Historical essay
Emigration as Epidemic: Perspectives on the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Highlands

Emigration as Epidemic: Perspectives on the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Highlands

In our digital age, the contagion metaphor is often part of the language we use regarding the exchange of information. The most popular videos go “viral” online. We share culturally-relevant “memes” via social media that spread like the common cold. But such metaphors are nothing new, especially when applied to migration. As medical knowledge developed in the eighteenth century, metaphors of contagion manifested themselves from the pens of Scottish landowners and political commentators in Great Britain who feared depopulation.

While visiting the Isle of Skye in 1773, the English writer Samuel Johnson observed what he termed an “epidemick desire of wandering, which spreads its contagion from valley to valley.”1 Year after year, hundreds of Scottish Highlanders were on the move, leaving the northwest of Scotland and the country’s western isles for better opportunities.2 As a result, Johnson predicted that “an Island once depopulated will remain a desert.”3

As the numbers of emigrants rose, Scottish landowners and policy-makers became increasingly worried that their labor force would be depleted and lead to the overall decline of agriculture and manufacturing. Conservative estimates of Highland emigration to America in the decade preceding the American Revolution number more than 15,000 individuals, or 2.5 percent of the region’s population.4 While the number of emigrants leaving the Highlands may seem relatively low, the organization of emigration voyages could lead to the concentrated migration of entire estates. The Stewardess of Sutherland, for example, lost 735 tenants and laborers to emigration between 1772 and 1773 alone.5

The Scottish Highlands underwent significant social, cultural, and economic changes in the second half of the eighteenth century, all of which accelerated mass migration. Passengers pointed to rising rents, bad crops, and the enclosure of the Highlands for sheep grazing as key causes for seeking better opportunities in America. The passengers of the Jupiter of Larne, for example, wrote of their motivations to emigrate in 1775: “The Farmers and Labourers who are taking their Passage in this Ship unanimously declare that they would never have thought of leaving their Country, could they have supplied their Families in it.”6 Families who chose to emigrate together had the added advantage of relying on one another for aid and assistance, and many of them already had kin in America.

Monument to Scottish Immigrants, Philadelphia, Pa. (S.MacMillen/Wikimedia Commons)

With emigration on the rise, the correspondence of Highland landowners used a much more negative tone to convey growing fears over Scottish emigration. In fact, such correspondence likened the continuance of emigration to the spread of disease: “We have a great noise about the Isle of Sky emigration, What do you here about it? I hope the infection is not like to take in your Island.”7 Lord Seaforth’s estate managers seemed particularly wary that the tenants of his estates would too be “muche infected with the Spirit of Emigration as the Sky gentrie seem to be.”8 At various times, they characterized the Highland diaspora as an “infection,” a “distemper,” and even a “craze.”9

In 1774, Robert Cathcart of Genoch in southwestern Scotland wrote to a kinsman in North Carolina:

[gblockquote]The spirit of imigration to America prevails much here, Ritch & poor, oald & with large famileys, have for some years past gone from the North of Scotland and now the same spirit has come like ane Infection in to this Countrey … in the end most part of the Emigrants will be the greatest sufferers, as not one in ten of them has aney thing, However their is no putting a stop to it at present they must take their will, till this Raige of wandering goe off of itself.10[/gblockquote]

Title page.
(Wellcome Library | CC BY 4.0)

The emergence of contagion metaphors intersected with changing medical understandings of the nature of disease and the body. English physician Thomas Lodge’s Treatise of the Plague (1603), for example, claimed that “Contagion is an evil qualitie in a bodie, communicated unto an other by touch, engendering one and the same disposition in him to whom it was communicated.”11 Indeed, by the eighteenth century, medical practitioners were already shifting their conceptions of illness from a “physiological” approach (illness stemming from an imbalance of the internal equilibrium) to that of an “ontological” one (where illness is brought on by foreign entities that enter the body).

By the second half of the eighteenth century, notes historian Margaret DeLacy, theories of contagionism were literally “catching on” in Britain.12 Simultaneous improvements in transportation and the expansion of urbanization led to the transmission of such revolutionary medical thought as well as the communicable diseases they investigated.13 Eighteenth-century Britain was rife with contagion as climate instability during the Little Ice Age led to an increase in epidemics, famine, and social instability.

“Emigration is now become very serious, vast numbers of people have engaged to go to America within this month past,” James Willox wrote in March 1775.14 This, Willox pointed out, could be blamed on “encouraging Accounts from America,” which urged families to choose a new dwelling place.15

Like the communicable diseases that caused epidemics, the very communication taking place among emigrants, leaseholders, and tenants served as a conduit through which the “spirit of emigration” might infect. In fact, the encouraging accounts found in the letters arriving from family and friends in America acted as their vector. As literary scholar Cynthia J. Davis writes, “Contagion and writing are both forms of communication, after all.”16

In the decades after his emigration to America in the late 1730s, for example, Alexander McAlester repeatedly wrote to his kin in Argyllshire, Scotland. His letters offered information about the opportunities to be found in the British colonies and potential assistance for those who chose to make the journey. Landowners viewed these former emigrants and their contacts in the Highlands as the instigators of the “Contagion & the curse of Emigration.”17 One lamented that “the Law could not put a stop to the inflammatory progress of the late Parson of Harris” and encouraged his factor “to frustrate the infamous design of him & all such infamous fellows.”18

