Arrival and Settlement

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Scots/J.m. Bumsted

The period from 1871 to 1914 saw a number of shifts in the pattern of Scottish immigration to Canada. One concerned the ratio of Highland to Lowland immigrants. By the mid-nineteenth century, the clearances had pruned the Highlands of their excess population. Consequently, though immigration schemes involving Highland crofters continued to be highly visible and publicized, much of the immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries consisted not of Highlanders but of Lowland agricultural farmers and labourers displaced by another great round of agricultural transformation. The destination of these Lowland migrants increasingly was the rapidly opening Canadian west, though many continued to settle in southwestern Ontario.

After 1900, Scottish immigrants to Canada included larger numbers of industrial workers, particularly those involved in iron and steel as well as heavy machinery. Some of these workers had experience of labour unions and militancy which they put to good use in Canada. There were occasional schemes of government assistance by the British (especially Scottish) authorities, but, in contrast to earlier years, a good deal of the assisted emigration of the post-1871 period was specifically targeted to women and children and involved a variety of Victorian private philanthropic agencies and societies rather than government. Indeed, government-assisted emigration (to Canada and elsewhere in the Empire) before World War I was dealt a crucial blow by the failure of schemes for Highland crofter emigration in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

After much enforced depopulation through the 1850s, the Highlands of Scotland entered a period of stability in the 1860s and 1870s in which there was unprecedented prosperity, especially in terms of high prices for black cattle. Then, beginning in the 1870s, a new round of clearances began. The profits from sheep farming declined, chiefly because of competition from the antipodes, and the lairds began converting their estates into hunting preserves through the expansion of acreage in forest. The result was the eerie deer forest, in which no foliage was allowed to grow above thigh level lest it obscure the target. While the sporting estates provided some employment for a few Highlanders, such as gamekeepers and household servants, they were absolutely disastrous to the smallholding crofter, who needed the land for cultivation and grazing. Moreover, deer often destroyed crofter crops. The conversion to deer forests prevented any radical reforms of the landholding system in the Highlands, but it was not achieved without considerable protest from the crofting community. Although landholding was not radically altered, the government did move after the mid-1880s to a policy of protecting the crofters.

Early in 1883 the British government appointed a royal commission to investigate the crofters’ grievances. Among the commission’s many recommendations in its 1884 report was that the state support family emigration from overcrowded and troubled crofter districts. The government did not take action on this recommendation until after an outbreak of protest on the Isle of Lewis in 1888, when the newly created Scottish Office announced a scheme for establishing Scottish colonies from the Hebrides on the Canadian prairies. Like most government-assisted settlement schemes over the years, this one was a disaster. It was hastily conceived and ill funded, and the small settlements begun at Pelican Lake, Manitoba, and Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, did not prosper. The fiasco led Sir George Trevelyan, secretary of state for Scotland, to tell parliament in 1893 that there would be “many a long year” before the British government again contemplated publicly assisted colonization.

The period from 1870 to 1914 saw a marked movement of Scottish population from the countryside to the cities. Much of this population found employment, but the emigration put heavy demands on a poor-relief system that only slowly changed from a traditional set of principles extremely hostile to helping anybody except the permanently disabled. There seemed a particular surplus of unskilled labour in the cities. Meanwhile, despite the departure of thousands, Scottish farming continued between 1870 and 1914 to suffer from overpopulation and new competition from abroad. The grain farmer found the British market flooded with high-quality Canadian wheat, and the livestock producer found refrigeration bringing cheap meat and dairy products from Australasia. Although late-Victorian Scotland was about as prosperous as Scotland would ever become, success was to a considerable extent achieved at the expense of the workers. Underemployment was endemic. As late as 1911 nearly half of the Scottish population lived in one- or two-room dwellings, while only 7.5 percent of the English people endured such conditions. Among reformers and philanthropists, the appalling conditions under which much of the Scottish urban working class lived provoked a strong sense of impending Armageddon, and immigration to the settlement colonies was in many circles regarded as an important part of the answer.

