Migration and Poetry

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.

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