Community without Borders:

Scots Migrants and the Changing Face of Power in the Dutch Republic,

c. 1600-1700

by Doug Catterall


In the 1600s, two very different North Sea societies, the Dutch Republic and Scotland, became closely interdependent in new ways, exchanging ideas, goods and people with increasing intensity as the horizons of both moved beyond Europe. Among the communities central to transforming Scots-Dutch ties was the port of Rotterdam, which underwent its own equally dramatic 17th-century metamorphosis. From a modest-sized port of 10,000 souls c. 1580, the city on the Maas had emerged as a bustling Atlantic world entrepôt of 53,000 by the later 1690s. In fact, Rotterdam and its migrant communities represent a microcosm of the change sweeping communities in the North Sea zone into a new set of relationships with one another; with the societies in which they were rooted; and with places farther afield, in the Atlantic basin and even the Indian Ocean. This study explores Europe’s changing social and cultural landscape through the genesis and growth of Rotterdam’s relationship with the Scots who settled there during the 17th century.

Writing Migrant and Community Cultures Back into Early Modern Europe’s History.

Given its comparative nature, this project addresses a number of scholarly communities whose endeavors embrace Dutch, Scots and European history. Its disciplinary interests also lie across boundaries, in Anthropology and Sociology as well as History. The study’s comparative and cross-disciplinary aspirations are a response to the diffuse and therefore often neglected cultural history of migrants and communities. Unfolding variously across Europe, and a central narrative in early modern Europe’s cultural, economic and political transformations, the daily record of interactions between migrants and communities has frequently been ignored because it at once ubiquitous and difficult to isolate. More often than not historians have viewed early modern Europe’s migrants as merged with larger political, religious and economic structures or as semi-autonomous enclaves. Similarly, scholars have often approached communities either as self-sufficient entities or as caught up in larger battles between state-builders and local reactionaries. This project, on the other hand, aims to look at the independent relationships between communities and migrants and place them in the larger context of structural change in early modern Europe.

Much as an environmental historian would reconstruct the very real but also recondite influences of an ecosystem on a human society, one of the unifying themes in this project is the feedback between Rotterdam as a unitary community and Rotterdam as an agglomeration of groups and relationships. In showing how Rotterdam’s Scots integrated into their adopted home, I chose to look also at changes in Rotterdam as a whole. The study therefore addresses the influences of social geography, institutional growth and a changing urban culture on Rotterdam’s entire urban community. Cast in this broader framework, the study is more than a local history. It also contributes to our understanding of how early modern Europe’s larger urban centers responded to and were changed by a range of forces, including migration.

In taking Rotterdam as its geographic locus, this project is also part of a larger body of work to come out in the last decade that is re-writing Rotterdam’s history, proving it to have been in many respects the Dutch Republic’s most important Atlantic port. As with the work of scholars such as Jori Zijlmans, Manon van der Heijden, Marybeth Carlson, Hanno de Vries, J.L. Price, Hans Bonke, Paul van de Laar and Arie van der Schoor, my study of Rotterdam’s Scots community further revises Rotterdam’s former place in the Republic’s historiography as an uninteresting backwater. Indeed this study suggests that we need to look beyond traditional historical narratives on Brazil, the Caribbean, and New Netherland to take the measure of the Republic’s ties to the Atlantic basin.

In terms of migration history, this study offers some new ways of modeling migration; adds to current knowledge of migration’s cultural impact on early modern Dutch (and European) communities by applying approaches common to practitioners of Dutch historical-anthropological research; and lends further nuance to the rich historiography on the Scots diaspora. Among the more important results, I have shown that far from being subject to the rhythms of political economy, migration actually had its own rhythms. Taking the work on identity of Dutch historical anthropologists such as Willem Frijhoff and anthropologists such as Katy Gardner as its starting point, the study connects migrant social memory and migrant identity to reveal dimensions of the early modern European migration experience that existed outside of political and economic structures. In the area of Scots migration, the project shows that in characterizing Scots migration historians need to link Scots migration in the Atlantic world with Scots migration within Europe.

Rooted as it is in an organic, community context, this study also looks at how migrant groups reproduced themselves, addressing this issue both as a problem of generating social capital and one of managing a community split along lines of gender. On the one hand, Scots Rotterdam relied on strong ties of social solidarity to keep it running, as historians have shown was typical of maritime urban villages. Yet the solidarity on which this urban village rested was tightly bound to decidedly dependent relationships managed by the community’s nominally most dependent members: its women. Like the work of Marc van Alphen and Lotte van de Pol then, this study also sheds new light on the role of women in the Republic’s maritime milieux. I have found that although many of the relationships on which Scots Rotterdam was founded were classic dependency relationships, reciprocal bonds may have moderated their perniciousness, and women were central to such mediation.

Finally, this study engages with the work of historians and historical sociologists such as Herman Roodenburg, Maarten Prak, Gerard Rooijakkers, Charles Tilly, and Alf Lüdtke, who have pioneered the study of community-state relations and the role of ecclesiastical institutions and informal social ties in shaping them. In particular the study looks extensively at how Rotterdam’s public order apparatus, which drew its capacities from local and "national" institutions, confronted and interacted with migrant groups like the Scots in Rotterdam’s public sphere. I conclude that far from attempting to civilize or create a monopoly of repressive force as some historians have argued, Dutch authorities consulted and worked with Rotterdamers. At most, the authorities tried to co-opt the inhabitants of Rotterdam in a scheme to manipulate the city’s urban geography. It was for this reason that the public disputes that rent Scots Rotterdam’s marquee institution, the Scots Church of Rotterdam, could occupy the prominent place that they did in Rotterdam’s public sphere without inviting repressive measures.


