A dysfunctional diaspora? Causes of mental illness among Scottish emigrants to Canada, 1867-1914

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Recent years have seen substantial developments in the study of migration. While scholarship emanating from donor countries often portrays migrants as adventurers or exiles, historiography in host lands focuses on successful adaptation, integration or assimilation. Yet difficulties in adjustment were commonplace. Migrants who were admitted to mental hospitals were at the extreme end of the spectrum of social dysfunction, but their experiences constitute a largely neglected area of diaspora studies.

This analysis of the relationship between migration and mental illness among Scottish emigrants to Canada 1872-1913 is rooted in the admission registers and case files of the British Columbia Provincial Asylum for the Insane, supplemented by the papers of government immigration departments whose gate-keeping and fire-fighting strategies both reflected and shaped the policies and practices of asylum doctors and directors.

At the heart of the study is an exploration of factors that triggered mental illness, including transition, an alien environment, disappointed expectations, homesickness, and the absence of support networks. Pragmatic responses, which are addressed briefly, included voluntary repatriation and deportation.

The BC records demonstrate that ethnicity was – perhaps surprisingly - not central to diagnoses. Comparative analysis also suggests that Scots were not exceptional in their experiences of mental illness on Canada’s western frontier.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8-14
Number of pages7
JournalNeurosciences and History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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