Siberian rats, mass emigration and the Scottish psyche

Posted by on Oct 27, 2009 in Northwest Highlands, Science | 8 Comments
Might Siberian rats help explain cultural differences between Scotland and the USA? This thought occurred to me as I hunkered down on the slopes of Beinn Bheag, one of the two small hills that are prominent in the view down Loch a’Bhraoin from the A832 past Braemore Junction.
The Grahams Groban and Beinn Bheag, flanked by the Munro A’Chailleach (left) and  the Corbett Creag Rainich (right)
As we squatted on the yellowed autumnal hillside, our backs to the driving rain, it seemed amazing to think that this area had once been populated, that families had lived and worked in the glen’s now ruined crofthouses. Perhaps the ground was drier, more fertile and more welcoming in the relatively recent past. Or maybe the lack of any alternative compelled the hardy inhabitants to endure a hungry and miserable existence until the prospect of a new start lured them onto boats bound for the New World?

I read recently of experiments carried out by scientists in Siberia (New Scientist 2728). As part of a 30 year study into aggression in animals they made parallel lines of timid and ferocious rats from the same original stock. They did this by selectively breeding from the more docile and feistier animals in each generation. This fascinating piece of work shows that behavioural traits may be enhanced by means of natural selection over relatively short time periods.

The unusual low angled quartzite slabs of Sgurr Ban and Loch an Nid viewed from near the summit of Beinn Bheag. These Munros had been the original target for the day but windy conditions and a lowering cloud base made the lower hills more appealling.
One could argue that, thanks to successive waves of mass emigration, an experiment similar to that conducted on the Siberian rats has been running in Scotland since the 17th century. While some of our diaspora left unwillingly as a result of forced evictions, the vast majority left Scotland willingly, eager to take control of their destinies, to escape from scraping a living on ground rented from feudal overlords. By these means perhaps as many as a dozen generations have been partially depleted of those more adventurous souls who chose to take the gamble of emigrating in search of a better life.
The question I pose is this – what personality traits may have been amplified as those who remained bred with one another? Might the dourness and stoicism for which the Scottish people are renowned be partially explained in terms of natural selection?If you agree with (or object to) any of these ramblings do leave a comment below.


  1. Chris
    October 27, 2009


    I’m English living in Edinburgh for the past 17 years and am not sure how true this is for the capital….then again the capital is a special case….a very English city in its way!

  2. Donald
    October 27, 2009

    I don’t agree about the breeding line of thought but successive governments from centuries ago to the present day have done their utmost to ensure that at best the very minimum of power is handed to the people.

    In short, the British state is built upon keeping power in the hands of the few whilst doing everything, overt and less so, to keep the people thinking they have a good deal.

    The power of the internet is now enabling people to see a different story, independent of the British Government and it’s powerful machine.

  3. Gavin Macfie
    October 28, 2009

    Thanks for the comments. I was surprised by the apparent heritability of character traits demonstrated by results of the rat study. Clearly with highly socialised animals like humans other factors, as listed by Donald above, are also important.

    I hesitated before picking out ‘dour’ and ‘stoic’ as the traits that may have been amplified – perhaps ‘reserved’ would have been a better choice?

  4. Craig W
    October 29, 2009

    This is a well-worn argument, especially amongst ex-pats – the argument goes that those with get-up-and-go have got up and gone, leaving behind the dregs of society to wallow in their sink estates. You can see why such an argument is more popular with expats than with those left behind! However, it also takes a certain talent to make a living in unpromising circumstances. I would have stayed in my home area if I could, but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t secure employment in or around my home town of Helensburgh.

    Perhaps those who flourish in areas with fewer opportunities are like hardy mountain plants, and the ex-pats who got out and made better lives for themselves would have done no better than their contemporaries if they had stayed at home?

  5. Gavin Macfie
    October 29, 2009

    Perhaps stubbornness and awkwardness are the characteristics that have been enhanced in those who resisted the draw of emigration. Or hardiness and a determination to make the best of what’s available.

  6. Dominic
    November 2, 2009

    Controversial thought…perhaps the ones who stayed secured their position by persecuting others into leaving.
    Those who left were then free to persecute the natives of their new home.

    Discuss :-)

  7. Stephen
    November 2, 2009

    I agree with Craig W. My family left for New Zealand many generations ago and I have a copy of the old shipping posters advertising travel to the colonies from Glasgow to Wellington. They read a little bit like a modern holiday brochure :) So the people that left then, you could argue, were taking what they believed was a path of least resistance layden with promised riches.

    Those that stayed perhaps had the greatest adventure of all.

    As for your point about the Scottish character, I tend to think of Scottish dourness as an inherent “honesty”, which i think many people consider in a bad light only because it contrasts so directly with the fabricated “positivity” of our colonial friends.

    Interesting discussion :)

  8. Gavin Macfie
    November 3, 2009

    Honesty vs false positivity is a good way of looking at the differences between the Scottish and American national characters. As with all sweeping generalisations it is easy to get oneself into bother.


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