Female emigration from the British Isles, including Scotland, had been encouraged since the 1830s, but it increased considerably after 1880, when several societies (including the Women’s Emigration Society, the Colonial Emigration Society, and the British Women’s Emigration Society) sponsored the relocation of more than 22,000 women, mainly to Canada. Few of these societies were specifically Scottish or recruited solely in Scotland, although the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union, under the direction of the Countess of Aberdeen, sent over 300 female immigrants to Canada in this period. Many of the women and girls recruited for immigration to Canada from Scotland were intended to enter domestic service, but the opportunity for marriage was also stressed. The emphasis of female recruitment was always on respectability rather than charity. In addition to the female emigration societies, locally based Canadian agents also recruited women emigrants, and many advertisements appeared in Scottish newspapers seeking domestic servants for Canadian homes. Scottish servants were often preferred, since they had the reputation of being both hard-working and God-fearing, qualities that appealed to Victorian Canadians.

The Salvation Army’s General William Booth believed that “to the proper building up and cementing of the British Empire thousands of godly, healthy, strong women are immediately absolutely essential to the Colonies,” and the Army was active in the early years of the twentieth century in helping single women to emigrate. The Women’s Domestic Guild of Canada supervised the recruitment of over 1,000 females a year from the British Isles, many of whom came from Scotland, and the Montreal-based Women’s Canadian Employment Bureau was also active. The bureau had been organized in 1907 to “supply a reliable medium between Employer and Employed, and to secure Local and Emigrant Domestic Servants and Other Women Workers of good character and ability; also to insure to Emigrants, disinterested advice, protection, and carefully selected situations, and introduction to their respective religious denomination.” Many unattached women immigrating to Canada did so on their own, without any assistance whatsoever. Given the difficulties often experienced by those under the supervision of formal agencies, those without assistance probably frequently had unfortunate experiences.

Because skilled domestic servants of “respectable” background – the major targets of the female recruiters – were in great demand everywhere, it was difficult to exploit them too completely. The situation was somewhat different for others. By the mid-1880s over sixty private societies in Britain (most of which were loosely associated with the National Association for Promoting State-Directed Emigration and Colonisation) were involved in assisted emigration. Some were based in Scotland, and most actively recruited there. The aims of these philanthropic societies were many and varied. There was a constant undertone of imperialism, but most sought chiefly to help the needy, particularly destitute and orphan children, to achieve what one philanthropist called “salvation from moral ruin.” One of the chief Scottish agencies was Quarrier’s Orphan Homes at Bridge of Weir, opened in 1878, which saw voluntary immigration as a chief means of rescue. By the time the organization closed in 1933, nearly 7,000 children had been sent to Canada under its auspices.

Quarrier and other Victorian philanthropic bodies dealing with the immigration of children came in for much criticism at the time, and orphan immigration to Canada has not had a very good press in recent years. Contemporaries complained either that the philanthropists were weakening the mother country at the expense of the Empire, or, alternatively, that they were dumping the dregs of British society upon the colonies. Many of the children sent to Canada had come from “bad homes,” but few actually delinquent children were forwarded to Canada. Later historians have emphasized that many of the “little immigrants” were placed into unsupervised labour situations of extreme exploitation, especially in the rural districts, and basically forgotten. The Quarrier operation was generally an exception. This institution, which dealt mainly with illegitimate children, built its own “reception centre” (called Fairknowe) at Brockville, Ontario. There, the Scottish children were supervised until situations were found for them, and they were carefully followed by a trained staff until they were twenty-one years of age.

Perhaps the most successful and extensive philanthropic operation, not confined to Scotland, was run by the Salvation Army, which saw immigration to the colonies as the final step in a lengthy process of rehabilitation of the permanently destitute. The Army tried to be selective. The 13,000 immigrants it sent to Canada in 1906 were chosen from over 100,000 applicants. Most of its clientele came from the cities, were mainly between ages twenty and thirty, and were over 70 percent male. By 1930 the Army had sent out over 200,000 British immigrants to Canada, very few of whom – it claimed – were deported or returned dissatisfied. The actual percentage of Scots included in these numbers is unknown, since the Army’s immigration records were destroyed by a German bomb during World War II, but it was substantial. Most of the emigrants from Scotland under the Salvation Army’s auspices appear to have come from Glasgow and vicinity. One analysis of surviving records between 1913 and 1922 indicates that the bulk of the immigrants departed in family groups. They came from a wide variety of occupations, but few were professionals; the largest group consisted of domestic servants and housewives. They settled widely across Canada from Quebec westward, almost totally avoiding the Maritime provinces.

