Bill Scott uses the traditional song, Erin Go Bragh to explore the historical role of migrant workers in Scotland

In our feudal past, apart from the merchant towns such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, Scotland was almost purely an agricultural community. Three quarters of Scotland’s total land area is still agricultural land, mainly hill and upland grazing suitable only for sheep and cattle rearing.

Up until the 19th century the largest single source of employment for men was in agriculture with women also making up a sizeable proportion of the workforce. Then came the Industrial Revolution and the Clearances. Hundreds of thousands of potential farm workers emigrated to the New World or to find work in the mines (Fife, Lanarkshire, the Lothians) and factories of Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

But the new industrial workforce still needed to be fed. So where were cheap, and therefore profitable, agricultural workers to be found? The answer then as now was in migrant workers.

As male labourers became less plentiful the farm owners of fertile South and Central Scotland turned to female workers from the Highlands. In the martial Gaelic society of the Highlands & Islands women had always been the main harvesters. The main harvesting implement was the light toothed sickle which women wielded more efficiently cutting the grain and straw down to the root. Escaping grinding poverty and the rigid social convention enforced by the Kirk young Highland women flocked to take part in the hairst (harvest).

In 1827 a minister complained that the roads of Argyll were full of Highland women who had bought fripperies and fineries from wages earned at the hairst. Having been away the whole time from the restraining moral influences of males like himself! For these young women the hairst was viewed almost as much a holiday as work. Large groups of women from the same community would sign up and travel together taking a piper with them to play on the road as they walked to the hairst. Once they arrived they would live in communal bothies.

The Lothian hairst attracted labour from as far afield as Argyll and Wester Ross. At that time 46% of the agricultural labour force in the Lothians was female, higher than anywhere else in Scotland. As the Clearances accelerated the self-sufficient shielings and crofts of old were burnt to the ground and folk moved off the land to accommodate first the more profitable sheep and then hunting, fishing and shooting estates. The Napier Commission reported that in the 1880s Many young women went to the Lothians. It is sheer necessity that compels them to go. Whilst going to the herring (gutting and cleaning fish for the then new and very profitable herring industry) was a long term occupation, with many married women involved, the harvest shearers coming to the Lothians were mainly in their mid-to late teens.

Further labour came from the agricultural North East where the harsher climate meant that crops took longer to ripen. North East harvesters moved from farm to farm in the Lothians and then worked the harvest north through Stirlingshire, the Carse of Gowrie, Fife or even westwards into Ayrshire. Eventually they would arrive back in time for the hairsts in Banff, Buchan and Huntly.

The women who came south were paid £1 a week for their back-breaking labour but it seems that the independence gained and the possibility of romance far from the eyes of watchful ministers and fathers was also a strong attraction. A common concern in official and religious tracts of the period was this loss of social and sexual control over these mobile women earning their own wages. Some were even known to smoke!

In the early days shearers lived in farm outbuildings but as time passed purpose built bothies were constructed – still pretty basic with no running water and no toilet. Though living conditions were poor the hairst workers appear to have been well fed, with porridge, milk, bread, beer and very occasionally meat provided in addition to wages – with labour scarcer something had to be done to ensure these migrant workers would return the next year.

Many shearers embarked at Aberdeen to sail to Leith for the Lothians. In Leith the shearers disembarked at a place in the docks that locals derisively called “Teuchters’ Landing”. The former Waterfront Bar in Leith has now acquired this pretty unhappy name.

In the later part of the 19th Century after the Irish (and Scottish) Potato Famine, Irish male labourers, using the scythe-heuk, gradually replaced female shearers. The migrant Irish labourers mainly came from Donegal and originally worked in Dumfries & Galloway before gradually spreading out to other parts of Scotland. The scythe cut more corn, more quickly but male labour was more expensive which perhaps explains why there was still a demand for female labour in the Lothians as late as the early 1900s.

But the Clearances and grinding poverty also drove male agricultural workers south from the Highlands. This Scottish song from the mid-19th Century tells the story of a Highland Scot who is mistaken for an Irishman. At that time both groups were almost equally despised in Lowland Scotland being categorised as uncivilised savages, Papish (the Highlanders were actually more likely to be Episcopalian or even ‘Wee Frees’ but why let the facts stand in the way of prejudice), bog-walkers who couldn’t even speak English. Both groups were also in competition with locals for jobs and, because the Irish and Highlanders were often literally fleeing famine, were often prepared to work for very low wages, causing resentment as they undercut the locals.

The song, Erin Go Bragh, was revived and given a more modern arrangement – but retaining the biting irony of the original – by Dick Gaughan, a Leither, who is proud of his, second generation, Irish roots. The lyrics given here are close to those given on Dick’s website (there is always argument about how to set broad Scots down in writing).

The song demonstrates that West Highlanders had far closer links with their Irish cousins than they did with Lowland Scots. Stan Reeves of Edinburgh’s Adult Learning Project has experienced going into a village pub in County Cork to hear a song melody from the Western Isles with new more locally relevant lyrics attached, the song having been brought there perhaps over a hundred years before by Hebridean herring fishermen. Similarly tunes can be heard in the West Highlands that almost certainly originated centuries before in Ireland.

What the song also demonstrates is that intolerance and racial prejudice can start a lot closer to home than despising Poles or Lithuanians and accusing them of taking our jobs. How daft does, Lowland jobs for Lowland workers sound? Best to be like the bold Erin Go Bragh of this song and identify with others who are oppressed. Who knows some day it might be you yourself under attack.

But of course hundreds of thousands of Highlanders did not do as bold Erin Go Bragh did and retreat to the Highlands. Instead during the Clearances fully half of those forced off the land settled in Central Scotland. They found jobs in the factories, mines and mills. They joined trade unions. They became part of local Lowland communities. In the best sense of the word they were assimilated but so too were Lowland Scots.

Before the Clearances there was a clear divide in Scottish society between the Lowlands and Highlands, each viewing the inhabitants of the other with suspicion and as other to their own way of life. After the Clearances the songs and stories of the Highlanders were transferred into the families and communities they became part of. Yes that sometimes meant a sentimental attachment to a life and culture that had in reality been far from idyllic. But many now Lowland Scots genuinely did have a granny (because the older Highlanders were most reluctant to leave and least able to succeed as economic migrants) and a place they thought of and, for a time, had a clear memory of, as ‘home’ in the Highlands.

But in addition the Highlanders’ oral history of oppression, rebellion and struggle – the Massacre of Glencoe, the ’45, the Sutherland Clearances, the Battle of the Braes & the Land League – became incorporated as a seamless whole into the Lowland Scots narrative of the Covenanters, the United Scotsmen and the 1820 Rebellion. Gaelic and Lallans oral history became “our” history. It is that capacity to incorporate incomers which should give us hope that the current racism and prejudice towards migrant workers can, and will, be overcome as new Scots add the weft of their oral tradition to the rich cloth of Scots working class history.

Note: Nowadays Erin Go Bragh is better known as the Anglicisation of a Gaelic phrase used to express allegiance to Ireland. It is most often translated as Ireland Forever. Speakers of Irish often claim that it is a corruption of the Irish, Eire go brach. However the Scottish Gaelic phrase Eirinn gu brath, literally means, Ireland until the Day of Judgement and is pronounced almost identically to Erin Go Bragh. So it’s possible that a phrase which has come to strongly represent Ireland could have come originally not from the Irish (Gaeilge) but instead from the Scottish (Gaidhlig). Dick Gaughan’s website is at: