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    A letter from a wife in Scotland to her husband on the Victorian goldfields, courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


As in many other countries during the Industrial Revolution, Scotland experienced unprecedented emigration from 1788 to 1860. Many Scots made the journey to Australia and played an important role in the development of its colonies: William Campbell, who arrived in Australia in 1838 and discovered the ‘first’ gold at Clunes in early 1850, was Scottish; James Scobie, the digger whose murder was a catalyst for the events at the Eureka Stockade in December 1854, was another Scot; Scottish diggers played leading roles in the Red Ribbon Movement; and a Scot, John Robertson, was killed at Eureka. John McIntyre and David Syme were two of many other highly successful immigrants from Scotland.

When gold was discovered in the 1850s, Australia became a particularly popular destination with approximately 100,000 Scots arriving between 1851 and 1860. Many of these headed to the Victorian diggings and contributed to the new towns and communities emerging in the interior of the colony.

As gold fever took hold in the Port Phillip District, many of the squatters who were so worried about the social upheaval and so vexed by the exodus of workers to the diggings were immigrant Scottish landholders and farmers who had been ‘pushed’ to migrate earlier in the 1800s by rising rents and the high cost of new agricultural techniques. They were concerned that once again their livelihoods had come under threat.

The Scottish immigrants who settled in Victoria contributed to local communities, helping to build infrastructure while ensuring that elements of Scottish culture endured in the new colony. Presbyterian churches and schools, funded by Scottish squatters, sprang up in towns such as Ballarat and, as noted by Kerry Cardell and Cliff Cummings, the cultural baggage the Scottish immigrants brought with them led to the organisation of Highland (or Caledonian) gatherings – featuring highland games, pipe bands and shinty matches – on the Victorian goldfields.

Many of the immigrants from Scotland during the gold rushes paid their own way, attracted to Australia, in part, by articles in Scottish newspapers. Detailed reports of gold arriving in Britain, fresh from the Victorian goldfields, and enthusiastic letters home from expatriate diggers were published in the local press, and played a major role in encouraging unassisted migration to Australia.

But a high proportion of Scottish arrivals during the 1850s were assisted migrants (51% of Scottish received assistance, compared with 25% of English migrants). Emigration and government authorities hoped that a large number of migrants from Scotland would end up, not on the goldfields, but gainfully employed in agricultural industries, as shepherds and hut-keepers on sheep stations.

Charles Trevelyan, who headed up the Highland and Island Emigration Society, represented Scots from the Highlands as ideal candidates for assisted passage, as they were unlikely to rush off to the diggings being ‘basically lazy and only suited to “dawdling” occupations such as shepherding.’ The Society was responsible for the emigration of around 5,000 people from Scotland between 1852 and 1857.

However, Trevelyan’s (and others’) hopes that the Highlanders would resist the lure of the diggings turned out to be naïve. The Illustrated London News reported in July 1852 the landing of a group of supposedly lazy and dawdling Highlanders:

The last cargo of Highlanders landed at Port Phillip spoke no English. They were closely questioned in the Bay as to their knowledge of the diggings. They professed to know nothing. They inquired 'whether she was a man or a beast?' Nothing could be more satisfactory, and already the squatters’ agents saw the fine families tending sheep at the original wages, but no sooner was the small Gaelic army, some three hundred, fairly landed, than they gave three cheers for the 'diggings' and marched off.

Cate Elkner

Illustrated London News, 3 July 1852. Details
Cardell, Kerry and Cliff Cummings, 'Squatters, Diggers and National Culture: Scots and the Central Victorian Goldfields 1851-61', in Kerry Cardell and Cliff Cummings (eds), A world turned upside down : cultural change on Australia's goldfields 1851-2001, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, 2001. Details
Goodman, David, Gold seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1994. Details