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Response to Review no. 610

I am grateful to Professor Ged Martin for his helpful review of the collection of essays that explores the Cinderella topic of return migration. In his final comment, he suggests that ‘enough questions are posed to stimulate further work in the field’. That was indeed the objective of the book, and of the international conference in 2001 which gave rise to it. The eleven contributors—along with other participants in the conference—explored aspects of European, Irish, and Scottish migrant homecomings over four centuries in the hope of providing an introduction to current research, as well as generating ongoing scholarly and general interest in this important but neglected aspect of diaspora studies. By exposing yawning gaps in existing scholarship, our intention was to prime the pump for further work.

It is perhaps inevitable, as Professor Martin also suggests, that the book’s ‘strengths are its weaknesses, and vice-versa’. A wide chronological sweep can bring charges of superficiality. An interdisciplinary approach covers a number of bases, but runs the risk of creating a hybrid that is neither fish nor fowl, disappointing those who would wish for more theory, more case histories, or scrutiny of a fuller range of locations. The editorial policy, in this exploratory work, was to raise awareness of as many relevant issues as possible, while simultaneously seeking a thematic coherence by grouping the essays into sections on migrant motives, mechanism and impacts.

The biggest elephant in the room remains the question of numbers. Quantitative analysis is sadly lacking, not least because of the paucity of reliable sources, although the National Archives’ project to digitize inward-bound passenger manifests (BT26) may encourage investigation of the period after 1890.

Another theme ripe for further study is the impact of the repatriation of ideas. Less tangible than money or artifacts, overseas lifestyles and cultures were nevertheless woven inextricably into the fabric of the home society, at all levels, and could reverberate throughout families and communities for generations.

Equally intriguing—among both outward and return migrants—is the whole area of personal and group identity, to which Professor Martin also draws attention. The derivative identities highlighted by Paul Basu in his study of genealogy and heritage tourism in the Scottish Highlands have been expanded in his recent book, Highland Homecomings, but the phenomenon also encompasses the descendants of convicts, home children and other disadvantaged migrants. The search for distinctiveness, often associated with victimhood, has led some genealogical pilgrims into the cultivation of a selective or even spurious exilic identity, involving an invented ‘return’ to places from which they or their ancestors never left.

Multiple identities and plural domiciles are also characteristic of the psyche of the returned migrant. Although these can be adopted or discarded for cosmetic or expedient reasons, for some individuals they are suffused with poignant associations and a search for the elusive and ambiguous concept of ‘home’, a term which might refer to the place of birth, sojourn, or even heaven.

While the homeland was rarely far from the emigrant’s mind, return migration has only recently begun to engage the serious attention of the scholarly community. Some of the issues raised in Emigrant Homecomings, and highlighted in Professor Martin’s review, are already being explored in greater detail, but the field is still wide open, and much remains to be done.