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Census Sidelights Part Two

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Angela Finlayson

Migration is a term that conjures up uneasy thoughts of the Clearances and the dispersal of families overseas. Currently, however, historians and demographers are increasingly interested in internal migration - the ways in which our forebears moved around their own localities and further afield without necessarily becoming part of the emigrant stream.

Sometimes, of course, a local move did lead on - perhaps in a second generation, to the more irrevocable migration overseas or down south. Whether or not it led to further migration, the fact of having moved at all is an event of considerable significance in a person's lifespan and the lifestyle of a family, an upheaval influenced perhaps by social and economic factors and itself triggering off further changes, both in the communities entered and in those left behind.

Most studies have concentrated on movement to urban centres and less attention has been paid to migration between rural areas, perhaps partly because, unlike cities and towns, rural distinctions are hard to define with precision and are often seen as of little interest to urban based researchers. In Britain research has been largely concerned with England and Wales and little has been done in Scotland.

It is generally agreed, following Ravenstein (1) that most internal migrants travel only short distances. A study by Holderness (2) in Yorkshire found farmers tending to live in the same parish as their fathers, attributing this to tenancy and leasehold arrangements. In the same study traders were also found to have low migration rates, attributable to the necessity to capitalise on local 'good will', while, in contrast labourers moved more often in search of better work and would be joined by younger sons of farmers and traders when local opportunities in land and business were poor.

Family tradition had handed down some knowledge of short distance moves made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between inland Caithness parishes by small tenant farmers who were our forbears and their collaterals. It seemed that they were rather more mobile than Holderness's farmers (2) and perhaps also possibly more mobile than the crofter/fishermen of Caithness coastal parishes. They were thought to be typical of other farmers in that they were always looking for better land while the crofter/fishermen were thought to have less incentive to move. This, then seemed a hypothesis that might be investigated by comparing a small series of households from different parishes.

Census Enumerator's Books, now easier of access on microfilm, represent both delight and frustration to the researcher. Those for the 1851 Census (3) in particular elicit delight at finding a comprehensive listing that is reliable - at least in its major aspects - as well as regret that details for comparison are not available for earlier years. (The 1841 Census omits parish of birth).

A major advantage is that comparison between parishes becomes possible because of standardised format and instructions to enumerators. It must be added, however, that the instructions and examples set out at the beginning of each book were clearly geared to urban England rather than rural Scotland. Perhaps partly because of this, individual enumerators (often the local schoolmaster) have not always interpreted these in identical fashion nor always recorded with complete consistency.

I transcribed a section of the 1851 Bower Census (Book 3 comprising 40 households and covering the area between Tister and the Parish Church and between the Free Church and the Olrig boundary) and a section of the Dunnet Census comprising the 63 households which constituted the community of Brough. Professor Michael Anderson of Edinburgh University had sections of the Halkirk and Canisbay Censuses for the some year available on computer so I obtained copies of these - this adding 42 households in the Achater-Forsie-Assery district of Halkirk and 43 households in the Aukingill district of Canisbay, which serve a similar contrast between inland and coastal parishes. For brevity I will sometimes refer to these sections by their parish name although the findings relate only to the small sections.

It should be remembered that Census data refer only to one point in time and give no information on persons who have left the areas concerned, whether permanently or perhaps, like seamen, temporarily. Moreover, although individuals whose parish of birth coincides with their parish of residence are taken as sedentes (non-migrants), this may conceal some who were return-migrants, a fact sometimes indicated by children born in intermediate areas. Also, by using evidence of birth in different parish to constitute migration, one is comb[in]ing individuals who may have moved several miles with those who have perhaps moved a mere few hundred yards. For this reason some researchers prefer to use distance, laboriously working out average distances between the centres of different parishes. However, I think that the fact of having crossed a parish boundary was in 1851 significant, given its relevance both to civil status in terms of the Poor Law and to Church adherence. I have also used the distinction between those who were born [in] Caithness but in a different parish and those who were born outside Caithness.

The total population of each parish section is given in column 1 below. As migrants I have used only adults - ie individuals over 16 or, if under 16, having an occupation (other than 'scholar') listed - and have taken them as a percentage of the total population. In the table XP means born in Caithness but in different parish, XC - non--Caithness, X - total born outside parish or county. M - Male and F - Female.

Halkirk 98 M, 107 F 27.5 18.7 30.8 14.0 41.0
Bower 91 M 107 F 26.4 2.2 22.4 4.7 27.8
Dunnet 102 M 147 F 9.8 4.9 10.9 11.5 19.3
Canisbay 106 M 108 F 13.2 1.7 15.7 0.0 15.4

So it seemed that, broadly, these inland farming communities did indeed contain a higher proportion of incomers than did the fishing communities. However the contrast was greater between the 2 edges of the Caithness boundary - the Achater-Forsie-Assery district of Halkirk and the Aukingill district of Canisbay - than between District 3 in Bower and Brough in Dunnet.

