A penal colony

Australia initially was not a migrant destination of choice, but a convict settlement. The overall number of convict Scots was, however, low. Of the estimated total of nearly 155,000 convicts sent to the Australian mainland and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), only about 8,200 were Scots.

Scottish convicts

A slightly larger proportion of Scots, possibly up to 700, were among the nearly 10,000 male convicts sent to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868. But even these numbers pale compared to those of convicts who arrived from England. As historian Malcolm Prentis explains, ‘the Scottish transportation rate was consistently about 20 to 25 per cent’ of that of England. The reason for the relatively small number of Scottish convicts can be found in Scotland’s legal system. Preserved in its own right as an integral pillar of Scottish civil society after the Union of 1707, the Scottish legal system was more moderate than the English one in terms of the penalties for what one might call ‘smaller crimes’. In Scotland a sentence for transportation was a punishment almost exclusively reserved for more serious crimes and repeat offenders. 

Yet while there were fewer Scottish convicts when measured in absolute numbers, what this meant was that the Scots who were transported were among the worst offenders in terms of the crime the had committed, with women convicts allegedly even worse than their male counterparts. The proportion of Scottish women convicts was actually higher than that of Scottish males, particularly among the post-1840 convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land. Of these, nearly 14 per cent were Scottish women.

Among the arrivals in Van Diemen’s Land in 1846 were Jean Watson, Catherine Hill and Christine Nish, all three of whom arrived on the Emma Eugenia together with another 167 women, with at least 20 per cent of them being Scottish. Jean Watson had been found guilty of theft in October 1845 by the Perth Court of Justiciary—a verdict also reached for her accomplice, Isabella Watson. While the relationship between the two women is not entirely clear, they committed the robbery together and both were sentenced to seven years’ transportation. As was reported in the Dundee Courier in August 1845, the pair ‘were charged with carrying off a quantity of wearing apparel from a house in Scouringburn, the latter [Jean Watson] having been twice previously convicted of theft.’ Prior conviction also played its part in the 10-year sentence given to Catherine Hill. While she was also convicted for theft, the crime was ‘aggravated by being a habit’. Convict Transportation Registers reveal that the majority of sentences for the women convicts on the Emma Eugenia was seven years, making Christine Nish stand out: she had been sentenced to a term of life on 23 September 1842 by the Glasgow Court of Justiciary.

Lachlan Macquarie

Many of Australia’s early colonial administrators were Scots. Among them was Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821. Born on the island of Ulva in the Inner Hebrides in 1762, Macquarie volunteered for the army in 1776 and eventually made his way to Australia.

Commemorating the Battle of Bannockburn in Australia

Among the more frequent activities connected to the Battle of Bannockburn were lectures delivered to Scottish societies. In 1910, for example, the Williamstown Scottish Thistle Society had organised such a lecture for its members. Many a song would also be sung, including, for instance, ‘The Battle of Stirling’ – every line of which, as a speaker noted, ‘thrills with the patriotic feeling aroused by the struggle crossing the Forth’.

Another common way by which Scots kept alive the memory of the Battle of Bannockburn was to include the topic in essay writing competitions; these were usually designed for young people. In 1918, for instance, the Perth Caledonian Society included this question in its competition: ‘The Battle of Bannockburn and What it has Meant to Scotland.’ A name often mentioned in such competitions and other activities was that of William Wallace. Although only connected to what we might call the pre-history of the Battle rather than the Battle itself, Wallace was, for many, a more suitable figurehead of the Scottish struggle for freedom than Robert the Bruce. It was, therefore, also Wallace who was memorialised in stone in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. As reported in the Advertiser (Adeleide), a Wallace statue was purchased from the ‘bequest of the late Mr. Rowell Thomson … as a present for the citizens. A special train from Melbourne conveyed members of the Caledonian Society to Ballarat to take part in the ceremony. Mr. Nimmo, the Minister of Public Works, performed the unveiling in the presence of a large crowd.’

