Settlement, Assimilation and the Monros in Early Modern England

Dr Allan Kennedy, University of Dundee


Originating from Easter Ross in the north of Scotland, the Monro family arrived in London in the 1690s as exiles from the rigidly Presbyterian church settlement imposed on Scotland after the ‘Glorious’ revolution. The family patriarch, cleric and scholar Alexander Monro, struggled to adjust to life in England, but within a century the family’s situation was transformed. James Monro, Alexander’s son, became a physician specialising in mental health, and by the 1720s he was sufficiently eminent in his field to secure appointment as attending physical at Bethlem Asylum. He was succeeded in this post by his own son, John, in 1751 (and by his grandson and great-grandson in turn), and between them these two men established the Monros as England’s foremost professional dynasty in the treatment of lunacy. From penurious exile to professional pre-eminence in less than three generations; as an example of a successful migrant family, the Monros can surely have few rivals.

Dr James Monro, 1680-1752

As fascinating as it is in its own right, the Monros’ story also fits into a broader research context. Alongside Professor Keith Brown (University of Manchester) as PI, I have since 2013 been working on an initially AHRC-funded project about Scottish migration to England between c.1603 and c.1760. Drawing upon a huge range of printed sources, combined with data from regional and central archives across England and Scotland, this project was centred on two key questions. Firstly, we wanted to understand the basic patterns of Scottish settlement in England – where did Scots go, what did they do, and how long did they stay? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we sought to understand how far Scots were able to assimilate into English society, with a view, in turn, to asking whether their experiences played a role in the emergence of a ‘Great Britain’ or a coherent British identity.

In attempting to answer these questions, we very quickly came up against big methodological problems. After the decision in Calvin’s Case (1608), which recognised all Scots born after 1603 as de facto English subjects, Scots were in a strange limbo; they were not quite English, but nor were they quite foreigners. That had conceptual implications for contemporaries, just as it has for modern scholars, but a more immediate concern for us is that Scots’ half-in/half-out status meant they did not tend to be captured in the typical, go-to sources of the immigration historian – registers of aliens, for example. Instead, Scots have to be sought in things like court depositions, settlement records, parish registers and apprenticeship records, where they are often not clearly distinguished from English (or, for that matter, Welsh and Irish) people. In short, simply finding Scottish migrants, let alone using their stories to build up a qualitatively meaningful picture, proved challenging.

Dr John Moro, 1715-1791

Against this backdrop, the Monros became an intriguing case-study. Partly that was because the sources pertaining to them are unusually rich; a large amount of surviving correspondence, combined with institutional records and a notable press ‘footprint’, means that we can learn more about them than about most other Scottish families outside of the aristocracy. But chiefly, the value of the Monros was conceptual, rooted in the thoroughness of their assimilation. This was a Scottish family that did very well in England, rapidly achieving significant success, and as such close scrutiny of them permitted us to explore how Scots might overcome the challenges associated with migration.

And, as it turns out, the key to the Monros’ assimilation lay in the attitude of the English. Their story revealed almost no evidence of significant Scotophobia, and there was nothing to suggest that their Scottish roots, still widely acknowledged even by the 1790s, were in any way problematic. That is not, of course, the whole story; the Monros were well-educated, well-connected, reasonably affluent and, naturally, English-speaking. All this smoothed their assimilation, as did the apparent absence of ghettoisation – either physical or cultural – within the Scottish community in England. But these advantages could still have been nullified by native hostility, and the fact that they were not, and that the Monros were able not only to assimilate, but to flourish, clearly speaks to the relative openness of early-modern England to upwardly-mobile Scots.

The Monro experience also helped us grapple with the question of ‘British’ identity. Here was a family perfectly placed to become pioneers of Britishness, transcending their Scottish and English heritages in the name of something newer and bigger. But, as far as we could see, they did not do that. They retained precious little sense of Scottishness either. Instead, the Monros’ strategy was essentially to morph into Englishmen, embracing their new homeland by, for example, attending English schools, reading English books, cultivating English friendships, marrying English spouses, engaging with English clubs and institutions, and buying English properties. In all of this, Scotland barely got a look-in.

These patterns raise all sorts of questions about the fabled strength of Scottish identity, but they also imply that historians should be cautious when assessing the real-world impact of ‘Britishness’ before the Napoleonic Wars. And, from the vantage-point of our project, the Monro case-study suggests that, if Scottish migrants in England did contribute to a shared project in constructing ‘Great Britain’, they did not do so in any straightforward or uniform way. The Monros sought wealth and success in London, and for these purposes, it seems, there was no need to become pioneers of a whole new identity. It could be much easier just to become English.


Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

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About the Author: Dr Allan Kennedy is Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. He is the author of Governing Gaeldom: The Scottish Highlands and the Restoration State, 1660-1688 (Leiden, 2014) and numerous articles on the treatment of Scottish outsiders or ‘others’ in the early modern world. He is working on a political study of the reign of Charles II in Scotland, as part of which I am especially interested in analysing the ‘pre-history’ of the Anglo-Scottish Union and the extent to which the Restoration period influenced the eventual shape of ‘Great Britain’. With Professor Keith Brown, he is co-author of ‘Becoming English: The Monro Family and Scottish Assimilation in Early-Modern England’, Cultural & Social History, published online on 27 March 2019.

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