“The emigrants.” (William Allsworth /Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa)

Landowners and their estate managers struggled to come up with a solution to stem the tide of emigration from the Highlands. They proposed new ways of providing employment, including supporting the expansion of textile manufacturing in the Lowlands, employing laborers on new public works projects such as canal-building, and providing emergency relief.19 Kenneth Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Seaforth and chief of the Highland clan Mackenzie, desperately urged his factor George Gillanders: “In case the [craze] of emigration continue and new disturbances arise you must act in the most prudent way … I do not despair of obtaining a party of troops to support the authority of the civil power.”20

Ultimately, the curtailing of emigration continued to be a point of debate in British Parliament throughout the 1770s.21 Only the intervening war in America would effectively put a halt to the mobility of Highlanders and stifle the contagious effects of migration. This, however, would only be a short respite. Scots’ journeys across the Atlantic and elsewhere around the globe rose as the Highland Clearances, the forced eviction of tenants across the Highlands and western isles of Scotland, intensified in the following decades and lasted well into the mid-nineteenth century.

Since then, the metaphors used in conjunction with migration have also shifted. Countries receiving immigrants in the nineteenth century employed the contagion metaphor to those they felt were infecting their communities. More recent debates over immigration continue the use of metaphor, albeit one that favors terms related to natural disaster as groups of migrants swarm, flood, and stream across borders. Much like their eighteenth-century counterparts, today’s political leaders use viral tweets and soundbites to fuel discourse on immigration, centering their concerns on the potentially negative effects that migration may have on a receiving society rather than fears of depopulation.


  1. Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1785), 222. Return to text.
  2. The Scottish Highlands encompass both a geographic and cultural region within Scotland. Geographically, it usually refers to that mountainous part of Scotland north of the Highland Boundary Fault, roughly from the Isle of Arran in the west to Stonehaven in the east. Return to text.
  3. Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands, 222. Return to text.
  4. T. C. Smout, Ned C. Landsman, and T. M. Devine, “Scottish Emigration in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration 1500-1800, ed. Nicholas Canny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 104. Return to text.
  5. “The Lord Justice Clerk’s Report to the Earl of Suffolk, 25 April 1774,” RH1/2/933, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh (hereafter cited as NRS). Return to text.
  6. Viola Root Cameron, ed., Emigrants from Scotland to America, 1774-1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965): 88-92. Return to text.
  7. James Willox to George Gillanders, n.d., GD427/214/9, NRS. Return to text.
  8. Mackenzie of Strickathrow to George Gillanders, 2 February 1772, GD427/214/12, NRS. Return to text.
  9. James Willox to James Grant, 25 March 1775, GD248/509/48, NRS; Mackenzie of Strickathrow to George Gillanders, 21 September 1772, GD427/214/23, NRS. Return to text.
  10. Robert Cathcart to Samuel Johnston, 8 March 1774, Folder 1.78, Box 3, in the Hayes Collection #324, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Return to text.
  11. Thomas Lodge, A Treatise of the plague (London, 1603). Return to text.
  12. Margaret DeLacy, Contagionism Catches On: Medical Ideology in Britain, 1730-1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 1, 3-4, 207. Return to text.
  13. Cynthia J. Davis, “Contagion as Metaphor,” American Literary History 14 (Winter 2002), 830. Return to text.
  14. James Willox to James Grant, 25 March 1775, GD248/509/48, NRS. Return to text.
  15. James Willox to James Grant, 25 March 1775, GD248/509/48, NRS. Return to text.
  16. Davis, “Contagion as Metaphor,” 829. Return to text.
  17. Mackenzie of Strickathrow to George Gillanders, 16 November 1772, GD427/214/25, NRS. Return to text.
  18. Mackenzie of Strickathrow to George Gillanders, 16 November 1772, GD427/214/25, NRS. Return to text.
  19. Mackenzie of Strickathrow to George Gillanders, 10 April 1772, GD427/214/17, NRS; James Willox to James Grant, 25 March 1775, GD248/509/48, NRS. Return to text.
  20. Earl of Seaforth to George Gillanders, 14 October 1773, GD427/169, NRS. Return to text.
  21. Bailyn, Voyagers to the West, 49-57. Return to text.

Kimberly B. Sherman received her Ph.D. in Modern History at the University of St. Andrews. Her work examines Scottish family networks in the early modern Atlantic and North Carolina. She is currently a lecturer in history at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC.

2 thoughts on “Emigration as Epidemic: Perspectives on the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Highlands

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      Obviously you didn’t talk to any Scots before you wrote this article. People whose ancestors emigrated to either or Canada or the Colonies can tell you horror storys about how they were given days to take everything they owned and leave. Some could get only as far as Northern Ireland. Some became indentured servants (read slaves) to pay for their voyage. One old lady was burned in her house when she moved too slowly to get out. The landowners were behind The Clearances because they thought sheep would garner them more money than the crofters. You academic explanation is piffle.

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