The Climatic Motive for Leaving Scotland, c.1770-c.1890: The Seventeenth Hermann Pálsson Lecture (2021)

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SCOTLAND CONTRIBUTED in significant per capita numbers to the estimated 55 million European migrants during the period 1815–1914 who were compelled to tramp land and cross ocean to reach the New World. Driven chiefly by economic dislocation, food and resource shortage and the prospects offered from a life lived elsewhere, the structural underpinnings to this resettlement had origins common across territories. Of the two million people from Scotland who swelled this flow, the motivation was similar but not simply the consequence of panicked flight. Given the high proportion of Scotland’s natural population growth that left each year between 1861 and 1930 – an average 44% per decade – the range of people who headed south to England’s towns and countryside, or arrived at the docks in Greenock to begin the most significant leg of their departure overseas, must have held occupations, and been in possession of skills and professional training, beyond the confines of agricultural labourers, the unskilled, unemployed or unemployable classes. Many if not all of those settler migrants had judged the prospects of staying within Scotland to be limited, as persistent hunger, land insecurity, underemployment and overcrowded unhealthy towns, left few opportunities for future comfort in a mature economy and society. Every adult migrant had made a decision that was personal and contingent on local circumstances and resources, although discernible economic and demographic factors gave shape to this movement. My focus is on one factor that was universal but specific, and which impacted upon Scots universally and specifically: the nation’s climate. Sometimes with direct causal effect, sometimes with delayed impact, the changing climate informed the decision-making process. To illustrate part of a wider argument on the ways in which climate change has shaped Scotland’s history of emigration, I link contemporary debate on the association between seasonality and ill health with coterminous exhortations to emigrants of the health affirming climate found in North America and the Antipodes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalNorthern Studies
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • Migration
  • Climate change
  • Meteorology
  • Scotland
  • Emigration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • General Environmental Science


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