In eighteenth and nineteenth century Scotland, economic, political, and social systems were changing rapidly. As a result of all these changes, many Highland Scots whose ancestors had lived on their clan lands for generations now found themselves suddenly displaced. For many Scots, emigration appeared to be the best solution to the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, displacement, and overpopulation that faced them.
The eighteenth century saw the advent of agricultural improvement, a movement which began in southern Scotland and slowly spread into the Highlands and Islands. The old system of “runrig" farming, where fields were shared by several families and divided into strips which were re-allocated periodically, was becoming obsolete. Landowners discovered that it was much more financially expedient to enclose these fields and lease them to only one farmer. Since this farmer had a continued interest in the land, it was worth his while to make improvements like drainage projects and fertilisation. New crops and livestock were also introduced to the area to enable the land to be more productive.
The introduction of new breeds of sheep from the Lowlands also proved much more profitable than the raising of crops. A landowner could expect to receive three or four times the rent on his land from a sheep farmer than what he was previously getting from his tenants. The rents on farms went up and farmers who raised crops could not compete with the sheep farmers and were therefore displaced.
Political changes also brought about displacement of the Highlanders as well. Political With the cessation of clan warfare, clan chiefs no longer depended on a large number of fighting men living on his estate to support him in time of war. The tacksmen, who recruited the clan army and served as the officers in the clan, where also made redundant. These tacksmen were usually close relatives of the clan chief who received a long-term tack or lease on a large farm in return for their loyalty and military service. They sub-let these large farms to tenants and often lived the lives of refined gentlemen
After the Jacobite rising of 1745 and their subsequent defeat at Culloden in 1746, the government enacted laws which stripped the Highland chiefs of any political power but awarded them all the clan lands and revenues. The chiefs now simply occupied the social position of a landlord. In order to live in the style that they saw their southern neighbours living in, these landlords raised rents as high as the market would bear and the land went to the highest bidder, regardless of clan affiliation. It became more profitable for the landlords to cut out the tacksmen all together and lease directly to tenants. Tacksmen were forced out of their position of leadership and wealth in the Highland social system by these changes. Rather than subsist on a poverty level or engage in manual labour, many tacksmen decided to emigrate to America and take many of their tenants with them.
During the height of the Highland emigration in 1774-1775, the government decided to find out why so many were leaving their homes to emigrate to the British colonies in America. When they interviewed those leaving, most emigrants gave high rents and oppression, scarcity of bread, want of employment, and extreme poverty as their reasons for leaving. There were a few instances of religious persecution of Catholics which also encouraged some Highlanders to leave, but for the most part it was simply poverty and hunger.
In addition to the forces causing Highlanders to abandon Scotland, there were forces pulling them towards North America. In the beginning, land was free or very cheap for those who wanted it. With the cheapness and availability of land, a poor man in Scotland could aspire to become part of the landed gentry in Nova Scotia. Once they were well settled in Nova Scotia, immigrants would write home telling of their life in the New World and encouraging friends and family to join them.
Highlanders began to settle Nova Scotia after their regiments were disbanded after the war with France in 1763, but the first large immigration to the area occurred in 1772, when John MacDonald of Glenaladale brought 250 Catholic Highlanders to St. John's Island, now PEI. Many of these Gaelic speaking Scots did not remain on PEI, however; they left to take up free land in the Nova Scotia mainland and Cape Breton Island.
The first Highland emigration of note to what is now Nova Scotia was in 1773 when the Hector sailed into Pictou Harbour. These were Presbyterian Scots from Sutherland who joined a group of English speaking Protestants already there who had been brought in from the lower colonies by a group called the Philadelphia Company. Other Highlanders eventually began to arrive in Pictou in great numbers. They came from many places in Scotland - Skye, Sutherland, Moidart, Morar, The Uists, Barra, Lewis and Harris, the small islands off Skye of Rum and Canna, and Ross-shire, Inverness-shire and Argyll-shire. Those of Presbyterian background tended to settle in Pictou County, but Catholics were encouraged by the Church to move on to Antigonish County and Cape Breton, so as not to be unduly influenced by the Presbyterian majority of Pictou. The first Highland emigrants who came directly to Cape Breton did not arrive until 1802 (Kennedy 24). Highland immigration to Cape Breton reached its peak in 1828, but it continued unabated until the 1850s. Soon the Highlanders outnumbered all other ethnic groups in Cape Breton and the eastern counties of Pictou and Antigonish.