Scotlands History\|Scots and Canada

From the Highlands to Canada

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People left almost every region of the Gàidhealtachd (Highlands) to emigrate to Canada.

It is important to remember that Gaels didn’t just emigrate to Canada. They also settled in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

We know that thousands went to ‘the New World’. It is estimated that 15,000 emigrated to British North America (before Canada was established) between 1700-1815. Many more emigrated in the years after 1815.

It’s difficult to give exact figures but, in 1849, The Scotsman newspaper estimated that 20,000 had emigrated to Canada between 1839 and 1849. In the 20 years between 1841 and 1861 the Highlands and Islands population dropped by a third.

This table gives an indication of some of the places affected by emigration to Canada:

Year/s Place Number of Emigrants
1826 Isle of Rhum 300
1826-1827 Skye 1300
1828 North Uist 600
1849 Tiree 600
1853 Knoydart 300
1851-1855 Lewis 1771

The number of Canadian emigrations dropped slightly around 1857, when the Canadian economy collapsed. Numbers rose again at the beginning of the 20th century when Canada needed people to populate the middle and west of the country. 

Between 1759 and 1959, around 1,000,000 Scots emigrated to Canada.

Where did the Gaels settle in Canada? 

Emigrant ships docked in a number of ports. They included Québec Town, Pictou, Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island, Sydney in Cape Breton Island, Saint John and Miramichi in New Brunswick, and Halifax in Nova Scotia.

Québec was the main port for emigrants to Canada. Immigrants were required to spend some time at the quarantine station at Grosse Île. This was located in the St Lawrence River in Québec. The quarantine station at Grosse Île was in operation between 1832 and 1937.  

This compulsory stopover for all incoming passenger ships helped to stop the spread of the three deadly diseases of the age: cholera, smallpox and typhus. All immigrants had to have their bodies, their clothes and their belongings disinfected.

The building at Grosse Île was used until a new centre was set up in 1893. After disinfection, immigrants had to stay either in a hotel, classed according to the level of passage paid for, or in a hospital. 

Hundreds of immigrants shared the same space on this tiny island as they waited for clearance to enter Canada. Disease could spread rapidly and many people died on Grosse Île.

In his book, ‘A Dance Called America’ (1994), James Hunter tells us about two young girls from Lochalsh. Ellen and Anna MacRae arrived in Canada aboard ‘The Eliza’. When they left Grosse Île, in October 1847, they were taken to an orphanage in Québec. Their parents, Fearchar and Mairead, had died on Grosse Ìle. Ellen was adopted by a family when she was 12 years old, and Anna was adopted by another family when she was 10. 

Once Scots immigrants had survived the treacherous journey across the Atlantic followed by quarantine, they still had a difficult journey ahead of them. Most Gaels were very poor and often didn’t get the aid and support they had been promised before they set out on this journey.

  • Poster advertising emigration to Canada.

There were many new opportunities for the Gaels in Canada that weren’t available to them at home. Although they endured hardship in their journey, some, like Eòghann MacCòrcadail who settled in Ontario, decided that it had all been worth it.

Here is an extract from his song, ‘Òran le Seann Ìleach’ (c 1877):

It is now more than twenty years
since I left my ancestral glens;
it was useless to remain there
for employment was scarce in the land.
I took a trip to the Lowlands
where I had promise of small earnings;
I didn’t like things at all,
and prospects were not attractive.
They did not appeal to me at all,
and I left the townspeople behind.
Then I came over to Canada,
a place twice as good for me.
I was employed there without discrimination,
and my pay was not the worst;
from that day to this
there was no obstacle to my progress.
Here men fare well enough,
with fine, prosperous homes,
something they would not see in their lifetime
had they remained on the other side.
It was a lucky day for many Highlanders
when they sailed over here;
[now they have] geldings in their fields,
cattle, crops, and sheep.
The settlers have stone houses, brick houses,
frame and log houses;
most of them have an orchard
well branched up to their eaves.
Trees bend over, laden with apples,
bulging succulent, green.
there are plums, pears, grapes rowan-berries,
blackberries, billberies
Tha còrr is fichead bliadhna thìm
Bhon dh’fhàg mi glinn mo dhùthchais;
Bu nì gun fheum bhith fuireach ann –
Bha cosnadh gann san dùthaich;
Thug mi sgrìob gu tìr nan Gall,
’S mi ’n geall air beagan ciùinidh;
Cha do chòrd iad idir rium,
Is cha robh call sna cùisean.

Idir cha robh call dhomh fhèin,
Is dh’fhàg mi ’m dhèidh na burgaich;
’S a Chanada a-nall gun tàinig –
Àite a b’ fheàrr dhomh dùbailt;
Is fhuair mi cosnadh ann gun tàir,
’S mo phàigheadh cha bu diù e,
Is bho sin gu ruig an t-àm seo,
Cha robh fang mum chùrsa.

Tha cùrsa dhaoine math gu leòr,
Le dachaigh bhòidhich, fhaoilidh;
Nì nach fhaiceadh iad rim bheò,
Le còmhnachadh an taobh sin;
B’ è là an àigh do mhòran Ghàidheal,
Sheòl thar sàil ’n taobh seo,
Len cuid ghearran ann am pàircean
Crodh, is bàrr is caoraich.

Tha taighean-cloich’, is taighean-brige,
Frame is log aig tuathanaich;
’S a’ chuid as mò dhiubh siud le òrsaid
Dosarrach rin guailnean;
Na craobhan lùbte làn de ùbhlan,
Torrach, sòghail, uaine,
Plums is peuran, grapes is caorainn
Smeuran ’s deracan-ruadha.

Strong Gàidhealtachdan (Gaelic settlements) were established in Red River, Manitòba; Glengarry County, Ontario; Eastern Québec; and, predominantly, in the provinces on the east side of the country: Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. 

Life on the eastern side of the country wasn’t easy and many settlers moved again to the west to seek a better standard of living. After emigrating to Canada from the Highlands, some Scots moved again.

Four hundred Gaels from Sutherland, in north-west Scotland, under the guidance of the Rev Norman MacLeod (Tormod MacLeòid), emigrated to Canada in 1820 but then emigrated again, to Waipu in New Zealand, in the 1850s. 


  • Cover of Machraichean Mora Chanada. This book was published in Gaelic by the Canadian government to attract emigrant Scots.

Photograph credits

The images used above are licensed under Creative Commons on Flickr by the following photographers: learningful_rcb and ViaMoi.