Seducing Agriculturalists: Allowing Scottish Farmers to Emigrate

Last week, I wrote about the strange trend in the Scottish press to attack the seemingly non-existent seduction of industrial labourers to North America and Australia. Their treatment of agriculturalists, whether affluent farmers or lowly labourers, was quite different.

In the early post-war years, the influx of labour—in the form of demobilised soldiers—and a sharp fall in domestic demand for foodstuffs and industrial goods prompted Scotland to send forth a large number of her sons and daughters to the far reaches of the British Empire. In response, conservative-minded men in the public press attempted to stem the flow through disparaging accounts of North America, the most popular destination. Reports of Canada and the United States, in particular, attempted to dispel rumours of agricultural paradise and paint a more realistic (and unattractive) portrait of their prospects. One contributor to the Dumfries Courier asserted that he knew

a good deal about that part of the American Continent, where our countrymen have to encounter a long and severe winter, and extreme heat in summer, and where the lower classes of the inhabitants are often in danger of perishing  from absolute want.

Such harsh denials of American opportunity, however, seem to have had little effect on the general population, who often circumvented public discourse and ask for the ‘truth’ from friends and family abroad. Men and women alike queried the wages of skilled and unskilled labourers and made sophisticated calculations regarding their future security; it was not merely raw wages that mattered, but the costs of relocation and accommodation and their continuing access to informal support networks. Some, hoping to secure employment within their existing network, attempted to pressure earlier emigrants  into hiring them. One young man assured his brother in New York that ‘as you have so mutch land and so many beasts you cannot be doing without servants.’

By 1820, a new pattern of discourse appeared that continued well into the Victorian period. As far as the press was concerned, men and women could  successfully emigrate across the Atlantic, but they must follow two steadfast rules.

  1. Stay within the empire.
  2. Only farmers should make the attempt; mechanics and artificers were neither welcome nor would find happiness there.

Even then, the accounts were often ambivalent. According to one reprinted emigrant letter,

They need not think to find this such a clear country, where agriculture, roads, bridges, &c. are brought to such perfection as they are in Britain [but those] who are accustomed to farming, and can bring a little money with them, they are the fittest subjects for America.

As to those with industrial backgrounds, they were only welcome along the St. Lawrence if they had the spirit to change occupation; and to this end, the proprietor of the Dumfries Courier noted hopefully:

Poverty & despair that can make even cowards brave would in the course of a very little time, transform the pale-faced mechanic into a farmer and a husbandman.

In truth, the distinction between farmer and mechanic is not without cause. Although unskilled and agricultural labourers were frequently in demand as Britain’s North American colonies expanded westward, the need for industrial skill was limited throughout the nineteenth century. More importantly, while skirmishes over the migration of industrial labourers raged in North America, the demand for men and women of all capacities was growing in Britain’s Antipodean colonies. Of course, the first calls remained restricted to agriculturalists—farmers, ploughmen and farm labourers. Tempting migrants south rather than west, however, required a sharp rise in aggressive advertising. Subscribers to Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine, for example, were reminded that

The question is not, how you may maintain a surplus peasantry in the land that gave them birth, but, whether you will stop emigration to the frozen shores of Canada, and to the United States, or divert and encourage it to the finest colony in the world. We surely have learnt enough of North America to convince us of the degraded and miserable condition of its people. South Africa, on the other hand, has every advantage to repay the sacrifice of quitting the land of our forefathers.

As the reach of the empire grew, so too did opportunities for Scotland’s emigrants. By 1825, the Australasian colonies  of New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand were actively and whole-heartily endorsing the immigration and settlement of all classes of Britons. One published letter writer hoped that

hoped the philanthropists at home will send us out the starving labourers and weavers of Britain. We have meat, work, and wages for thousands, and one of the finest climates in the world.

Both mechanics and farmer, it seems, were needed to expand these Antipodean colonies and good wages were to be had. On the one hand, agriculturalists were guaranteed a fruitful living. One writer, after waxing poetic on the beauteous nature around him, conceded that

A field of corn is a more pleasing object to a settler than all the waterfalls, rocks and fountains, that nature can set before him, and our corn fields are not the least interesting part of our prospects. Added to a surprising fertility of soil, the temperature of this climate is peculiarly favourable to the culture of wheat, the crops of which may be calculated with almost absolute certainty. Wheat must be here always a valuable commodity, whether in the shape of grain or spirit, or turned into pigs and hams. […] Vegetable growth is, in this country as well as in the sister colony, surprisingly rapid and luxuriant. All English vegetables and fruits succeed in Van Dieman’s Land; and all much finer than in the mother country. At Sydney all the fruits of the warm latitudes thrive in great perfection. We may have within these colonies oil, wine, corn, beer, sugar, cotton, tobacco, every thing. At no distant period these countries will start into importance, as they already have to abundance and independence. We at present want very little from any part of the globe, and we shall soon want nothing.

On the other hand,

the encouragement mechanics would meet with here is boundless. Any carpenter, smith, bricklayer, mason, or cabinet-maker, who could raise money enough to pay for his passage, and that of his family to this island, though he should arrive here without a shilling, might immediately live here in affluence compared with his present state in England, and need not wait a day after landing for work.

Thus, these southern colonies demanded a more rounded slice of Britain’s population. They were even able to actively counter the long-held belief that Britain’s industrious labourers (farm or industrial) should remain at home.

There may be in the minds of some’ once commentator allowed ‘an objection to the notion of any considerable number of labourers being as it were draughted from the labour market [but] In many cases, such parties have sent home to their friends the means of taking them out—these friends being in comparative penury at home. [Moreover] If this be true with regard to Englishmen, will it not be so with regard to Scotchmen, notorious for their clanism?

Yet, it should be noted that even idyllic Australia had its limitations. When encouraged to join his sister  in Australia, Robert Beveridge noted that Australia was ‘not a good place for one who is good only at figures. I am convinced that I could not be in a better place than Glasgow.’

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