Goldfields Immigration

Ballarat’s Scottish Heritage

This blog post has been summarised from notes by Sovereign Hill’s senior historian, Dr Jan Croggon on the Scottish in Ballarat. We would like to thank Jan for her contribution and hope she has more to share with us in the future.

Statue of Robert Burns, Scottish poet. Sturt St Ballarat

Statue of Robert Burns, Scottish poet. Sturt St Ballarat. Gold Museum Collection

Nineteenth century Scotland was at the heart of the massive Industrial Revolution which transformed Britain, and which largely created the population pool which travelled to the Antipodes in search of gold and a new life.


The characteristics of the Scots who emigrated to Ballarat can be understood more clearly if regarded in the light of the world from which they came. Poverty, famine and epidemics in Scotland in the 1820s and 1830s caused the first significant Scottish emigration to Australia. Victoria was the most popular colony in which they settled. Scottish squatters and rural workers established farms, and urban settlers worked as skilled artisans and professionals.

In the Victorian census of 1854, Scots were the third largest group after the English and Irish, with 36,044 people. Within three years a further 17,000 had arrived, many hoping to make their fortunes on the goldfields. Immigration assistance schemes also swelled the number of Scottish arrivals. By 1861 the Scotland-born population of Victoria reached 60,701 – the highest level it would ever reach.

The suffering, hopes, and fears of a world in transition touched the people of Scotland in ways significant for the development of the New World.  As in Wales, the population of Scotland underwent a dramatic upsurge in the eighteenth century.  In 1700, there were about one million people; by 1900, nearly four-and-a-half million, with spectacular increases in the manufacturing towns.  Such a change was due in part to the migration of hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine of 1846 -50.


Highlander: http://www.

The popular image of the Scotsman was generally a romanticised version of the Scottish Highlander – a glamorous, whisky-swilling, tartan-clad figure, shrouded in mist, striding across the heather in the land of the mountain and the flood.  This is, of course, barely half the picture, and as much as it can be said to be accurate of some small numbers of Scots, amongst those who migrated it is far from accurate; in much the same way the popular image of the ‘Irish Paddy’ does not tell the true tale of the kind of Irishman who migrated to Australia.

Scholar, soldier and merchant:  three traditional overseas avenues of advancement for the adventurous Scot from the Middle Ages to the present.  With the addition of farmer and artisan, these were broadly the categories of Scots who found their way to Australia in the nineteenth century. (Prentis, Scots in Australia, p 12)

Scots in Ballarat

We give the Scotch such unbounded credit for enterprise and the quality which their own word “canny” so well expresses, that we are not surprised to find a host of Scotchmen on whatever shore we may step, where money is to be made…  This colony, before the gold discovery, was almost entirely Scotch.  An immense majority of the squatters were Scotch, and remain so still. The principal merchants are Scotch:  there is the same preponderance of the North Briton amongst the medical men and officers of the colony: and the publicans are almost entirely Scotch and Irish.  On the diggings, Scotland has no lack of representatives; and they are everywhere, in all professions, careful, grasping, and thriving men, with a few exceptions. (Howitt, Land Labour and Gold)

Statue of William Wallace, Scottish Warrior and Hero. Ballarat Botanical Gardens.

Statue of William Wallace, Scottish Warrior and Hero. Ballarat Botanical Gardens.

Statistically, the Scottish in Ballarat tended to reflect a pattern of quiet achievement, and unremarkable habitation patterns. They constituted the most numerically significant Celtic group after the Irish. In 1857, those born in Scotland totalled (according to the population count by Warden’s District) 5735 people, of which approximately 3800 were men.  This compares with a total of almost 5000 Irish, who, however, enjoyed a much more even male/female ratio (approximately 2700 men to 2100 women).  In 1857, only one place in the colony had more Scottish residents, and that was Melbourne.

Scots in the Gold Rush

Scots were involved in the nineteenth-century goldrushes to Australia, especially to those in Victoria, at all levels… Scottish squatters (notably the Learmonths) became proprietors of gold mines, and they were also pre-eminent in the retail, cartage and service industries which grew up to meet the needs of the goldminers.(Cardell & Cumming, in A World Turned Upside Down)

Ercildoune Homestead, built by the Learmonth brothers, Scottish squatters.

Ercildoune Homestead, built by the Learmonth brothers, Scottish squatters. Gold Museum Collection.

The squatters and the miners, in fact, developed a mutually supportive relationship which enabled both classes to – on the whole – comfortably and even successfully survive the turmoil and social upheaval of the gold rushes. Squatters offered miners flexible work contracts/employment which tided the miners over in lean mining times, and aided the squatters who were always in need of labour on their runs – and were willing to adapt to the needs of the miners. Scottish squatters, in fact, found that – far from experiencing massive inconvenience and social and political disruption – they were able to develop strategies for survival, and learnt to turn the gold rushes to their advantage.

