Scots abroad: The personal experiences of Scottish emigration to Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries

01 August 2022
‘Sunday in the Backwoods’ by Thomas Faed, 1859. Image courtesy of Wolverhampton Art Gallery
Using sources found in National Records of Scotland (NRS), archivist Veronica Schreuder explores how ordinary Scots felt leaving their home country and establishing a new life in Canada.

Scots have ventured to Canada for different reasons for over 1,000 years. One of the earliest documented sources of Scots landing on what we today call Canada, comes from the Saga of Eric the Red and the Viking expedition of 1010 AD to Vinland (Newfoundland), when the Viking Prince Thorfinn Karlsefni took two Scottish slaves on the voyage. 


It took another 500 years, however, until several European colonies were established in Canada.  Nova Scotia (New Scotland) was founded in 1621 by King James VI and I following the acquisition of a vast tract of land by Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, later Earl of Stirling, encompassing Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Gaspé Peninsula. To encourage finance and enthusiasm for the voyage, the King established a new order of nobility – the Baronets of Nova Scotia. Although over 300 baronetcies were purchased between 1625 and 1707, the creation of the new order failed to encourage colonisation. The few Scots who did participate in Sir William’s schemes encountered vigorous opposition from the French who claimed that area as part of New France. 

Detail from the sasine granting Scotland lawful possession of Nova Scotia, 1 October 1625 [Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland (NRS), RS1/18 page 353]

A plaque commemorating Scotland’s lawful possession of Nova Scotia at Edinburgh Castle [Crown copyright, NRS]

Some Scots ventured to Canada through their work in the fur trade. Employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company migrated temporarily to large areas of northern Canada, often for three to five years. For these visitors, life was challenging as they fought to survive bitter winters in the wilderness. On 21 August 1684 Thomas Bannatyne wrote from Charlton Island to his parents telling them:

 this contry which I am into is wery helthy and ther is abowndance of wild fowlls and venison to be had in it, it is full of woods and in the wintertime it is very cowld and all the rivers and a great part of the sea is frosen fast that yow may goe with cotches and hoars six month in the year, itt continoweth firm from the midell of October to the midell of Aprile cowld weather and frising but in the summer it was warm as in Ingland…My busynes hear in the contry is to goe in the spring into on of the vessels from the factory at Charilton Island with the goods that hath bein treaded from the Ingens and ther to put them on shoar that they may be takin accownt of, and packed up to be in redynes to put aboard of the ships when they come ther from Ingland

[NRS, RH15/14/41]

Detail from a letter by Thomas Bannatyne, Charilton Island in Hudson’s Bay, 21 August 1684 [NRS, RH15/41/14]

It was not until the later 18th century that Scots arrived in Canada in significant numbers. Civilian emigration was stimulated by fractures caused to the crofters’ way of life by improvements on Highland estates, their overpopulation, periodic crop failures and the devaluation of the price of cattle, and, after 1815, by the collapse of the kelp industry. 

The Scots who arrived in Pictou, Nova Scotia, on the Hector in 1773 epitomise the early Highland emigrant. Having left Scotland because of overcrowded crofts and crop failure, they sailed on an unseaworthy and badly-provisioned ship and endured great hardship during their first years in Canada. 

A replica of ‘The Hector’ built in 2000 [Credit: Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence]

By the early 1830s, The Emigration Commission were warning would-be emigrants against fraudulent offers of travel and encouraging them only to make the voyage if they had sufficient funds to support themselves on their arrival. 

Whilst efforts were made by some to entice emigration, many landowners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were generally opposed to the idea; Highland landowners wanted to keep tenants on their lands for the labour-intensive kelp industry and for providing men for Highland regiments. Writing on 27 December 1802, Dr William Porter, agent of the British Fisheries Society at Lochbay, Skye, commented to the secretary of the Society on the prevalence of ‘the spirit of emigration’ and the efforts by landowners to prevent it: 

We may venture to say that 9,700 have emigrated to Carolina, Canada & Nova Scotia since the Peace [the end of the war with France in 1801] and I can assure you that all the islands from the butt of the Lewis to Barra Head are in a ferment; every measure has been taken… to avert the Spirit of emigration…and I have been assured by one of the leading men of Uist that Petitions from the Magistrates had been transmitted…praying the interposition of Government, or they must be ruined.

