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The Scottish diaspora and Scottish independence

24 Jun 2014

Emigration and identity

Much of the discussion around the relevance of migration and migrants to the Scottish independence debate revolves around the effects of independence on current immigration policies in Scotland and the rest of the UK. But in the last two centuries, Scotland’s population change has been characterised more by emigration than by immigration.

While this long period of emigration is often discussed in the context of the loss of young, productive and talented people from Scotland, and in raising questions about whether the nation’s economic development suffered as a result, it also led to a huge Scottish ‘diaspora’ – communities of Scottish descent that have become established all over the world. This diaspora has significant implications for Scotland’s role in the world, from both a cultural and an economic standpoint.

Clear data on the actual size of the Scottish diaspora are hard to come by and are critically dependent on how one chooses to define ‘Scottish diaspora’. The number of people born in Scotland and living outside the UK, for example, is estimated at about 200,000, while about 850,000 Scottish-born people are believed to live elsewhere in the UK (Shaw 2013). The population of Scotland, in contrast, stood at 5.3 million in the 2011 Census.

These relatively modest numbers are dwarfed, though, by estimates of the size of the ‘Scottish diaspora’ using looser interpretations of the term that include those with more distant Scottish ancestry, in particular those who still consider themselves to be, in some way, Scottish. When these more distant ‘Scots’ are included, estimates of the size of the diaspora increase to more than 30 million (Sim 2011) – with some suggesting the number could be as high as 100 million. Clearly, larger numbers relate to those whose sense of Scottishness is based on more distant heritage – potentially going back several generations – or even less tangible relationships with Scotland.

But while there may be much debate over the size or correct definition of the Scottish diaspora, it seems clear that a strong and enduring sense of ‘Scottish’ identity is important enough to be a fundamental part of the personal identity of many descendants of Scottish emigrants. It is this sense of identity, in particular, that affects elements of modern Scotland’s economy and its other interactions with the wider world.

Understanding why defining oneself as Scottish seems to have such an appeal to so many people in far-flung locations, who furthermore are often many generations removed from Scotland itself, is also difficult. However, the size of the self-identified Scottish diaspora in North America seems important; 2009 data from the US Census Bureau showed more than 9 million Americans identified themselves as having Scottish or ‘Scotch-Irish’ ancestry, and in the 2011 Census, 4.7 million Canadians identified themselves as having Scottish ancestry.

North America – and the USA in particular – has been a dominant cultural and economic power in the world for much of the last century, at least in part as a result of the huge cultural reach of Hollywood. But the USA’s own identity is dual: as both a ‘nation of immigrants’ and as a nation with its own distinct history and character (Martin 2011).

For most Americans and Canadians with an interest in their ancestry, efforts to understand their heritage will force them to look outside the borders of the Americas, and will often provide multiple potential national ancestral ‘identities’. While many of these are sure to be attractive, Scottishness brings a certain romance, regularly reinforced by popular culture, that may encourage Scottishness as a ‘choice’ of identity (Hague 2002).

Scotland’s presence in popular culture is certainly significant. A recent big data study of the content of global libraries showed that Scotland’s representation in literature was higher than average (Lavoie 2013); the very concept of ‘folk’ music has its roots in Scottish traditional music (Grant 2009), and Scottish musical themes – in particular pipe music – are regularly used to create images of wildness and ruggedness in film and television, even when the images are unrelated to Scotland. The 2010 animated film How to Train your Dragon – which was set in Scandinavia, but used Scottish themed music – is a case in point.

Scotland’s presence in movies has been so ubiquitous at times that David Bruce, former director of the Scottish Film Council, quipped in 1996 – around the time of the release of the films Trainspotting, Braveheart and Rob Roy – that “If there had been an Oscar for Best Supporting Country, Scotland would have won” (Zumkhawala-Cook 2008)

The romanticised depictions of Scotland in films such as Brigadoon, Brave or Highlander, enduringly popular songs such as Mull of Kintyre or The Skye Boat Song (Dougal 2011) and in a global ‘tartan and castles’ portrayal of the nation may be largely artificial (Butler 2002), but have contributed to a sense of a Scottish ‘global brand’ that seems to resonate with many people around the world who have latched onto their Scottish heritage as a defining identifier, as evidenced by the scale of ‘ancestry tourism’, discussed below.

The role of family names also may be important. The fact that many people have surnames that are easily identified as linked to Scottish clans – often with a Mc or Mac prefix – provides ancestral identity and de facto membership in a sort ‘club’ with its roots not only in Scotland, but often in a very specific part of Scotland.

All told, the choice to identify with ancestors from Scotland may well be linked to a clear – if sometimes slightly tenuous – ethnic identity, supported by traditions, symbols, art and a ‘club’ of easily identified members around the world for many people (Carr and Landa 1983). This seems particularly important for white people in wealthy ‘new’ countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia who may otherwise feel they are part of an ethnically homogenous, vague national group (Hague 2002).

Scottish identity and the Scottish economy

Considering the challenges in even establishing the precise nature or size of the Scottish diaspora, it is also, of course, difficult to quantify its economic ramifications for Scotland. To start with, one cannot really know what impact the waves of emigration over the last two centuries have had on modern Scotland. Any counterfactual construction of a Scotland in which the emigration of the past two centuries did not happen would be both immensely complicated to undertake, and laden with so many assumptions as to render its conclusions highly uncertain.

But certain economic implications of the modern ‘diaspora’ can be examined and quantified. Efforts by people who feel connected to Scotland through their ancestry to reconnect with their ‘home’ by visiting and exploring Scotland is a major industry. Ancestry tourism is currently estimated to drive some 800,000 visits to Scotland each year, and to be worth more than £400m for the Scottish economy.

