Lithuanian Miners in Scotland: migration and misconceptions

by Prof. Marjory Harper, School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen

extract from:

(edited for style by Alan Craig, 2018)

One in four Lithuanians — about 650,000 individuals — emigrated from their homeland between 1870 and the First World War. Most went to the United States, but a significant number settled in Scotland’s industrial central belt, particularly around Coatbridge and Bellshill in Lanarkshire, and Newtongrange in Midlothian. By 1914, there were about 12,000 Lithuanians in Britain, 7,000 of them in Scotland. Most were farm workers who had been pushed out of Lithuania by ‘Russification’ policies and a deteriorating economy. Following the failure of the Polish-Lithuanian uprising against the Russian Empire in 1863, Russia reacted by implementing so-called ‘Russification’ policies. These were processes of cultural and political assimilation. Public use of the Lithuanian language was forbidden, there was anti-Catholic discrimination by the Orthodox Church, and some areas of Lithuania were repopulated by ethnic Russians.

Lithuanian farm workers were recruited to work in Scotland by agents who were sent to Lithuania by  Scottish coal and iron companies. While the Lithuanian influx was much smaller, less well-known and more short-lived than the movement from Ireland, it was equally controversial, not least because of opposition within the mining communities, which provided employment to both groups of immigrants. The key distinguishing features of the Lithuanian immigration were the persistent public misunderstandings about the nationality of the immigrants, and the almost total disappearance of the community after the First World War.

Lithuanian miners: Misunderstandings, hostility and opposition

Local newspapers are a rich, multi-textured repository of information about social, economic, cultural and political issues. The Dalkeith Advertiser was a weekly newspaper, published in an area that was one of the centres of the Scottish mining industry, and a location where many Lithuanians settled. The article featured below is an extract from a report delivered at the annual conference of the Scottish Miners’ Federation, which had just been held in nearby Edinburgh.  The extract reflects, in particular, the misunderstanding of Lithuanian immigrants’ place of origin, the nature of their employment, the hostility they experienced, and the division of opinion about the grounds on which they were opposed by Scottish miners.

Extract From: Dalkeith Advertiser, 4 January 1906, p.3

Scottish Miners’ Federation Annual Conference

The following motion was moved by Mr Thos Sullivan, Lanarkshire:— “That we continue to urge upon the Government the necessity of passing legislation for the regulation of the employment of unskilled labour in mines, especially the employment of unskilled foreign workmen, who do not understand the English language.” He said that apart from the injury done by Polish workers through their lack of knowledge of the English language, they knew that foreign unskilled labour affected the British miners in the matter of wages.

Mr David Gilmour, Lanarkshire, said that since the last Conference in Edinburgh they had demonstrated that so far as trade unionism was concerned, they were willing to take up responsibilities for the foreign miners. In his district, they brought out Poles on strike and a stronger or more determined body of men could not have been found fighting for their rights. The Poles remained on strike for eight months, and got their demand conceded. Therefore, from a trade union point of view, they had absolutely no reason to object to the introduction of foreign workers into the mines. Their objection was founded on the ground of safety.

Bailie Brown, Dalkeith, said he could not endorse what had been said by Mr Gilmour. He proposed to amend the resolution by the introduction of the following:— “That we continue to urge upon the Government the necessity of passing legislation for the regulation of employment of unskilled labour in mines and of prohibiting the importation of foreign workmen into the mines of this country.” He said he was in full sympathy with the resolution, but he wanted the foreign miners to remain at home and work the mines there. He wanted them away, whether they knew the language or not. The men whom he represented did not want the foreigners in the mines, because they believed that if they were not stopped from coming, in a short time there would not be labour enough for their native miners. He quoted figures to show that the coal trade had not responded as it ought to have responded to the boom in the iron and steel trade, and he was not optimistic as to the future. He believed in the open door to a certain extent, but he did not believe in allowing anybody to come in while they had a back door where their own people had to walk out. (Applause.) It was not right that foreigners should come in and take the work while our own people had to emigrate in order to live. He wanted to speak bluntly, and to say that he did not believe that 10 per cent of the miners wanted the Poles kept out because of the danger caused by them not knowing the language; the real reason was that the Poles were congesting the mines and producing more coal than was required. In Midlothian two years ago there were not more than a dozen foreigners in the pits; today, they were there in hundreds, and they were still coming.

