founded in 1665 but building upon much earlier foundations, was the most obvious example, and it occupied itself with offering charitable assistance to down-and-out London-Scots from its headquarters at Blackfriars. There were a number of Scottish Presbyterian congregations affiliated with the Church of Scotland, with the most important emerging at Lothbury in the 1660s. 

These formal linkages were reinforced, as we will see in part two of this study, by a good deal of informal networking, all of which helped London become the most significant city within the Scottish diaspora – a fact which has major, although hitherto curiously overlooked significance for our understanding of both Scottish and British history in the early modern period.