Scotlands History\|Scots and Australia

Scottish convicts

Between 1787 and 1868, around 8000 Scots men, women and children were transported to Australia.

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Monique Galloway, Special Heritage Project Officer, Rocks Discovery Museum, Sydney: The Scottish didn’t stand out among the convicts generally, because there wasn’t very many of them. Of the 160,000 convicts that were transported here in 80 years, there was only about 5%, so there was only about 8,000 Scottish convicts altogether.

The Scottish convicts had a very high level of literacy in comparison to the rest of the convicts. Most of them could at least read. The majority of them could read and write. There was very few illiterate Scottish convicts and that’s because the Scottish education system was much better than that of the English and Irish at the time.

Leonie Smallwood, Museum Co-ordinator, Rocks Discovery Museum, Sydney: Thomas Watling was a Scottish man. He was born in Dumfries in Scotland. He was raised by his aunt and we think from his later artwork, that he was given some education in art and classical drawing and painting. He ended up in Sydney when he was transported for having a forged bank note for 14 years. And when he got here, he was assigned to the surgeon, John White. John White was really interested in the natural surroundings of Sydney and together with Watling, they sketched and described a lot of the early wildlife and nature that they saw in the Sydney colony. We think that John White actually took quite a lot of Thomas Watling’s sketches back to London with him. The British Museum now hold a collection of over a hundred signed sketches and a couple of hundred more that, by the style, they attribute to Watling.

Brad Manera, Head Curator, Hyde Park Baracks, Sydney: Another Scots convict that we know was one of Australia’s most famous bush rangers: John Buchan Buchanan; born in Ayr, convicted of burglary in Glasgow, transported to Van Diemen’s Land, which is now Tasmania. He was assigned and worked in the countryside for a local farmer and then him and a group of mates armed themselves, stole the squatters’ guns and took off for a life in the bush and on the highways until 1834 when he was captured for robbing a bakery. He was convicted and sent here to Hyde Park Barracks to work as a gang labourer in the colony of New South Wales and work on the roads, and he had a very, very hard time. Eventually, they decided to send him to an even harsher place, and that was at Moreton Bay in Queensland.

Monique Galloway: Hugh Noble was a Scottish convict who was very literate. He got a job in the commissariat, which was the government store house as a clerk. He owned two houses in the Rocks. Unfortunately, temptation got in the way of Hugh and he stole from the commissariat. He ended up being flogged and sent to a penal colony, a secondary penal colony at Port Macquarie. But he kept his houses and after he’d done his time there, he came back and bought more land and did quite well for himself. He raised a family and off he went.

Leonie Smallwood: Robert Campbell was born in Scotland. He joined his brother in Calcutta to help with the merchant trading business, Campbell and Company. Robert was sent out to the Sydney Cove colony to see if the trading prospects here were any good and he decided that they were. So by 1810, Campbell and Company had set up warehouses and a wharf on the edge of Dawes Point on what we know call Campbell’s Cove. Because of the amount of trading that Campbell and Company did in the early Sydney colony, that sense of need, of ration, of all the early goods began to alleviate; the early days when food and clothes were quite limited got a little bit easier for people.

Scots were only a small percentage of the 166,000 convicts transported over those 80 years, but they were among the best educated with a high level of literacy. In 1819, when a young Scottish housebreaker named James Fraser was transported to Australia, he took a Bible and 18 other books with him.

Tales of convict life in Botany Bay were told back in Britain and ballads were printed in cheap popular ‘broadsides’. In Scottish taverns people sang songs of convicts’ lives in Australia.

The Convict Maid

Ye Glasgow maids attend to me,
While I relate my misery;
Through Glasgow streets oft have I strayed,
So now I am a convict maid.
In innocence I once did live,
In all the joys that peace could give;
But sin my youthfull heart betrayed,
And now I am a convict maid...

...To you that hear my mournful tale,
I cannot half my grief reveal;
No sorrow yet has been portrayed,
Like that of the poor convict maid.
Far from my home and friends so-dear,
My punishment is most severe;
My woe is great - and I'm afraid
That I shall die a convict maid.

Broadside ballad c.1840

Chart of New South Wales

Convicts who behaved could apply for a ‘Ticket of Leave’. This allowed them to live where they liked within a Police District and be paid for their work. The Ticket of Leave lasted for a year, when it would be renewed if the convict had been well behaved. It could be taken away at any time.

Many convicts served their time and earned their freedom. More than 90% of former convicts remained in Australia. They married and raised families, making new lives for themselves on the land or in the growing cities and towns. Many former convicts became successful business people, police men or school teachers. These ‘emancipated’ convicts were often looked down on and discriminated against by free settlers.

Transportation of convicts to New South Wales ended in 1840. The last convict ship landed in Western Australia in January 1868.

Over four million Australians have convict ancestors. In the past ‘the convict stain’ was a source of embarrassment and shame. Today most Australians are proud of their convict ancestry and will actively investigate the lives of their forebears.