Scots and the Suburban Nation

You can read more about Scottish settlement in Australian cities in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies.

When it comes to migrant groups like the Scots, one question historians are always interested in is where they chose to settle in their adopted countries. Some migrants lived in concentrated communities, sometimes segregated from the wider population, where they could be close to their family and relatives, and could have easy access to churches and schools. Other groups of migrants dispersed across cities and states, and shared neighbourhoods and services with the local population. The Scots in Australia have generally fallen into the latter category.

From the 1880s onwards, Scots were a highly urbanised group of migrants. The majority lived in urban and metropolitan areas, and in some states they were almost twice as likely to live in a city than their Australian-born counterparts. Their tendency to live in cities increased throughout the twentieth century. There may be many reasons for this.

One explanation is that because cities were usually the first places Scots encountered on arrival they were more likely to stay there and seek employment and accommodation. Indeed, many young Scottish men may have disembarked at a port only to find themselves swiftly employed at the very same docks. Another way to account for the tendency for Scots to live in cities is to consider their background in Scotland.

The vast majority of Scots emigrated from industrial areas of Scotland such as Glasgow and Edinburgh. They had usually worked in industrial occupations such as construction and manufacturing, yet low wages and poor working conditions often pushed Scots to find a better life elsewhere. Australian cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offered many opportunities for migrants with skills such as those that many Scots had developed in industrial Scotland.

As it turns out, historical census data reveals that Scots did, in fact, tend to live in the working class port suburbs of Australia at the turn of the century. Areas such as Balmain and Leichhardt in Sydney, and Footscray and Williamstown in Melbourne, had the highest proportion of Scots in residence. These were once highly industrial areas with employment opportunities in traditionally Scottish occupations such as manufacturing and shipbuilding. Furthermore, workers in these occupation were often given better conditions than they had in Britain; the eight-hour day was almost standard in Australia, and workers were paid more.

In addition to this, Scottish migrants had often experienced poor living conditions in the cities of Scotland. Overcrowded and squalid tenement buildings were the norm, and very few people in Scotland were lucky enough to own their own home. Indeed, owner-occupied dwellings were almost unheard of until after the Second World War. Australia offered opportunities for Scots to both live in and own a private, clean, detached single-family home in a relatively low-density suburb. As with their tendency to live in the vicinity of industrial employment, the census data shows that Scots also favoured the most low-density areas in Australian cities. It is perhaps due to Scots and other British settlers that the sprawling Australian capital cities are some of the lowest-density in the world.

If we take it be the case that migration is often motivated by a search for betterment or improvement, then it seems clear that the poor conditions of industrial Scotland provided a strong impetus for Scots to seek a better life elsewhere in the world. Young ‘suburban nations’ such as Australia often presented opportunities for Scots to both provide for their families in addition to finding their own castle in the suburbs.


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