If we look at incomers from outside Caithness then it con be seen that Bower had far fewer than did Halkirk, which perhaps reflects differences in their geographical situation, Halkirk having boundaries with Sutherland while Bower is surrounded by other Caithness parishes. Then, Brough has a much higher proportion of non-Caithness incomers, particularly females, than Auckingill and this probably reflects social structures as a closely knit community attractive to individuals lacking local roots and having perhaps more need of near-at-hand neighbours. (This latter need may also account for the fact that Brough had, even without incomers, a much higher ratio of females to males than the other 3 more widely dispersed areas, a matter to be discussed in Part 2).

Among the 25 household heads in Halkirk who were classified as farmers, it seemed to be mainly those with the smaller properties (in which I have grouped those of less than 15 acres) who were more often incomers, both from outside Caithness and from other parishes. (No crofters were listed by the Halkirk enumerator and it is possible that some of the small farmers might have been so classified if the procedures of enumerators in other parishes had been followed).

However, there were also instances of migration among farmers with large properties. Of the 2 largest, one came from Thurso, as did his wife, and 4 children in their twenties had been born successively in Thurso, Olrig and Bower, making the family fairly recent incomers. The other largest farmer, although himself born in the parish, had a wife born outside the county (in Kildonan) and children born in Glasgow and Renfrewshire, as well as a non-related female servant born in Glasgow, so the family as a unit had been mobile (and one might speculate as to whether his wife came from a family subjected to the Sutherland Clearances some 30 years earlier).

Among the 19 household heads in Bower who were farmers a lower proportion held small properties and a higher proportion were born locally compared with Halkirk. Four Bower household heads were classified as crofters, one of these coming from Halkirk and 3 being born in Bower.

In Brough only 2 household heads were classified as farmers and one of these came from outside Dunnet. Nine household heads were listed as crofter as sole occupation, one of these coming from outside Dunnet and one from outside Caithness. Another 16 household heads were listed as having dual occupations including crofting, eg seaman/crofter, fisher/crofter, crofter/agricultural labourer, weaver/crofter, mason/crofter (2 of these came from outside the parish and 2 from outside the county, including a fisher/crofter from Canisbay and another from Assynt). A further 9 household heads whose occupations were connected with the sea were mainly locally born but also included a seaman's wife from Olrig. (Women listed as household heads also included 3 locally born wives of seamen whose husbands would be at sea at the time of the census - the surprisingly high incidence of women as household heads in all 4 areas will be discussed in Part 2).

In Auckingill 14 household heads were listed solely as farmers, only 2 of their properties being larger than 15 acres. They were all locally born except the largest who come from nearby Wick and whose wife was locally born. Two listed as having dual occupations were a miller/farmer and a weaver/farmer, these like 2 farmers' widows were all locally born. Of 10 household heads listed solely as fishermen one come from outside Caithness (Wells in Orkney) and one from Scrabster, the other 8 being locally born. The occupation of seaman, common in Brough, did not feature in Auckingill.

Other studies, eg Holderness (2) have shown farm labourers and female house servants as being important components in short-distance migration. In these Caithness parishes, however, individuals listed as in these occupational categories were nearly always also identified as related to the household head generally as sons and daughters, sometimes brothers and sisters or more distant relatives. Where inward migration had occurred it seemed to have been predominantly within the family context. One large-scale exception was evidence of something resembling a bothy system at the large farm of Tister in Bower where a farm manager from Halkirk headed one household while 6 young male farm servants and 2 young female servants formed a separate household next door, only one of them born in Bower and the remainder representing between them 7 different Caithness parishes.

AI! four areas, of course, contained individuals - particularly those other than household heads - whose occupations appeared less directly related to either land or sea. In addition to migration data, the Census Enumerators' Books provide interesting material on these and other wider issues such as household composition, the status and occupations of women, retired individuals and those indicated as paupers. Some of these matters await attention and will be discussed in Part 2.


1. Ravenstein E. G (1885) 'The Laws of Migration', Journal of the Statistical Society, vol 48 pp214-30.

2. Holderness B. A. (1971) 'Personal Mobility in some Rural Parishes of Yorkshire, 1777-1812', 'Yorkshire Archaeological -Journal, vol 42, pp 444-454.

3. 1851 Census Enumerators' Books for Parishes of Halkirk, Bower, Dunnet and Canisbay.