Reviewed by: Rab Houston Author: TM Devine Publisher: Allen Lane Price (RRP): £25
As many as 50 million people today may be able to trace their ancestry to Scotland, because for centuries it had unusually high levels of emigration. In the century before 1939 alone, over two million people left this small country to settle in every corner of the globe.
Professor Devine’s solid exposition of this outpouring and the homeland that spawned it is at its best when describing movement, settlement, and employment overseas.
Placing Scotland in its European context, Devine sensibly avoids exceptionalism in a measured depiction of Scots who migrated, exploring (among much else) the very different effects of ‘Highlandism’ and ‘Braveheartism’ both in modern Scotland and around the world. He ranges widely over good and bad, including chapters with provocative titles such as “Did slavery help to make Scotland great?”
Nor is this a victimology, for most emigrants moved voluntarily to better their situation. Movers in the last two centuries were usually urban, industrial Lowlanders rather than dispossessed Highlanders.
Devine’s migrants have their own agency and, occasionally, their own voice. Yet the treatment detaches the reader from what it was like to move and “The emigrant experience in the new lands” is a set of anecdotes and catalogue of achievements. Similarly the chapter on “Settlers, traders and native peoples” is about what the former did to the latter rather than about interactions and creative adaptations on both sides.
While much is familiar from Devine’s earlier studies, the book goes beyond the British empire to discuss all the destinations in which Scots found themselves, notably the USA, where the contribution of Scots-Irish to the massive outpouring of Irish migrants is emphasised. Devine is still happiest discussing empire and only here do we get a feel for how migration influenced the culture and identity of the homeland.
There is little in the book that is innovative. The treatment is rooted in traditional economic history with whole chapters given over to economic and political narrative. One might have hoped someone of Devine’s stature would have offered the fruits of new research rather than a synthesis and ‘tentative road map’ for future historians.
The clear layout of chapters, packed with information and engaged with the existing historiography of migration, will make the book valuable for students. General readers, on the other hand, will require some stamina to get through the mass of description that it contains.
Rab Houston is author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008)