Publish date: 05 Apr 2023

Child migration: a shameful chapter in Scotland’s history

From the latter part of the nineteenth century until well into the second half of the twentieth century many thousands of children were sent away from Scotland as child migrants by means of a system that was inherently abusive.

Lady Smith has today Tuesday 21 March, published the first volume of her findings relating to the migration of children from Scotland.

She concludes that child migration is “now rightly regarded as a shameful chapter in our history”, and that “the system itself was abusive and resulted in many children being abused at their destinations”.

The scope and purpose of the case study was to consider evidence about:

  • The migration of children from Scotland, primarily to Canada and Australia,
  • The nature and extent of any relevant abuse,
  • The systems, policies, and procedures relevant to child migration, both domestic and international, their application, and their effectiveness,
  • The impact on individuals of being migrated as children, and
  • Any related matters.

Lady Smith said: “Although decades have passed since the last shipload of child migrants left our shores, and though apologies have been made, families reunited, and public inquiries conducted in other jurisdictions to examine what happened to their children, it is important to listen to and understand what happened to all child migrants including those from Scotland.

“I am satisfied the child migration system was abusive and it resulted in many children being abused.

“Abuse began at the outset, unacceptable practices being inherent in the systems and procedures applied at the stages of selecting children and making arrangements for their migration.

“It continued in receiving countries and institutions, where children were exposed to harsh and neglectful conditions, used as slave labour, and were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by individuals who owed a duty of care to them.”

The first volume of findings covers, in detail, the histories of former child migrants who provided evidence to SCAI, or whose family members provided evidence.

Volume two, which will be published soon, considers the history, policy, and practices of child migration, with a focus on the Scottish context.

Canada received the majority of child migrants, with an estimated 80,000 children dispatched from the UK to Canada by 1920.

Despite contemporary reports that exposed the failings and abuse in the practice of child migration to Canada, children continued to be migrated there until 1948.

After the Second World War, Australia became the most popular destination for child migration, and between 1912 and 1970 around 7,000 children were migrated from the UK to Australia.

Forty-five individuals came forward to tell the Inquiry about their experiences as child migrants who were sent from Scotland, or as relatives of former child migrants. They also provided evidence about the experiences, at their destinations, of other child migrants.

Lady Smith’s findings can be summarised as follows:
  • Abuse began at the outset, unacceptable practices being inherent in the systems and procedures applied at the stages of selection and making arrangements for children’s migration.
  • System failures at home and abroad exposed child migrants to a real risk of suffering a wide range of abuses in receiving homes and institutions.
  • Many child migrants were abused at the institutions in which they were placed, as were other children; some were abused from the moment of arrival.
  • The destinations of child migrants and juveniles were thousands of miles from Scotland, often isolated in remote locations; children’s sense of displacement was exacerbated in cases where they were depersonalised on arrival by, for example, their already limited possessions being taken away from them; girls’ long hair being shaved off; names changed; and all links with family and homeland being severed.
  • Some parents who followed their children abroad were not allowed to remove their children from institutional care.
  • Children were used as slave labour, including for building works and farming.
  • At their destinations, children were physically abused, they were sexually abused, they were emotionally abused, they were subjected to unacceptable practices, and they were neglected.
  • Examples of the physical abuse suffered included brutal beatings on heads and bodies with belts, straps, and other implements, such as reinforced straps and canes, pieces of timber, fists, and feet. Some of it was sadistic.
  • Children were sexually abused, including by men in holy orders, some being abused in the most appalling and harmful manner.
  • Children were sexually abused by members of a paedophile ring.
  • Girls had to assist in caring for the elderly, including elderly men suffering from senile dementia. They had to wash their soiled sheets and they had to prepare dead bodies for burial.
  • Children were denigrated, insulted, humiliated, and kept in a state of fear.
  • Children were neglected. Their clothing was inadequate. They went barefoot even in winter, when they learnt to walk in fresh cow dung to warm their feet. Some had to sleep on verandas even in cold weather. The food was inadequate. They had no, or limited, access to health care. The education afforded to many of them was lamentable.
  • Whilst some children settled in the country to which they were migrated and established successful adult lives, even they remained scarred. Memories of abuse continue to haunt them and childhood severance from their roots in Scotland still hurts.

Statements from former child migrants and their family members were taken at private sessions held in Scotland, Australia, the USA, and Canada.

In Australia, members of the Inquiry’s statement taking and witness support teams attended various locations in Tasmania, Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales during two weeks in September 2018, and two weeks in March 2019.

Private sessions were held and statements were taken from a total of 40 former child migrants—23 in the first visit, and 17 in the second.

Hearings were interrupted as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic. In total there were 45 days of evidence, 28 between December 2019 and March 2020 and then another 17 between September and October 2020.

During hearings, Lady Smith heard evidence from 40 child migrants

Lady Smith added: “During the case study hearings, I heard of many aspects of the experiences of child migrants that were shocking and distressing.

“I appreciate how challenging it will have been for all witnesses, near and far, to engage with and provide evidence to the Inquiry. I am very grateful to them for their assistance and co-operation and for their valuable contributions.“

Go to Case Study No 8 Volume 1

Lady Smith discusses her findings