Chapter Outlines:

Myths of Migrants, Communities and States

The story of Scots in Rotterdam is one that really begins centuries before the first Scot ever settled on what became known as the Scots Dike. The introductory chapter of the dissertation therefore looks at the links between Scots migration to Rotterdam during the 17th century and the centuries-old heritage of Scots merchants, seafarers and tradesmen journeying and settling abroad. From Bruges in the late 13th century to Poland and eastern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, Scots had been establishing communities broadly representative of (urban) Scots society long before they ever reached the Dutch Republic. I argue that the history of their migration practices, as well as the habits of other European groups, suggest the need for a new anthropology of the other within Europe and consequently a re-examination of the stereotypical "unwanted" migrant. The chapter then moves on to consider and call for the revision of two other, equally potent myths: the reactionary community and the totalizing, repressive state.

Scots in Rotterdam, Scots in the World

Chapter one of the project turns to Scots migrant identity. When Scots did come to Rotterdam then, they brought with them a tendency to form complete communities. For unlike many other groups, Scots tended to complete migrations; i.e. a broad cross-section of the home society settled and ties to both Scotland and the new society were maintained. Consequently their identities were neither quintessentially Scots nor Dutch. Rather, highly textured identities developed on an individual basis depending on the social networks each migrant had developed. Thus Scots Rotterdamers ties Rotterdam not only to Scotland but also to communities across the Atlantic world and beyond.

The presence of Scots (and other migrant groups) in Rotterdam changed the city in other ways too. Most obviously, the newcomers to the city constantly renewed the city’s pools of talent and labor. Less easy to see at first glance, but equally important, the complex ties between the new home and the old that migrants maintained helped connect Rotterdam to a myriad of markets and societies. The results were plain to see. Alone among the Republic’s major port cities, Rotterdam actually prospered in the later 17th century, profiting from ties to Jewish, Walloon, Huguenot, Scots and Flemish migrants who helped to bring Rotterdam into the Atlantic world.

In populating the city’s newly-minted maritime districts, Scots and other migrants also provided a mix of incomes and skills that helped to make these neighborhoods viable. The presence of the Scots and others also altered the cultural and political landscapes of Rotterdam, introducing new religious institutions and shifting public dialogue on poor relief from a sectarian to an ethnic discourse.

Reproducing Migrant Communities

Once in Rotterdam, Scots faced the problem of establishing and continuing their existence in a new urban culture, as individuals and as a group. Chapters two and three show that if ties to kin, acquaintances and workmates alike brought Scots to Rotterdam, they also structured their daily lives. Managing these ties, migrants adapted themselves to a world in which the norms and expectations of different cultures often clashed. Consumer credit, the life’s blood of seafaring folk like Rotterdam’s Scots, and economic and social ties to the wider Atlantic world were equally matters between neighbors, kin and acquaintances. Scots men needed these ties to succeed at sea, in business or in the trades. Scots women, who organized much of daily life in Scots Rotterdam through control of boarding houses and other businesses and activities, were no less committed to these bonds in their efforts to maintain and run their neighborhood.

Communities, States and Daily Politics

Scots also depended on personal networks to resolve conflict. Chapter four of the study examines how Scots used personal networks to resolve conflicts internally and to develop ties to official and unofficial bodies in Rotterdam. Through personal ties Scots connected with the Scots Church of Rotterdam, the center of social and religious life for Scots Rotterdam and also a place to resolve disputes without going to law. Relationships Scots developed with associations--some officially sponsored like the Dutch Reformed Church, others not, such as neighborhood associations--notaries and Rotterdam’s petty courts and mediation venues opened a range of Dutch venues for mediation and legal maneuver as well.

Connections to Rotterdam society also enabled Scots to contribute to unofficial mechanisms for making public order and join in the citizen-based law-making that shaped the city’s legal system. In chapter five I show how public scandals in the Scots Church of Rotterdam both pushed Scots into Rotterdam’s public sphere and made them aware of how they could create politicized and even political speech. If the Dutch state could define Rotterdam constitutionally, migrants like the Scots reshaped the city’s identity and gave it a place in the wider world.

Finally, in chapter six, I turn to the policing apparatus that historians often think of when they discuss public order. I show that in Rotterdam at least practices of demarcating urban space, managing rather than repressing protest and accepting violence as long as it did not challenge property rights were the order of the day in Rotterdam. The city fathers were emphatically not interested in disciplining or civilizing the polyglot citizenry whom they ostensibly governed.


By examining identity formation in a variety of everyday contexts I show that in the early modern period migrants were not on the periphery of European society. Migration within Europe and between Europe and elsewhere tested and also helped build community identity, challenging localities as well as those who would increase state authority. My work suggests that in this environment individual communities evolved their own solutions to the problem of migration, and the relationships they built with outsiders like the Scots became equally as influential on daily life as the designs of state-builders. My dissertation also underscores the dynamism and openness of early modern European communities. Europe’s relationships with the Atlantic world developed not only outside Europe but also within its cities, towns and villages. Far from being a barrier, Europe’s local communities were actually a gateway to this new and unprecedented level of intercultural relations.

Back to Projects Page