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Manitoba History: J. M. Bumsted, The People’s Clearance: Highland Emigration to British North America, 1770-1815

by Alexander Fenton
National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

The People’s Clearance: Highland Emigration to British North America, 1770-1815. J. M. Bumsted. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1982. xvii, 305 pp. ISBN 0-88755-127-0

The dust-jacket for this volume states that “this is a revisionist account of Highland Scottish emigration to what is now Canada, in the formative half century before Waterloo.” The subject of the Clearances is highly emotive. Books such as Alexander MacKenzie’s History of the Highland Clearances, first published in 1883 and with a recent re-issue, and John Prebble’s Highland Clearances, 1963, have concentrated attention on emotive aspects, whilst less notice has been taken of contributions in several journals which try to take more of a cool, clear look at the situation following analysis of historical sources.

It is important to keep an eye on articles in journals. University teaching tends to be based on text books which often lag behind the state of current research until someone produces an “updating.” A busy teaching programme may not allow teachers to keep up fully with periodical literature. A new book, soundly based on periodical and manuscript sources, is welcome in any subject. Here, Professor Bumsted of the University of Manitoba has performed a signal service, in providing not only a solidly based and readable textbook which will certainly remain a standard for years to come, but also one which illuminates in fascinating detail the period 1770-1815. The work helps to give a much sharper picture of the dynamics of the “Clearance period” in general. Bumsted works out his story in eight chapters in chronological sequence, bringing into focus the changing attitudes of emigrants, landowners and government, and the interactions between these three sectors, with the public appearing as a one-stringed fiddle played upon by many bows at the same time.

The inspiration for this work springs from Bumsted’s reading of a book by Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland, with a View of the Causes and Probable Consequences of Emigration, 1805. Selkirk considered on the one hand that landlords had a right to modernize in line with their Lowland brethren, and on the other, that the people in the Highlands had the right to choose to preserve their age-old customs and life style through emigrating to British North America where land was available in plenty. He supported emigration to the limits of his ability indirectly through argument and directly through private promotion. As a “well-educated product of the Scottish Enlightenment,” Selkirk’s thinking and practice aided the coalescing of ideas into “political economy.” While he had his own ambitions and biases, he had a clear view of the inconsistency of thinking amongst opponents of emigration, which included the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. Though opponents claimed that Highland improvements needed manpower to carry them out, and that emigration would endanger the supply of fighting men and remove labour needed for agriculture and manufacture, no clear solutions were being provided for those dispossessed. They might, according to Selkirk, become town labourers at home, or emigrate and maintain their traditional living ways and their language even in a different environment. Selkirk appears to have been quite sincere in his idealism over the preservation of tradition and language, seeing these even as a means of warding off the pernicious influence of America. He tried his best, at Prince Edward Island, at Baldoon in Upper Canada, and on land provided by the Directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company (which included much of present-day Manitoba). He had varying degrees of success. While Selkirk perhaps worked on a canvas too big for individual control, it is right that he should be both a central figure in, and the inspiration for, Bumsted’s book.

There is, however, much more to be read about and studied than Selkirk’s part alone. His special situation and rank, in fact, made him in some ways uncharacteristic, though the role he played is very much a product of the Enlightenment period. It is necessary to read the whole book, which sets the scene from the third quarter of the 18th century, and goes on to sow how the phase of emigration from 1770-1800 was characterized not by ejected tenants and sub-tenants, but by intelligent groups of people, including skilled artisans, recruited under indentures by the Lord Advocate, organized and led by their tacksmen, or organized by land speculators who gave them passage. Such people took with them skills, goods and chattels, and money. The Roman Catholic Church helped, perhaps because the emigration of people with abilities could be used as a threat to frighten lairds into better treatment of the people. That this could be considered a threat is a clear pointer to the quality of those who were migrating. Could it be that the opposition to migration which culminated in the Ship’s Passenger Act of 1803 was a tacit admission of such loss?

Bumsted provides us with a solidly-based balance to views that have clouded historical accuracy. He also relates the hitherto little-known story of the Canadian Regiment, 1803-04, which is highly illuminating in terms of the psychology of the times. It may be said, indeed, that the whole book is a study in the psychology of emigration, of its causes, of the inter-meshing of local and national interests, church and state, and must be of interest and relevance for every country where comparable mass emigrations have taken place in the past. The extensive passenger lists will be welcomed by genealogists. No Scottish or Canadian historian can afford to be without it.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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