Until at least the 1870s, Lowland Scotland was able to absorb the bulk of its increasing population, so that most of those agriculturalists departing for British North America were pulled by the attraction of land ownership as much or more than by the absence of prospects at home. That pull continued after 1870 as the Canadian government sought to populate the Canadian west by offering homestead land for the costs of improving it. Immigration recruiters from various western land companies, the Canadian government, and the provinces operated aggressively throughout Scotland. Not all the promotion focused on the Canadian west. A number of emigrants from the northeast region of Scotland were attracted to New Kincardineshire in New Brunswick in the 1870s. “They said that there was about 40 trees on the acre,” wrote one colonist, “but 400 on the acre is like the thing.” Those who stuck with the settlement appear to have prospered, but attrition was heavy among a people not accustomed to heavy forestation. Of course, one of the great selling points of the Canadian prairies was that settlers would not have to clear 400 trees to the acre. Being able to plough the land with minimal preparation was clearly an advantage, although many a settler ultimately wished for a few more trees to provide building material and firewood. Burning flax in stoves, as many homesteaders were forced to do, was a tricky business.

Immigration from Scotland to the prairies was slow in building. Most of the 21,615 Scots (out of a total population of 137,234) in the west according to the 1881 federal census were either part of earlier movements or from eastern Canada. The assisted Highlanders of the 1880s did not add much in the way of population, although after 1885 there was a steady influx of Scots, mainly Lowlanders, into the west. But by the turn of the century, Scots comprised a substantial proportion of the massive flow of emigrants from the British Isles that entered Canadian ports, mainly bound for the prairies and British Columbia. According to Canadian government figures in June 1904, for example, 12,627 Scots had departed from Glasgow for Canada in the previous twelve months. Of this group, 3,391 headed to Manitoba, 1,005 to what were shortly to become the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and 445 to British Columbia, for a total of 4,841 (38 percent) intending settlement in western Canada. Data for 1909 showed that, of 11,810 arrivals in Canada from Scotland, some 5,157 (or 43 percent) had western destinations. Before World War I, Manitoba was the most highly preferred destination in western Canada for Scots, and, according to the 1911 federal census, that province contained the largest number of people of Scots ancestry, although British Columbia had the greatest proportion. (See Table 5.)

Most of the “Scots” in the west were not born in Scotland and had obviously come from eastern Canada and the United States. Also, not all Scots settled on agricultural land and became farmers: by 1916 there were 31,392 people of Scots origin in Winnipeg. They represented 19 percent of the city’s total population of 163,000 and 28 percent of its population of British origin. Finally, not all Scots went west. The province that attracted the most Scots settlers – although not proportionate to population – was Ontario, where rural Scots in Elgin County created the society and culture so lovingly described by John Kenneth Galbraith in his autobiographical memoir The Scotch (1964).

Of the many contemporary records of Scottish settlement in the Canadian west, perhaps the most revealing are the letters of William Wallace (1859–1943). A Lowlander, William in 1881 left Glasgow to accompany his fifty-nine-year-old father and fifteen-year-old brother to

Table 5 Scottish populations in western provinces, 1911
Total Scots
Province population ancestry % Scots
Manitoba 455,614 82,861 18.2
Saskatchewan 493,432 70,753 14.3
Alberta 374,663 54,884 14.6
British Columbia 392,480 74,493 18.9

farm in Brandon, Manitoba, and then moved on to the Shell River district in the southwestern part of the province. Staying behind in Scotland was William’s sister Maggie, who taught school and was the recipient of a regular stream of informative and descriptive letters until she herself migrated to Manitoba in 1904. Peter Wallace, Michael’s father, claimed to have farmed since childhood, but William himself had apprenticed as a clerk. Thus the Wallaces represented the transition between the Scottish generations that had tilled the soil and those that had moved to the cities. The Wallace brothers worked hard and succeeded as farmers, although they might not have done so without their sister’s long-distance contributions from her meagre salary.

Despite having come from Scotland as an independent and unassisted family that did not settle in a predominantly Scottish district of Canada, the Wallaces made a serious attempt to maintain Scottish culture on the Manitoba frontier. William Wallace clearly saw himself as a Scot rather than as a “Brit.” In his letters he describes his neighbours in considerable detail. Never once does he use the term “British.” Each settler from the British Isles is given a precise region of origin and often a social categorization as well. Interested in music, William wrote home constantly for traditional Scottish music to play on his fiddle, and his family helped found the local Presbyterian church in which he played the organ. When William later played the organ for the “English” church as well, many of the older Presbyterians in his congregation became upset.