Other economic implications can be less tangible, but nonetheless important. Like other governments reaching out to their diaspora populations, the Scottish government has been actively pursuing business people with Scottish heritage (or other connections), whose sense of ‘Scottishness’ or kinship with Scotland could be harnessed to improve opportunities for international trade or development of skills in Scotland (Kuznetsov 2008). The Globalscot network was designed specifically to identify people from outside Scotland who are of Scottish descent, or who have another connection with Scotland, and who are willing to share their skills and expertise to help develop Scottish industries.

While the ‘soft’ outcomes of the Globalscot network – adding value through improving skills or industry connections – are often hard to quantify financially, a 2007 evaluation of the project, undertaken for Scottish Enterprise, suggested that it contributed at least £2.8 million and potentially up to £28 million (GVA) to the Scottish economy.

It would be wrong to define Globalscot as exclusively focused on the Scottish diaspora, as ‘Globalscots’ are chosen on the basis of their expertise and value for Scotland rather than their ancestry, and include people whose relationship with the nation may be simply attending university in Scotland or visiting regularly. Nevertheless, ancestral connections certainly play an important role.

A strong Scottish identity, of the same type that encourages diasporic identification among large numbers of people, is also important for Scotland’s export industry, in particular the sale of products such as Scotch Whisky, which draw heavily on the romantic picture of Scotland, outlined in the previous section, in their marketing to global consumers. Scottish whisky, in particular, is sold to those keen to buy not only a high-end product, but also one with a perceived authenticity (Paterson 2001), and the industry is worth some £4.3 billion per year.

Scottish emigration and independence

Scotland has a distinctive and valuable international brand, which has played a significant role in ensuring that many millions of people in far-flung countries choose to define themselves as, at least nominally, Scottish.

The enduring and powerful sense of what it means to be Scottish may, in many respects, be a construct of sentimental depictions of the place, but – regardless of whether it is based on ancestry, a love of the real place or on Braveheart and shortbread tin imagery – the diaspora’s relationship with Scotland does have real economic and social consequences for the nation.

Depictions of Scotland from outside the country itself – such as those from Hollywood movies and in popular songs and literature – have been instrumental in shaping modern Scotland’s vision of itself and its identity, particularly as a place culturally and geographically distinct from England, and creating a market for Scotland and Scottish products that benefits the country significantly.

What role this has played in shaping the current independence debate is hard to say, but it seems certain that the diaspora will continue to affect the social and economic development of Scotland, regardless of whether it chooses to vote for independence or to continue to be part of the United Kingdom.

The diaspora also has important implications for Scottish citizenship. There are more than 1 million Scottish-born people living outside Scotland who could, should they choose to, become Scottish citizens under the terms laid out by the Scottish government’s White Paper on independence. But the White Paper also suggests that eligibility for citizenship in an independent Scotland will be granted on the basis of descent as well. Specifically, citizens of any country with a parent or grandparent who qualifies for Scottish citizenship will themselves be eligible for Scottish citizenship (if they can provide documentation of this link). Eligibility alone would not, of course, mean that this element of the Scottish diaspora would all choose to become Scottish citizens, much less to reside in Scotland, but all would be eligibile to ‘register’ as Scottish citizens.

Scottish identity is clearly attractive for many members of the Scottish diaspora – however one chooses to define it – around the world. It has economic and social ramifications for the nation and has shaped Scotland’s international profile in a way that is likely to have had ramifications for the independence debate.

Whether Scottish citizenship and independence would be a stimulus for immigration by members of this diaspora is considerably less clear. While a strong Scottish identity has certainly helped maintain a global community which identifies with Scotland – and helped Scotland pack an impressive cultural punch around the world – it is just one of many factors that may affect its immigration or emigration flows.


  • Butler, Richard W. “The Traditional Tourist Image of Scotland,” in Destinations: Cultural Landscapes of Tourism, edited by Greg Ringer, 121. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Carr, Jack L., and Janet T. Landa. “The Economics of Symbols, Clan Names, and Religion.” The Journal of Legal Studies 12, no. 1 (1983):135.
  • Dougal,  Josephine. “Singing Home: Re-locating Scottishness in Diaspora.” Paper presented at the 4th Global Conference on Diasporas: Exploring Critical Issues, Mansfield College, Oxford, 4-6 July 2011
  • Grant, M. J. Review of The Invention of ‘Folk Music’ and ‘Art Music’: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner, by Matthew Gelbart. Music and Letters 90.3 (2009):486-489.
  • Hague, Euan. “Tartan Day and the appropriation of Scottish identities in the United States,” in Celtic Geographies: Old Culture, New Times, edited by David Harvey et. al. , 139. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 2002.
  • Kuznetsov, Yevgeny. “Mobilizing Intellectual Capital of Diasporas: From First Movers to a Virtuous Cycle.” Journal of Intellectual Capital 9.2 (2008):264-282.
  • Lavoie, Brian F. “Not Scotch, but Rum: The Scope and Diffusion of the Scottish Presence in the Published Record.” OCLC Research, Dublin, Ohio, 2013.
  • Martin, Susan Forbes. A Nation of Immigrants. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Paterson, Michael Bennis. “Selling Scotland: Towards an Intercultural Approach to Export Marketing Involving Differentiation on the Basis of ‘Scottishness’.” PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, 2001.
  • Shaw, Jo. “Citizenship in an Independent Scotland: Legal Status and Political Implications.” CITSEE Working Paper Series 2013/34, University of Edinburgh, 2013.
  • Sim, Duncan. “The Scottish Community and Scottish Organisations on Merseyside: Development and Decline of a Diaspora.” Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 31.1 (2011):99-118.
  • Zumkhawala-Cook, Richard. Scotland as We Know It: Representations of National Identity in Literature. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2008.

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