The Scots of Ballarat tended to be merchants, foundry men, bankers, investors, pastoralists, and mine or business managers.  Many were successful to the point where they were identified in notable publications detailing the achievers of both Ballarat and Victoria.  This success was translated into the appearance of a group of benevolent ‘city fathers’, who saw it as part of their legacy to the city of their adoption to involve themselves in all aspects of community life.  This meant serving on the committees of (for example) the Benevolent Asylum, the Hospital, the orphanage, the Mechanics Institute, and the Horticultural Society.  Importantly, these men were not only successful, but they (and the money they made) stayed on, or returned to Ballarat in the latter half of the century, and endowed the city with something of their material or spiritual wealth.

Games, Poets and Presbyterians 

There were other areas in which the Scottish community of Ballarat worked together to retain homogeneity. The practising of the Presbyterian religion, and the celebration of Caledonian games and the Scottish poet Robert Burns also featured on the Ballarat scene.

Caledonian sports, Eastern oval Ballarat, 1895

Caledonian sports, Eastern oval Ballarat, 1895. Gold Museum Collection.

The Scots in Ballarat were quick to form a Caledonian Society, (November 1858), and New Year’s Day Caledonian Sports featured prominently on the Ballarat social calendar for many years. Withers records the first sports day on 1 January 1859, on what later became the Eastern Oval.  Mr. Hugh Gray presided over the event, and was clearly a popular Scottish identity in Ballarat: the Ballarat Star remembered him fondly in his shepherd’s plaid costume, officiating with untiring energy at the annual gatherings – a “devoted lover of ‘Caledonia stern and wild’. (Ballarat Star, 3 June, 1880, Obituary).

Burns’ Days were also regularly observed in Ballarat, initially with the expected gusto.  The Edinburgh Castle Hotel was the favoured venue in 1857, (later the headquarters of the Caledonian Society), and “the lovers of Burns and his poems” assembled therein under the presidency of the mayor of Ballarat West.  A night of speeches, pipe music, songs and recitations, and of course, the inevitable haggis, kept loyal Scots entertained until the early hours of the morning.

The following year, 1858, was particularly notable, since it was the one hundredth anniversary of the Scottish poet.  Ballarat did him proud with a grand dinner and full dress ball at the Miner’s Royal Exchange. Burns’ Nights were conducted on a regular, annual basis with the traditional pipe music, speeches, and recitations, “Tam o’Shanter” being a particular favourite. This tradition continues in the Robert Burns Scottish Festival Camperdown held in early July every year.

Advertisement for celebration of Robert Burns 100th birthday in Ballarat, 1858

Advertisement for celebration of Robert Burns 100th birthday. Ballarat Star, January 21, 1858

The Scots in Ballarat were certainly not a homogenous group. However, as Cumming has pointed out, the diversity within Scottish migration to Australia – Highland Scots, Lowland Scots, urban and rural Scots, Conservative, Liberal or Radical Scots, as well as some striking religious diversity was ultimately overruled by the overriding sense of ‘being Scottish’.  The national kinship felt by all those Scots who emigrated to Ballarat was stronger than the sectarian and culturally divisive baggage which had travelled across the ocean with them, and the strength and uncompromising resolution with which their religion was so quickly established was very much a part of the ‘cement’ which held together the Scots of Ballarat, and enabled them to largely continue in “all their Scottish ways.”

The Scottish, the ‘builders and the beautifiers’ of Ballarat, seized the freedom which gold provided. Evidence of Scottish nationalism, whilst present, is not as dramatic as the evidence of the Scottish effort to move across national borders to embrace a wider concept. The challenge of the new world was met by the Scots of Ballarat with alacrity. “Now I think this is the richest town of its size in all the world; all the go is gold! gold! gold!”. “I am alive, well, and quite happy in the wilderness of Australia.” (Letters from Highland Emigrants … , quoted in Hellier, “The Humblies”, 1983.)

Do you have ancestors from Scotland? Or do you have ancestors who came to Victoria looking for gold? Where did they come from? Did they retain their culture? We would love to hear from you.

Because of the many different sources used in this post we have provided a short bibliography for you, as well as hyperlinks to some of the sources.

Tam o’Shanter: A poem by Robert Burns. 1790. Click here for an audio version and here for the text

A world turned upside down : cultural change on Australia’s goldfields, 1851-2001 / edited by Kerry Cardell & Cliff Cumming

“The Humblies” : the emigration of Highland Scots to Victoria in the 1850s via the Highland and Island Emigration Society / Donna Hellier.

Land Labour and Gold: or, two years in Victoria; with visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s land. By William Howitt

The Scots in Australia / Malcolm D. Prentis

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