Lithuanians in Scotland

Like any other small immigrant community whose population is not being frequently replenished with new stock, the Lithuanian community in Scotland is in danger of completely assimilating – effectively disappearing – within the next 10 or 20 years.

The original migrants arrived in the early 1880s, coinciding with the introduction of a more repressive regime in Tsarist Russia following the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. Various reasons are cited for the influx of Lithuanians into Scotland, among the most common of which are political, religious and/or national persecution, or escaping conscription, and poverty. Suppression of the growing Lithuanian national movement may have played a role but I suspect that it was minor. One has to ask the fundamental question: why would a Lithuanian emigrate to Scotland during the era when, for example, USA operated a completely open door policy without even the annual quotas which were introduced in the wake of WW1. And, if they came to Scotland, why on earth would they emigrate to, for example, Bellshill and Mossend, Coatbridge and Uddingston, in North Lanarkshire as they did rather than, say, Edinburgh or Dundee? 

Of course, chance and chain migration may have been involved – one or two Lithuanians, fresh off the boat in Leith, happened to find jobs and land up in Bellshill and others followed. But I believe the real reason must have been that they were purposely recruited, in Lithuania itself, to work in the mines. Whether the agents of the Scottish mine owners and ironworks were seeking skilled labour or cheap labour is a moot point. 

One thing is for sure: Scotland may not have been experienced as a universally welcoming new home. The Lithuanians were, for starters, not just foreigners but moreover they were Catholic rather than Protestant and they were competing, or were perceived to be competing, for local jobs. This antagonism recurred whenever there was an economic downturn and rising unemployment, for instance during the severe depression of the 1930s.  

In this environment, and without a steady flow of new immigrants to reinforce the population, the process of assimilation gathered pace. Lithuanians changed their names, for convenience and to stand out less. They married out. They quickly became bilingual and then started to use English more than Lithuanian. Some will have moved on to USA and several hundreds returned to Lithuania following its independence in 1918 after the Great War. Despite some newcomers after WW2, when UK accepted Displaced Persons from the zones it occupied in defeated Germany and Austria, the Lithuanian community appears to be dwindling and recognised as such. 

The growth of recreational family history will lead to an increased awareness of the Lithuanians in Lanarkshire but unfortunately it will not revitalise the community. Scotland enjoys an excellent civil registration system and records can be searched online at the official ScotlandsPeople website. One beauty of the Scottish registration system, as opposed to the English & Welsh, and certainly those in Ireland, is that it captures aliases very diligently. Partly this is a function of Scottish women legally retaining their maiden surname after marriage; they therefore appear in the birth, marriage and death registers as, for example, Mary Millar or Scott or Wilson (in that case meaning that Mary was born a Millar, married firstly a Mr Scott and secondly a Mr Wilson). This keenness to record all names means that Lithuanians’ changes of name can be traced back through the records to shortly after their arrival. The one problem is that their names are not always spelt correctly in the registers (and of course never faithfully using the diacritics of the Lithuanian alphabet). 

If you wish to take your research into your Scottish Lithuanian ancestry back to Lithuania itself, it is vital to know, or to be able to discover through research in UK, the exact place of origin in Lithuania. The reason for this is simply that all records of use to family historians are decentralised. Without a place of origin, therefore, it may not be possible to advance your enquiries. Try, as well as the birth, marriage and death records, Scottish census returns and British naturalisation records; elders within the family or the Lithuanian community generally may be able to point to a home town in Lithuania. And if you would like a hand in Lithuania, Bluebird Research offers reliable family history research with good rates of success across Lithuania and would be happy to undertake an investigation upon your behalf: contact us for a free assessment.

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The origins of Lithuanians in Scotland

John Millar’s The Lithuanians in Scotland (House of Lochar, 1998) provides a very readable account of the lives of first and second generation Lithuanian immigrants in Scotland, covering their geographic distribution, their working and living conditions, their customs and traditions. It is fascinating on the name changes and how most immigrants took Scottish surnames (usually seemingly assigned to them rather than chosen voluntarily). 

The book was written before the recent great explosion of interest in family history and, of course, was not written with the family historian in mind. Unfortunately, while it should prove essential reading to anyone trying to understand their Lithuanian roots in Scotland, it is less helpful for anyone wishing to extend their genealogical research back to Lithuania. The book is light on the places of origin of the Lithuanians who came to Scotland. Various places are mentioned in passing – “Vladislavovskiy district” (today known in Lithuanian as the border town of Kudirkos Naumiestis), “the valley of the Nemunas River”, “Mikolines dvaras near Mariampolė” (a dvaras is a farm or manor estate), “Sukalupio dvaras in the Naumiestis area” and Kaunas itself. If these places are plotted on a map of Lithuania, it does appear that Millar’s general statement that “the majority… came… from the Suvalkija area in the south-west of the country and from the Kaunas district” is probably true. This is the region south of the Nemunas and east of the Šešupė River, extending east to Kaunas. 

However, it is important to understand that vital records in Lithuania – the Roman Catholic parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial – are held by specific locality. There is no centralised or regional indexing, and no computerised database. Therefore, it is vital to know or to be able to find out exactly where an ancestor came from to have good prospects of finding their birth or baptism in Lithuania and being able to research their family tree back from there. 

One also needs to be mindful of not confusing a regional place name with a town or village name. For instance, Kaunas is both the town and the region – in Imperial Russian times, Kovno (Kaunas) gubernia covered the majority of what is today Lithuania. Similarly, Suwałki gubernia covered the Suvalkija region mentioned above plus adjoining territory in what is today Poland, including the Polish town of Suwałki itself. 

The historical geography is especially important to grasp as, with the exception of Lithuanian immigrants who arrived in Scotland as Displaced Persons immediately after WW2, the Lithuanians in Scotland arrived in the country from the Russian Empire before the start of WW1. In historical documents, therefore, including Scottish census returns, Russian terminology is to be expected, as the Lithuanians were Russian subjects, who prior to their emigration had resided in the Russian Empire (“Poland” is often seen too, as Suwałki gubernia was part of Congress Poland, that part of partitioned Poland belonging to Russia). 

If you are interested in taking your Lithuanian genealogy further, Bluebird Research is always happy to receive enquiries and provide a professional opinion on the prospects for family history research in Lithuania.

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