[NRS, British Fisheries Society records, GD9/166/23 page 3]

Conversely, by the later 19th century, emigration was seen as an answer to Highland problems, especially during the crofting unrest and land reform agitation of the 1880s. In his report to the Under Secretary for Scotland on the first crofter emigration scheme, 4 June 1888, Malcolm McNeill commented on the speed with which it had been carried out. The Lewis emigrants sailed from Glasgow for Canada just 10 days after the colonisation scheme was set up. McNeill believed that despite this the project was a success and that given more time future migration drives could result in ‘a considerable reduction of population in the Lews.’ [NRS, Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department, emigration files, AF51/57]

Detail from a government poster providing ‘General Information for Intending Emigrants’ to Canada, Australasia and South Africa [Crown copyright, NRS,  Emigration files, AF51/91/1]

On 7 June 1888 the Glasgow Herald reported on this scheme. The author commented that despite the short time being given for applications to be made, and the discouragement given by the Land League, over 100 people wanted to emigrate. Like McNeill, this journalist felt that such schemes could usefully reduce congestion in Lewis: 

Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive 

Agents were appointed to help organise and promote emigration. Bailie Stuart from Inverness, for example, travelled with emigrants to help them on arrival and settle safely in Canada whilst securing employment. In Scotland he travelled the Highlands, speaking Gaelic to the inhabitants, and relaying the success of those who had left Scotland and became wealthier in the process. By the late 1800s the type of emigrant had transitioned from those looking for adventure to those hoping to improve their future in new lands.

An illustration of Bailie Stuart from The Dundee Courier, 26th August 1896. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive

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Building a New Life in Canada

Some of those who made the journey wrote letters to relatives in Scotland encouraging others to emigrate, whilst also warning of the differences in lifestyle in the new land they now called home. 

John Scott was living in Berlin-Waterloo Township, Upper Canada, when he wrote to his uncle Andrew Redford in Roxburghshire, Scotland on 29 August 1835. John reflected on the first impressions of emigrants when arriving in the new country: 

I believe most of the dissatisfaction... ([which] never lasts longer than a year or two) originates in the striking contrast between the external appearance of the 2 countries. I have indeed heard many say when they come out here, that they did not expect to find the country look so well as it did, but such sentiments do not accord with…[that of] the majority of emigrants…The fields are all fenced with rigrag fences made of split rails and these contrast strikingly indeed with your beautiful green hedges while in a newly settled district the black stumps give a peculiarly sombre and rugged aspect to the landscape…the log houses too present a shabby desolate appearance but ill calculated to convey those ideas of comfortable security which your substantial stone houses do – outward appearances however are but little attended to here in many things. I find, however, that a few months residence in the country in most instances reconciles a person to it…

[NRS, papers of the Knox and Redford families, Borders and Canada, GD1/813/1]

It was not only the foreign landscape and architecture that took adjusting to. Arthur and Mary Stocks wrote from their home at North Shearbroak, Upper Canada, on 10 December 1825 to Mr and Mrs John Colquhoun, Paisley, Scotland, reporting on the ‘Wild Beasts’ they had witnessed since their arrival:

deers are the largest that we have seen some of our neighbours have seen bears at different times …[and] found the effects of the bears [on their lots]; they did Eat up all the corn and destroyed it by breaking it down one of them visited our clearance and break down two or three hills of corn but had been frightened by the dog or the cows bell… he never returned they are easily frightened as the deer the worst kind of beasts that trouble us and are out worst enemies are the striped and brown squirell they destroy our corn by carrying it away to their hol[e]s below ground for which reason we had to get more cats than otherwise we would done.

[NRS, Colquhoun and McArthur families, Glasgow, Paisley and Canada GD1/814/5]

Many emigrants made a success of their new lives and as John Scott explained to his uncle in 1835:

You could come here, and purchase an improved land yourself, where you could commence farming without any trouble, and although this would require considerable outlay at first, still you would be able to raise profite without any delay…paying out money on land is perhaps the most profitable way in which it can be invested here at the banks you get 6 per cent interest, but an industrious family going on to a piece of land that is good and advantageously situated will by their improvements and the increasing value which land derives from the settlement of the country realise much more than this. This is the way in which a great many poor people elbow their way along to independence.

