The Higland emigrants monument

The Higland emigrants monument

Perhaps you are looking for a more “intimate” view of what life was like for your Scottish ancestors. Whether they lived in the Highlands or the Lowlands, look no further than the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. While the Wikipedia article gives some background on their history, there is nothing quite like just starting to read these volumes. Honestly, the Statistical Accounts of Scotland for genealogy information are amazing sources.

With just an exception or two, one is unlikely to encounter one’s family by name unless you’ve descended from the landed nobility of Scotland. If you, like I, have descended instead from the lower classes, you will simply see your family recorded in various tables of servants or farmworkers or fishermen or what have you. Nonetheless, these volumes give an uncanny reckoning of the life of the people, back in the day. We learn, for example, that entire counties were held in the hands of a few, largely noble, landowners. Everyone else was either a tenant owing rent to the lord or simply a day-laborer owning little more than the clothes on their backs and possibly the tools of their trade.

As recently as 1834 (the year of the second Statistical Account), rents paid to various nobles are referred to as feu-duty, which was a form of ground rent on property. This term, feu, is a Scot’s form of the word, fee, going back as it does to notions of feudalism. What is perhaps even more amazing is that this form of rent to a lord was only abolished in Scotland in 2000.

Until 1832, the right to vote in the United Kingdom was extremely limited being vested only in landowners whose property was valued at over 40 shillings, this rule going back 400 years to 1432. In 1832, a Reform Act passed that allowed the vote to adult males who rented property over a given value at which point 1 in 7 men in the UK could vote. Before 1707, Scotland had its own parliament; but in that year, Scotland united with England and there was thereafter only a parliament of Great Britain. So, in the mid-1800s, only a relatively few male Scots had the vote, and their representatives attended a distant, and predominantly English, parliament.

The first Account was published around 1791, 45 years after the second Jacobite rising had been quelled. The economy of the shires was predominantly agricultural, almost feudal. Most of the parishes described in the Accounts of either 1791 or 1835 have a total population of less than 5,000. Outside of fishermen, some government officials, and the clergy, and the occasional alehouse or distillery, uniformly everyone else is engaged in agriculture. To some extent, one might even argue that the brewers and distillers are simply an extension of local agriculture, malting and fermenting the local barley. Movement out of one’s class position would have been nearly impossible unless one either left for a large city or decamped to America or Australia. However, the 1803 Passenger Vessels Act made the cost of leaving the UK £10 per person, which was prohibitive for any poor family. This amount is roughly equivalent to $2,000 at present. At the time, this would be roughly worth 4 or 5 years wages of unskilled labor.

The solution for anyone desiring to leave Scotland and didn’t have the equivalent of a few thousand dollars in today’s money was to become an indentured servant to a ship’s captain, on his way to America. Upon arrival, the captain would sell the indenture to anyone looking for servants. A typical price paid would be £15, the captain making a profit on the transport of the individuals. Such servants would receive no pay during the term of their indenture to their new effective owners, but would be housed, clothed and fed. In spite of the conditions of indenture, the Statistical Accounts for many parishes show a reduction in population by 1835 due to emigration in this way. This implies some Scot, male or female, finding their way to a port city like London, finding a ship on its way to America, signing an indenture to the captain, lasting the 6-month voyage, being effectively sold at auction upon landing, and then working out their indenture for 3 years or more. If this process was extensive enough to put a dint into the population growth of much of Scotland, one can only imagine that the conditions of remaining must have been seen by many as no better than the conditions of leaving. At least you were free after you’d worked off the instrument of indenture. Mind you, if you were a women who became pregnant during your term of indenture, you’d have another 2 years tagged on. About the only legal distinction between indenture and slavery was that indenture had a fixed term.

Another dynamic in this emigration was the Highland Clearances and the Lowland Clearances. My own family is from Banffshire way up in NE Scotland, and the parishes here appear to have been immune to much of these problems, at least until the predations of WWI and the influenza epidemic of 1918. Scottish casualties in WWI were double those of the English (20% versus 10%). The 1918 flu pandemic was a further tipping point. My grandfather’s family album showed many of his relations in uniform, lost at war. His first wife perished in the flu pandemic. My father was a child of my grandfather’s second wife; and they left Scotland in 1926, relatively late in a process that began nearly 300 years earlier.

The population of Scotland in 2001 was around 4,500,000. In the same year, the population of the United States that reported Scottish ancestry is over 9,400,000 while that of Canada was about 4,700,000 and that of Australia was 1,500,000. Considering that the total population of Canada is about 1/10th that of the US, the proportion of Scots there is much more significant. But the total population of the US, Canada and Australia with Scottish ancestry is over three times that of Scotland itself. Looking back over the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, and speaking as just one voice for those who left, it is hard to argue against the choices of our ancestors to come to America, Canada, or Australia (to the extent that they had a choice).

So, if you were writing a family history, and assuming that your Scottish ancestors left during any of these troubled times from about 1700 onwards, you will likely find valuable and detailed information about the geography, climate, economy, population, flora and fauna, and history of the part of Scotland that your ancestors came from. But don’t stop there. Read on, MacDuff, read about the neighboring parishes to get a broad sense of how this place worked back in the day. Then look up and around you, and consider the hardships they went through in order to get you to wherever you are now. And thank them.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: