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date: 27 April 2017

Printers and the Scottish Diaspora

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Migration was a key tool for building the social, cultural, and economic infrastructures of the “British Dominion” throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Between 1840 and 1940, an estimated 15 million people left the British Isles for overseas destinations. Such displacement of people, driven by economic necessity, contributed to what scholars term the imperial diaspora and the labor diaspora between 1840 and 1914. Print culture (and its practitioners) was crucial to these diasporas. Members of a highly skilled, mobile printing diaspora, who could help construct and promote political and cultural identities through the agency of print, were high on the preferred occupation list, from the outset.

Scottish printers were key players in such printing diaspora networks, locally and internationally. Individuals circulated between regional and overseas sites, acting as transmitters of print values and trade skills, and becoming central to the expansion of labor interests in new territories. Such translocal circulation of highly skilled workers played its part in the development of 19th-century Anglophone print economies. Over the course of the long 19th century, either through their own initiative or supported by emigration and removal grant schemes, Scottish printers circulated across the English-speaking colonial world, setting up businesses, engaging in labor and union politics, and creating the print culture infrastructures that sustained social, communal, and national communication and identity.

Sample data drawn from U.K. typographical union records offers some insight into the extraordinarily high levels of local, regional, and international mobility of skilled Scottish print trade workers in the long 19th century. Such peregrinations were common. Indeed, the “tramping” tradition among skilled artisanal workers dated back several centuries. Part of the so-called “tramping system,” which organized trade guilds and print trade unions in Britain used throughout the 19th century, it was a means of organizing and controlling labor activity in local and regional areas. The typographical unions in Ireland and Britain (England, Scotland, Wales) that developed from mid-century onwards encouraged such mobility among union members as a means of monitoring and controlling supply and demand for labor. Tramping typographers also acted as union missionaries, starting up unions in unserved towns along these regional networks, playing key roles as informants, cultural transmitters, and social networkers.

Tramping was only part of the picture of worker mobility in the 19th-century Scottish printing trade diaspora. Printers participated in a communication and trade network that encompassed and supported skills transfer and personal mobility between printing centers locally, regionally, and internationally. They also were responsible for supporting cultural identities that linked overseas communities back to Scotland. Study of those links enables an interesting picture to be built up of the communication and mobility circuits through which 19th-century print workers engaged culturally and socially. What becomes clear is that skills transfer was not the only result of such migratory experiences. Equally important was the manner in which trade, labor, and cultural practices and values were exported overseas and integrated into indigenous settings. Such migration also facilitated insertion of trade skills into local and general spaces, and the transfer of knowledge and skills between incomer and indigenous workers. The various forms in which such identities were effectively supported and monitored shaped regional, national, and transnational flows of Scottish skills and labor traditions throughout the English-speaking world in the 19th and early 20th century.