 [NRS, GD1/813/1]

Poster for Canadian National Railways, encouraging people to emigrate to Canada to work in farming [Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library/ONSLOW AUCTIONS LIMITED]

Not everyone enjoyed these opportunities. James Murison wrote to his brother Francis from his home in St Thomas on 20 August 1873, some 40 years after John Scott’s letter, lamenting that many people badly farmed their land and reflecting that had they been in Scotland they would have been rewarded with very little produce. Farms hundreds of miles further north were known to be more affordable and yielded better crops (NRS, GD1/808/6 item 4). Emigrants trialled different varieties of produce including turnips, potatoes and ‘India corn’ and raised horses, poultry, pigs and geese on their land, often supplementing their grown produce with milk from their cows (GD1/808/6 item 4).

A new colony: a new life

Scottish investment was essential to the development of Canada in the Victorian period. By 1884, three quarters of colonial investment companies had Scottish origins. In Canada, Scots financed agriculture, fishing, mining, timber and, particularly, land purchase and development. The timber industry not only provided an important source of employment for emigrants, it also supplied the raw materials for Scotland’s shipbuilding industry. The two countries were interdependent in this field: Canadian timber was needed in the Scottish shipyards, while Scottish shipbuilding skills were in demand, both in the construction of ships for Canadian fleets and in the supply of men to Canadian yards. 

Some emigrants encountered the native population, or ‘Indians’ as they were referred to at the time. Reactions to the natives of Canada ranged from fulsome praise to terror. Whilst foreign armies and settlers were often violent towards the Canadian indigenous people, good relations were vital for the peaceful development of trade and settlement. Efforts were made by the department of Indian Affairs to build on and foster a peaceful atmosphere.  They negotiated land settlements, distributed presents and awarded pensions. In July 1828 a General Council of the Six Nations was held at Mohawk Village with representatives from the Department to discuss compensation for losses sustained in the war with America. The Council’s proceedings illustrate the ceremony of such occasions: the giving of an Indian name to the Superintendent of the Department, the performance of the ceremony of condolence and the handing over of a length of wampum [traditional shell bead] to seal the agreement. (NRS, Dalhousie Muniments, GD45/3/511)

Many emigrants found leaving Scotland an emotional and difficult experience. In a letter to his cousin in Hermiston in 1840, John Scott, a doctor in Southern Ontario, originally from the Scottish Borders, asked for news of all his family and friends in his hometown and looked back nostalgically at his old life:

oh what a change has come over the spirit of my dream since I used to run about Lilliesleaf…after the lapse of six years my heart still warms when I think on many localities in my native land which I used to frequent and the friends and acquaintances I have left behind.

[NRS, Scott, Knox and Redford family letters, GD1/813/4] 

A poster depicting a Scottish emigrant far from his native land recalls the songs he heard at his mother’s knee and yearns to hear them again. c.1860 [Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library/GROSVENOR PRINTS]

About five years later John’s brother Archibald also wrote from Canada to his cousin, describing his continued homesickness for Scotland: 

I feel almost as strong an affection for Scotland and my friends there as ever I did. You can scarcely form an idea of a person’s feelings and emotions who has been absent from his native Country so long as I have been. Time and distance give a sort of enchantment, a melancholy pleasure which words are quite unable to express.

[NRS, GD1/813/17]

‘The Emigrants’ statue in Helmsdale, Sutherland. The poignant inscription in English and Gaelic reads: ‘The Emigrants commemorates the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who, in the face of great adversity, sought freedom, hope and justice beyond these shores. They and their descendants went forth and explored continents, built great countries and cities and gave their enterprise and culture to the world. This is their legacy. Their voices will echo forever thro the empty straths and glens of their homeland.’ [Image reproduced from Wikipedia via Creative Commons]

Scots Overseas Month was produced in August 2022, in association with Highland Titles and
supported by National Records of Scotland and Family Tree.