Mr Cook, Clackmannan, seconded and after discussion the original resolution was carried by 47 votes to 27.

The immigrants the article is referring to had come to Scotland from Lithuania, not Poland. Around 1900, the Midlothian mining industry was centred around Dalkeith and Newtongrange. The Lothian Coal Company, which shipped much of its output to the Baltic, had also sent agents to Lithuania to recruit workers for their pits. Since the 1860s, Russification policies in the Baltic States and East Prussia had been driving Lithuanians overseas, mainly to the United States. Some were escaping conscription into the Russian army, while others were economic migrants, and their movement was, therefore, shaped by the familiar combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ influences. Many recruits thought that they were going to the USA or Canada, and some were indeed ‘stage migrants’, who moved on to America when they had saved enough money. Stage migration is where individuals, families or communities did not migrate in a single, straightforward linear movement, but were rolling stones who continued to relocate, either within their new country, or on to another country.

The experience of Lithuanian miners was beset by misunderstandings. As well as being incorrectly labelled as ‘Poles’ or ‘Russian Poles’ and believing they had landed in America rather than Scotland, many had come from an agricultural labouring background, and thought they were being recruited for the same employment overseas. This was because when they disembarked at Leith, the coal company agents who met them were unable to communicate because of the language barrier. When they gestured with a digging motion, the Lithuanians thought they were being recruited as farm workers, not coal miners.

The attitude of host communities and fellow workers was not only one of misunderstanding, it was also often one of hostility. This is clearly demonstrated in the extract above. In particular, Lithuanians faced the hostility of the Scottish Miners’ Federation on the grounds that they undercut wages, diluted the labour market, broke strikes, and caused accidents because the language barrier prevented them from understanding instructions. As the extract demonstrates, however, not all union delegates condemned the ‘Poles’ as strike breakers and, in due course, the Lithuanians were accepted into the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union.

The hostility evident in the extract was echoed elsewhere, not least by politicians of different political colours. John Wilson, a Unionist, said in 1900 that he did not believe “it proper that this country should be the dumping ground for all the paupers of Europe”. Keir Hardie, later leader of the Labour Party, as leader of the Ayrshire miners led a campaign against them; and the Glasgow Trades Council branded them as ‘evil’, echoing the Miners’ Federation’s demand for immigration controls to keep them out. Like many Irish immigrants to Scotland, the Lithuanians also faced hostility from the religious establishment. Most of them were Catholics who found it impossible to gain acceptance into mining communities, which had long been torn apart by sectarianism, and into a country where aggressive Protestantism was, at that time, one of the hallmarks of national identity. As a result, they developed their own support structure of clergy, newspapers, shops, and businesses.

Not all encounters between Scots and Lithuanians were hostile, but — inevitably — harmonious encounters did not make news. The Lithuanians seem to have been tolerated rather than welcomed, and the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century migration did not persist long enough for a significant community to become embedded in Scottish society.

The legacy of Lithuanians in Scotland

The Lithuanians’ impact in terms of the controversy they aroused is clearly evident in the newspaper extract — but, perhaps, their main legacy was a negative one, in that they are scarcely remembered in modern Scotland. During World War I, there was considerable hostility directed at them as aliens. Some of the men were liable for service in the Russian army, and when they were stranded in Russia after the Revolution, their dependent families back in Scotland found themselves facing eviction in their hundreds from company-owned housing — and, subsequently, the withdrawal of their poor relief. Many women and children, therefore, found themselves with no choice but to return to Lithuania, and 400 of them were repatriated in 1920. Their return — and the virtual disintegration of the Lithuanian community — helps to explain their invisibility, but it was worsened by a deliberate amnesia, for the immigrants’ descendants did not want to preserve ethnic memories because of the double stigma of being foreigners and miners in a country which did not hold either category in high regard.

Those who stayed in Scotland found it difficult to maintain a sense of community. About 400 of the 6,000 Lithuanians who came to Britain as Displaced Persons (‘DPs’) after the Second World War settled in Scotland and established links with their countrymen who had emigrated there half a century earlier. They went to the same districts where previous generations had settled — the Lanarkshire coal and steel communities of Bellshill, Mossend and Carfin — but some went further afield, to the aluminium works at Kinlochleven in the Highlands.