The major Scottish migrations to Newfoundland and Labrador occurred in the 19th century and involved two unrelated phases. The first brought an influx of Scottish Lowlanders to the Avalon Peninsula, where the colony's booming fish trade had created many opportunities in commerce and trade. These migrants were Presbyterian, arrived individually or in small family groups, spoke English, and were relatively well-educated and wealthy. Many became prominent members of Newfoundland and Labrador society, working in the trades and professions of the middle and upper-middle classes.
Watercolour by George Heriot. “The Clyde.” Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (1989-471-12R).
In contrast was the migration of Highland Scots to southwestern Newfoundland beginning in 1841 and ending in the 1860s. Unlike their Lowland counterparts, these men and women were predominately Roman Catholic, spoke Gaelic, and were farmers by trade. They migrated in large extended family groups and travelled to the island in search of good agricultural land. Most did not arrive from Scotland directly, but instead came from Cape Breton, where they or their parents and grandparents had originally settled to acquire land.
Scottish involvement with Newfoundland and Labrador dates back to the early 17th century, when English colonizers established a handful of year-round settlements on the island in such places as Cuper's Cove (now Cupids) and Ferryland. One such colonizer, John Mason, solicited funding from Scottish merchants to help attract migrants to the island from overseas. Mason's influence also prompted Scottish colonizer Sir Alexander William to establish Scottish settlements in the New World. William acquired a grant of land on the island in 1621, which extended from Placentia Bay to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Both men promoted Newfoundland and Labrador as a potential home for Scottish migrants, but were largely unsuccessful in attracting settlers from that area. Alexander abandoned his efforts to colonize the island after receiving a larger grant of land in what is now Nova Scotia; Mason moved to New England in the 1620s after serving as Governor of Cuper's Cove from 1615-1621.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
Scotland later established trade links with Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 18th century, after it joined with England in 1707 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The union made it possible for Scottish merchants to trade with British colonies in the New World, which included Newfoundland and Labrador. Several Lowland firms began shipping provisions and gear to St. John's and other island ports, often in exchange for saltfish.
However, it was not until the 19th century that Scottish migrants settled at Newfoundland and Labrador in significant numbers. These were the Lowlanders who settled on the island's east coast from the early 1800s onwards to take advantage of the colony's quickly growing fishery, and the Highlanders who emigrated from Cape Breton to the Codroy Valley and St. George's Bay between the 1840s and 1860s. Smaller numbers also arrived at Labrador to work as traders for the Hudson's Bay Company. Although the 1857 Census (the first to enumerate Scots) recorded 416 Scottish-born people living on the island, the precise number of Scots who emigrated to Newfoundland and Labrador during the 19th century is unknown, due in large part to incomplete or vague census records, parish records, and other data.
Although vastly outnumbered by settlers of English and Irish descent, Scottish immigrants were often among the most influential members of society and contributed much to the development of Newfoundland and Labrador's politics, economy, and culture. This was especially true on the east coast, where Scottish migrants were generally well-educated, wealthy, and part of the middle or upper-middle classes. Many worked in prominent or powerful positions, as merchants, politicians, businessmen, doctors, teachers, and ministers.
Some Scottish settlers introduced important and far-reaching changes to Newfoundland and Labrador society. Physician and political reformer William Carson, for example, successfully campaigned for representative government in Newfoundland and Labrador, which allowed the public to elect its own government. He also helped to open the first civilian hospital at St. John's in 1814.
The work of Scots-Canadian contractor Robert G. Reid dramatically altered Newfoundland and Labrador's society and economy. Reid's trans-island railway revolutionized transportation and communications in Newfoundland by linking isolated outports to one another, and by connecting them to larger centres. Instead of travelling by boat or foot, residents could reach distant villages by rail in hours. The railway also opened up the island's resource-rich interior to industrial development, allowing new forestry and mining operations to diversify Newfoundland and Labrador's economy into areas other than the fishery.
From Henry Youmans Mott, Newfoundland Men (Concord, N.H.: Cragg, 1894) 267.
Scottish Lowlanders living on the island's east coast also helped to establish the Presbyterian Church in Newfoundland and Labrador. Although Scots had been arriving on the Avalon Peninsula since the early 1800s, their numbers were relatively small and most worshipped in the Congregational Church or other denominations already existing on the island. By the 1840s, however, there were enough Scottish settlers living at St. John's to form the colony's first Presbyterian congregation and they opened St. Andrew's Church in December 1843.
Scottish migrants also did much to establish farming operations on the west coast of Newfoundland. Unlike the mercantile Scots living on the Avalon Peninsula, those in the west were agricultural settlers who had come to find land. Most migrated from the more densely populated farming areas of Cape Breton between the 1840s and 1860s and settled in the Codroy Valley and St. George's Bay, where some of the colony's best farmland was still available for settlement. By 1857, the approximately 422 inhabitants living in the region had cleared roughly 550 acres of land. Alongside cultivating vegetables, many residents produced butter and raised sheep, cattle, and other livestock.
In contrast to many other minority ethnic groups moving to the colony during the 1800s, Scots did not have to adapt to a culture that was tremendously different from their own. Unlike Chinese, Jewish, Lebanese, and other immigrants, many Scots spoke English, practiced Christianity, and were not visibly different from most of their neighbours. This likely made it easier for them to fit into and find success in a new society. In addition, many Scots on the Avalon Peninsula had the advantage of a good education, while those on the west coast almost exclusively settled in large kin groups and could therefore find support from their families.