Several bigger events took place throughout Australia in June 1914 to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. As the Register (Adelaide) reported, for example:

Scotsmen the world over celebrated yesterday the anniversary of the famous battle of Bannockburn, which was fought … between Robert Bruce, of Scotland, and Edward II. of England, on June 24, 1314. … Such a glorious achievement could not but live in the memory of all true Sons of the land o’ cakes … For months preparations have been in progress in Scotland suitably to celebrate the event, and at Stirling the festivities will continue for four days. Scotsmen in South Australia are not a whit less enthusiastic than their brethren over the seas. Accordingly, on Saturday the Chief of the Caledonian Society (Mr. R. Wemyss) cabled to the Provost of Stirling the following message: — Dinna forget. South Australian Caledonian Society sends greetings and wishes you a successful gathering.’ On Wednesday this reply came to hand from the Pro vost: — ‘Greetings; the heather is on fire.’ The latter obviously has reference to the bright-hued tartans which presumably are apparent on every side. On Wednesday evening, in the Institute Hall, North terrace, under the auspices of the society, a lantern lecture on Scotland was given by Mr. John Drummond, and Mr. G. McEwin discussed the historic battle.

Elsewhere, in Queensland, the Warwick Caledonian Society gathered in the Presbyterian School Hall for addresses and a procession of the Warwick Pipe Band.

St Kilda - a special link

When, in October 1852, 36 St Kildans left the island to emigrate to Australia, the Glasgow Herald observed that ‘the cause of humanity would be served’, if that emigration were to continue ‘until all inhabitants have been removed from the barren rock’.

From the remotest Scotland to Down Under

Whether this was a sentiment shared by the emigrants themselves is not clear, with only little direct testimony being available. Their story is nonetheless of interest, enriching our understanding of the history of St. Kilda and Australia, for it had, as the late historian Eric Richards pointed out, ‘a special significance at both ends of the story’. While mainland influences, including changes in agricultural methods and land tenure, had reached the island by the 1840s, St Kildans remained self-reliant. The island’s isolation and distinct demographic patterns, especially the high infant death rate, fundamentally shaped the island’s history, and the concentrated departure of so many of its inhabitants added momentum.

For the emigrants, Australia seemed a land of opportunity. While the source region was faced with the effects of a succession of potato crop failures, there was a shortage of agricultural labourers in the Port Phillip area (Melbourne) because many earlier settlers had relocated to the goldfields of south-east Australia.

The St. Kildans who left their native shores departed in family groups under the auspices of the Highland and Island Emigration Society. However, while such links by acquaintance or kinship are generally seen to be part of the most effective units of migration, the transition to life in Australia was neither straightforward nor easy. The St. Kildan emigrants’ lack of immunity to diseases, for instance, contributed to the many deaths that occurred on the voyage out: while St Kildans’ constituted only 12 per cent of the passengers onboard the Priscilla, they made up 45 per cent of the fatalities. Their isolated island life had made them especially vulnerable.

The arrival in Australia did not halt the migrants’ plight, the 98-day journey ending in quarantine. Furthermore, by the time the St Kildans arrived in Port Phillip that port had grown to be the point of entry for well over 90,000 immigrants a year. There was congestion, the supply of food was a problem, and so was overcrowding in the temporary accommodation available. The arrival of ‘another shipload of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and Islanders, some of them penniless and sick’, was not well-received by the local authorities. One medical officer wrote about a ‘“wretched family”’ from St Kilda, similar sentiments being expressed in relation to all Highland and Island Emigration Society migrants. Stereotypes about the Highlanders’ background and attitude to work were consolidated, and the volatile economic state contributed further problem.

News of the emigrants’ ill-fated venture eventually made its way home to the Outer Hebrides, and may have contributed to the little movement out of the island until the First World War.

Impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people​

Like elsewhere in the British Empire and beyond, many Scottish settlers too had a profound impact on Indigenous Peoples as they colonised their world. In Australia too the legacy of this resonates until today.