from BBC Home > Legacies: UK History Local to You > Strathclyde > Immigration and Emigration

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There were many different reasons why they left their home on the shores of the Baltic: some were escaping conscription into the Russian army; some were freedom fighters, carrying illegal books in the proscribed Lithuanian language [see article: My Father Was a Smuggler —ed.]; some were Jews fleeing persecution; others were simply economic migrants, desperate to escape the crushing poverty at home and prepared to go anywhere in search of a better life.

Many came to Scotland as they could not afford the journey on to America, others were even duped into thinking they had arrived in America, only subsequently to discover they were, in fact, in Scotland.

When they arrived in Scotland, mostly at the port of Leith, the Lithuanians split into two groups, the Jewish immigrants settling in the Gorbals and the Catholic Lithuanians heading for the smelting works of North Ayrshire, the mines of West Lothian and, mainly, for the iron works and mines of Lanarkshire, the vast majority settling in the area round Bellshill and Mossend.

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Lanarkshire always formed the centre of the Lithuanian community in Scotland, not only did the bulk of the population settle there, but the area also contained the resident Lithuanian priest and the Lithuanian Social Club.

One of the main focal points of the community across Scotland was an annual pilgrimage to the grotto at Carfin—where the Lithuanians have their own plaque. Many who came to Lanarkshire were allegedly recruited in the Baltic by agents of Merry & Cunninghame, owners of ironworks and coalmines in the Carnbroe area. Whether this is true or not, by 1914 over 4,000 Lithuanians had settled in the area.

The Lithuanians were not made welcome in Scotland. They were seen as competition in the market for jobs, and prepared to do them for less than the indigenous workers. Employers were often accused of using them as strike-breakers. Not only were the newcomers obviously foreign, with little or no grasp of the English language, but they were also devoutly Catholic in a fiercely Presbyterian land. The Lithuanians were routinely referred to as “Poles”—the same as calling a Scotsman an Englishman! Even the Lithuanian names were subject to native ignorance, with many being changed by immigration officials and bosses at the pits to random Scottish names, Vicentas Stepsis [proper Lithuanian spelling is Stepšys —ed.] becoming Willie Millar for example. There is even the case of a Lithuanian in Ayrshire who after signing for his pay with an X, saw his name transform into Joseph Ecks. Others changed their name voluntarily, in a bid to avoid harassment and fit into Scottish society more easily [e.g. our Zinkevičius cousins changed their name to “Fletcher” —ed.].

This ignorance and hostility was apparent at all levels of society. John Wilson, the Unionist candidate for St Rollox, Glasgow, in 1900 did not believe “it proper that this country should be the dumping ground for all the paupers of Europe.” Trade unions were openly hostile, claiming that the newcomers’ lack of English made them a danger at work; the Glasgow Trades Council declared the Lithuanians in Glengarnock as “an evil”, and wrote to the TUC demanding immigration controls to keep them out.

Even a figure such as Keir Hardie, founding father of the Labour Party, led a fierce, xenophobic campaign against the Lithuanians. Hardie, as a leader of Ayrshire miners, wrote an article for the journal, The Miner, in which he stated that: “For the second time in their history, Messrs. Merry and Cunninghame have introduced a number of Russian Poles to Glengarnock Ironworks. What object they have in doing so is beyond human ken unless it is, as stated by a speaker at Irvine, to teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers.”

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After a while, however, the new arrivals began to fit in to their new adopted country, as their children attended local schools and as trade union involvement by the men gained them a foothold within the local communities.

Lithuanians also moved out of the mines and ironworks, setting up small businesses and even founding their own newspapers, such as Iseiviu Draugas (Immigrant’s Friend). The Church also made special provision for the Lithuanians and, from 1904, Father John Czuberkis became the first priest to offer pastoral care specifically for them, based at Holy Family Church in Mossend.

However, this process of assimilation was to be rudely brought to a halt with the onset of the First World War. The restrictions placed on immigration during wartime under the Aliens Restriction Act of August 1914 ended immigration from Lithuania for the duration of the conflict. This Act was also followed the same year by the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, which forced the Lithuanians to register as aliens, despite the fact that many had been living in Lanarkshire for thirty years or more, and many sons of Lithuanians were serving in the British armed forces.

Things became even worse when, in 1917, Britain signed the Anglo-Russian Military Convention. This document related to “the reciprocal liability to military service of British subjects resident in Russia and Russian subjects resident in Great Britain.” In other words, while the Lithuanians were ‘Poles’ to the ordinary Scots, they were ‘Russians’ to the British government and, as such, were liable for service in the Russian army. This led to many of the Lithuanian men of working age in Scotland being sent to Russia. By the time most arrived, the country was in the grip of the Bolshevik Revolution, with over 200 dependent families being left behind in Bellshill alone, facing the threat of eviction from company-owned housing. Of the 1,200 or so men who had gone to Russia, only about a third ever returned to Scotland [see the article: Matilda Fletcher (Zinkevičius) —ed.].

Many of those who had left for Russia were not allowed to return to Britain after the war, and their families were forced to leave for Lithuania after the British government suspended dependents’ allowances. These families, many comprising people who were Scots-born, were faced with the choice of either leaving or remaining in Scotland with no means of support in an uncertain economic climate.

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The Lithuanian community suffered further decline in Scotland throughout the inter-war period as the depression forced many to move on, and the rebuilding schemes of the 1930s knocked down the old miner’s “raws” [rows], and Lithuanian families were moved to new estates, where they were separated from other members of the community.

However, the years following the Second World War provided a new influx of immigrants. The storms of the war in Europe had stranded many people far from their native lands, with little or no documentation to prove their identity. These new settlers were known as Displaced Persons, or DPs for short; and, of the 100,875 DPs granted permission to settle in Britain, 5,372 were Lithuanian. Although most of these new arrivals chose to stay in England, several hundred came north, to settle in the Lithuanian heartland around Bellshill.

These new arrivals were to have a profound impact in maintaining the Lithuanian culture and heritage here. Together with some of the original families, they had raised enough money by 1950 to buy an old Episcopal church, which became the Scottish Lithuanian Institute. The Institute enabled the Lithuanians to meet up, hold dances, and interact as a community again. Choirs and a folk-dancing group were established, a scout group kept young people involved, and a boys’ football team was sponsored, playing in the Lithuanian national colours of yellow, green and red. The Institute moved in 1979 and changed its name to the Scots Lithuanian Club, where it still acts as the focal point of the community, although the choirs, dancers and scouts are now defunct.

Today, the Lithuanian community in Scotland is not in good health. Most members are now third or fourth generation and, as a consequence, view themselves as Scots rather than Lithuanians. The Lithuanian language class run in the club now has only two members, and as the number of Lithuanian speakers dwindles there is a real fear that all traces of a community which has been established for over a century will be lost. The line of Lithuanian priests, paid for by the St Casimir Society, continued until this year when Father Joseph MacAndrew was forced to retire through ill-health. As Father MacAndrew puts it: “When I started here, there were two hundred people coming to Lithuanian Mass; now we’re down to about thirty. I may well be the last of the Lithuanian priests—we have applied for a replacement, but whether another comes, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

With the Lithuanian Club celebrating its 25th anniversary next year, there is a real sense among the members of the community that, unless the younger generations take an interest in their Lithuanian heritage, the community in Scotland will have assimilated itself out of existence.