Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 16.42.34While exploring personal testimonies of migrants and their families back at home in Scotland, as well as records from Scottish clubs and societies, I have come across numerous examples of poetry written by Scots at home and abroad that relates to migration and the feelings associated with it. As it is National Poetry Day today I want to look at some of those poems and share them with you.

In many cases poems were a means to counter loneliness and feelings of sadness. Once the decision to leave had been made, the process of bidding farewell to friends and family began. The prospect of reunion was unlikely. The prevailing sentiments are expressed to the point by Robert Shennan when writing to his son John on his departure for New Zealand in 1858:

Dear John you are going to leave me forever
To reside in a country that’s far far away
Where the measureless ocean between us will roar
And your voice in our worship assist me no more
I would mourn but I hope that by Providence led
You are going where you will be clothed and fed
And be more independent than what you could be
By remaining at home as a comfort to me
Though we meet not again in a family ring
To pray and to praise of Jehovah to sing
We can meet at the throne of our Father in heaven . . .

Robert found consolation in his beliefs, which allowed him to envisage the final reunion with his son in ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’. Such feelings of sadness and loss at the point of farewell were the motivation for some emigrants to try and convince relatives or friends to join them abroad. And indeed, family and kinship bonds were potent pull-factors.

For Scottish associations, such as Caledonian societies, poems became particularly important in connection with the many anniversary celebrations hosted in honour of Robert Burns. Here is one example from:

From far and near, with one design,
The gath’ring met yestreen
To keep the name of Robert Burns
In memory ev’r green.


His lyric gems were sweetly sung,
With voices soft and clear,
And charming was the melody
That fell upon the ear.


How feelingly the trembling notes,
So mellow, rich and rare,
Came warbling forth to glorify
The ploughboy bard of Ayr.


His Picture Hangs upon the wall,
Embalm’d with tender sighs;
With rev’rence due they looked upon
Those once bright love-lit eyes. …


Poor Burns we say; but ah! not poor,
Though with the poor did dwell;
His treasur’d mind held richer store
Than sworded thousands tell.

Sentiments like those captured in this poem, written by a Mrs. E. Colville and published in a New Zealand newspaper in 1907, were intrinsically linked to Burns anniversaries around the world, amateur poets contributing their work in the name of Scotland’s national bard.

And then, finally, there is my favourite example, the marvellous Heather and Fern by John Liddell Kelly:

From this isle in the wide Southern Ocean
How oft does my swift fancy flee,
On pinions of love and devotion
Dear home of my fathers, to thee!
In a land lapped in bright summer weather,
I sigh for one rugged and stern;
I long for the bloom of the Heather
In the Land of the Kauri and Fern.


Though here there is nought to remind me
Of the dark, misty land of my birth.
Not tears and not distance can blind me
To scenes that are dearest on earth.
As I list to the Tui’s clear whistle,
I sigh — “Shall I ever return
To the Land of the Heather and Thistle
From the Land of the Kauri and Fern?”


Here the Spirit of Beauty rejoices
In scenes that enrapture the eye;
Earth raises her manifold voices
In praise to the bountiful sky.
In the blue of the infinite ether
More bright constellations may burn;
But their glint on the Thistle and Heather
Were more fair than on Kauri and Fern.


Though dear to my heart is Zealandia,
For the home of my boyhood I yearn;
I dream, amid sunshine and grandeur,
Of a land that is misty and stern;
From the Land of the Moa and Maori
My thoughts to old Scotia will turn;
Thus the Heather is blent with the Kauri
And the Thistle entwined with the Fern.

Migration and Poetry
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6 thoughts on “Migration and Poetry

  • 3 October 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Why is there no mention of the many Garlic poems composed by Highland emigrants who spoke no English and never heard of Robert Burns?

    • 3 October 2013 at 12:40 pm

      That’s a fair question, for sure. First of all: definitely not a deliberate omission — you are right to say that there were indeed many such poems, for instance from the numerous Gaelic societies. As I cannot read Gaelic, however, I have not focused on those Gaelic writings in my work from which I am quoting here. So it’s brilliant to see new initiatives develop to uncover the Gaelic diaspora and writings. I am thinking in particular of the work through Struileag ( We will learn a lot through that project. Any suggestions for Gaelic poems to include here from Scots in the diaspora warmly received.

      • 8 October 2013 at 2:57 pm

        While, yes, it’s great that Struileag is doing this work, there is a structural problem that most people assigned with researching and publishing about the Scottish diaspora do not have any ability to deal with Gaels or Gaelic sources. Thus, it’s really Scottish Lowland Studies that get addressed, and the Highland dimension is either neglected or distorted by seeing issues entirely through anglophone sources.

        • 8 October 2013 at 6:01 pm

          I do appreciate that there are issues – after all I’ve raised this myself. But I don’t agree in terms of the wider point you make: I can certainly deal with the history of Gaels in the diaspora, and I think so can other historians who’ve worked on these question. I definitely don’t see my work as Scottish Lowland Studies. In my book, for instance, I do write about the activities of Highland societies etc in New Zealand. Many of them published their materials in English rather than Gaelic. But I’d be delighted to see more involvement of Gaelic speakers so that we can better understand the experiences of Gaelic-speaking migrants.

  • 9 October 2013 at 1:51 pm

    One could similarly write a history of Quebec without being able to access French documents, but the results would be similarly limited.
    Gaelic should stopped being seen as an optional “add-on” for language “enthusiasts” and central to issues where Highland communities are concerned.
    I will be writing a full length blog entry on this issue ere long.

  • 25 October 2013 at 9:07 am

    The English/Gaelic issue, I think, is particularly important for any historian working with personal testimony (and I think poetry counts, along with letters, diaries, etc.), insofar as that kind of evidence is used as an insight into the personal lives and emotions of migrants. In the late 1990s, Kerry Cardell and Cliff Cumming began a research project that aimed to gather together and analyse written Gaelic testimony from Scottish migrants to Australia. They pointed out, rightly, that studies of Highland immigration have been methodologically flawed by their failure to take into account Gaelic-language sources (including prose and poetry) and experiences. I have only ever been able to find ‘Part I’ of their research, and I’m happy to share the PDF if you’d like to contact me, but it does point to some notable differences between Gaelic/Highland and English/Lowland testimonies. In my own research I’ve found that, despite cries of ‘they were all bilingual!’, there were quite a decent number of Scottish migrants in Australia in the early-mid nineteenth century who spoke only Gaelic – some of their experiences have been recorded in English-language sources, but I do wish I had/could read Gaelic sources because there was, it seems, a distinct social and cultural divide between Gaels and Lowlanders in colonial Australia.

    I do agree that ‘we’ can write about the Gaels’ experience to some extent, though I would be cautious of taking any approach that argued from the basis of personal testimony or the individual experiences of migrants. All the same, your point remains: poetry is a good source for understanding the personal experience of migrants.

    Let me know if you’d like to see the Cardell & Cumming article!


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