Read more about Scottish convicts in colonial Australia in my upcoming History Scotland article.
This post originally appeared in The Scottish Banner.
Between 1787 and 1868, around eight thousand Scottish men, women and children were transported to Australia.
Scots accounted for only a small proportion of all of those transported. Around 162,000 convicts were sent to Australia between 1787 and 1868. Convict settlement in New South Wales – including Moreton Bay, Norfolk Island and Port Phillip – lasted from 1787 to 1840. More than 80,000 were sent in those years, along with about 1,200 so-called ‘exiles’ during 1849.
About 67,000 convicts were sent to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) from 1803 to 1852. Eastern Australia received the majority of convicts, taking in about 153,300 overall. Due to labour shortages, Western Australia requested more convicts between 1850 and 1868, and received just under 10,000 more in those years.
On the whole, somewhere between 5 and 6 per cent of all the convicts were Scots, but why so few? It was mostly to do with the differences between England and Scotland’s legal systems. The claim that Scotland did not use transportation as a punishment is incorrect. Rather, Scottish courts simply used it less frequently than those in England. Alexander Marjoribanks, a Scot, wrote in 1847 that ‘a man is banished from Scotland for a great crime, from England for a small one, and from Ireland, morally speaking for no crime at all.’
Marjoribanks continues: ‘Both in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, Scotch convicts are considered the worst, and English the best… hundreds are transported annually from England, for offences which, in Scotland, would be punished by sixty days confinement in jail. In Scotland, they are mostly old offenders before they are transported.’ Additionally, Scottish judges were less favourable towards the idea of transporting convicts, and the transportation rate for criminals in Scotland was about a fifth of England’s.
When the convict records are analysed as a whole, the Scots stand out for having a disproportionately higher amount of prior convictions to their name – about 70% of all of them. This was especially the case for Scottish women, many of whom had been convicted six or more times before transportation of crimes such as ‘man robbery’ and being ‘on the town’. On top of this, a higher proportion of female convicts were Scottish than were male convicts. Tellingly, about two-thirds of Scottish women were sent directly to Van Diemen’s Land – where the most serious offenders went – whereas only about half of other nationalities were.
Nevertheless, Scottish convicts were mostly opportunistic thieves and burglars. Prior convictions were, for the most part, for the same kinds of petty crimes the Scots had been transported for. Deep statistical analysis of the Scottish convicts has found no evidence of a hardened criminal underclass.
Scottish convicts from cities outnumbered their country counterparts two to one, and the proportion of city dwellers was much higher than that of England. Once upon a time, the urban background of the Scots was accounted for by a high number of Irish in Glasgow, but later analysis found that very few Scottish convicts had any Irish ancestry at all.
Other notable features of the Scottish convicts were that they had a lower average age than other convicts and were less likely to be married. Scots were often young, single, literate, Protestant, and were mostly skilled workers in some trade or another. Indeed, the Scottish convicts represented less of the criminal underworld and more of Scotland’s eighteenth and nineteenth century working class population.
This is a very different image than the common idea of the noble political prisoners from Scotland. Thomas Muir and the ‘Scottish Martyrs’, for example, were transported in the 1790s. Similarly, a group of radical artisans were transported in the 1820s after a brief skirmish near Glasgow. There were also miner unionists, Chartists and American-Canadian rebels transported to Australia. But, overall, the political protesters account for less than one per cent of all Scottish convicts.
Overall, there were very few Scottish convicts and they were some of the most notorious convicts in Australia, and the women especially so. Their reputation was mostly undeserved, however, for the majority of them were petty thieves and burglars, driven to crime out of desperation more than habitual criminality.