An immigrant nation

While millions of Scots emigrated to destinations overseas, Scotland has also longs since been a place that saw immigrants arrive. Fom those from close-by Ireland who came to work on Glasgow’s shipyards to the most recent arrivals of Ukrainian refugees seeking sanctuary from war.

Immigration to Scotland in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Immigrants who chose to come to Scotland did so for the same reasons that Scots left to go elsewhere: due to push and pull factors, which sometimes combined. One of the best known push factors is the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, which contributed to large-scale migration from Ireland of probaly around a million people. Many of them emigrated to the United States, but both England and Scotland were also an important destination in what we can call the Irish near diaspora given the relative proximity to Ireland.  

Towards the later nineteenth century, Scotland’s immigrant population became more diverse. From Polish immigrants to Lithuanians, continental Europeans immigrants arrived to work in Scotland’s industries that were faced with a shortage of workers, for examples in coalmining – by the early twentieth century, close to 50% of the male immigrants to Scotland worked as coalminers. Italians were also a prominent group and became involved in setting up restaurants or pursued catering businesses. In parts of Scotland, strong Jewish communities had also developed, for instance in the Gorbals in Glasgow. With Hitler’s seizure of power, many more Jewish immigrants arrived and found refuge in Scotland. One of them was Henry Wuga.


New Scots

Over recent years the concept of ‘New Scot’ has become prominent and is used by many immigrants to describe themselves. The basic idea is that anyone who comes to live in Scotland is a Scot: it is a matter of choice rather than an coincidence of birth. In particular, this has been important for the integration of refugees and asylum seekers, as is reflected in the Scottish Government’s ‘New Scots: refugee integration strategy’, which is designed to provide integration from day one of arrival; is based on a rights-focused approach; and involves both refugees and the communities in which they live to build resilient communities.

What about EU citizens now?

EU, EEA & Swiss citizens in Scotland feel more welcome than elsewhere in the UK, and while still affected by the general sense of ‘un-belonging’ noted above, when speaking specifically about Scotland most still see it as their home.

Scotland remains home

Brexit has has a significant impact on EU, EEA and Swiss citizens already at home in Scotland. They had to retrospectively apply for a new post-Brexit status to remain lawfully resident. The process for that has caused, as a recent Survey demonstrated clearly, caused a real rupture in the sense of belonging among EU citizens.  As the UK- wide Survey showed:

  • 53% of respondents were unhappy about the lack of a physical document; for Scotland the figure is even higher at 92.52%
  • across all respondents, 70.29% agreed or strongly agreed that their European identity was strengthened by Brexit; for over a third it also strengthened their national identity
  • across all respondents, 94.7% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they now feel more integrated; 95.24% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they now feel more at home in the UK
  • respondents felt ‘angry’, ‘anxious’ and ‘unwanted’ (words most frequently mentioned)
  • ‘anxiety’ generally remained a strong feeling; even those with the new status ‘strongly agreed’ that they are anxious at 45.1%; combined with ‘agreed’ this becomes 79.3%
  • free text comments provided by respondents include significant evidence—both in terms of volume and scope—about wider negative impacts of having to apply to stay in one’s home and Brexit on respondents’ mental health, well-being and sense of belonging
The full Survey report, as well as the report of a more recent Survey on post-Brexit experiences, can be found here.
Yet while these results also reflect views of respondents in Scotland, qualitative data show that there is more nuance here. While respondents recognise that living in Scotland does not do away with the wider concerns, overall a majority of respondents resident in Scotland spoke of their deep attachment to Scotland and how they see it as different from the rest of the UK. They feel invested in Scotland specifically, and expressly recognized the Scottish Government’s efforts to support them. This is markedly different from the UK Government: while the Survey overall documented that the UK Government’s messages are not registering with Survey respondents, the positive approach adopted by the Scottish Government registers strongly. The supportive approach by the Scottish Government and the very different rhetoric—not one of dog-whistling, but one where respondents remembered multiple occasions of being reminded that they ‘enrich’ Scotland. As one respondent noted, the Scottish Government has ‘our backs’. There is trust and a real sense of belonging to Scotland—which is expressed also in respondents recognizing themselves as ‘New Scots’. In the words of a selection of respondents:

‘I feel at home in Scotland especially since the Scottish Government has been very clear and very positive about EU nationals’ contributions and place here. I have had tremendous support from just about anyone I meet.’ – French EU citizen; arrived in 1976

‘Weirdly I noticed how I cannot say “I feel home and welcome in the UK”, but I do feel home and welcome in Scotland.’ – German EU citizen; arrived in 2018

‘In Scotland we are a little cushioned – two days after the referendum I received a letter from my MSP saying that I would always be welcome in Scotland.’ – Dutch EU citizen; arrived in 1997

‘I have experienced a big difference between England, where I lived until August 2015, and Scotland. Feel much more welcome and valued in Scotland, happy about my future here.’ – Dutch EU citizen; arrived in1990

Migration post-Brexit

Brexit has impacted Scotland in many ways, but one of the most fundamental change relates to how Brexit has changed the Scottish labour force, particularly in the hospitality and care sectors. In light of restrictive hostile environment policies of the UK Government, this is unlikely to change and the negative impacts for Scotland will need to be measured going forward.