Scottish ancestry in Australia since 1986

Identification with Scottish ancestry in Australia has grown rapidly in the last quarter of a century, and in 2011 there were 1 792 621 individuals who claimed to have Scottish roots, representing 8.9 per cent of Australia’s population.

Such data can be helpful in understanding changing attitudes towards cultural and ethnic identity, and may also have practical implications for engaging the Scottish diaspora. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that

Ancestry is not necessarily related to a person’s place of birth but is an indication of the cultural group that they most closely identify with. It gives insight into the cultural background of both the Australian-born and overseas-born populations when ancestry differs from country of birth. The 2011 Census asked respondents to provide a maximum of two ancestries with which they most closely identify. As an example, they were asked to consider the origins of their parents and grandparents.

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people in Australia claiming to have Scottish roots increased significantly. The greatest component of this growth has been those respondents who have both parents born in Australia (from 44.8 per cent in 2001 to 60.6. in 2006, and 63.3 per cent in 2011) , while the proportion accounted for by those whose parents were both born overseas has dropped from 35.6 in 2001 to 20.6 per cent of the total number of respondents in 2011.

The following graph shows the number of respondents claiming Scottish ancestry by parent’s birthplace as a percentage of the total number of those who claimed Scottish ancestry in each census year.

Of course, the data may be more meaningful if we compare it with other ancestry groups. The number of those identifying with English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestry increased overall between 2001 and 2011. However, as the following graph shows, there was a particularly large increase in the number of those claiming Scottish ancestry between 2001 and 2006 (2.78 times as many in 2006 than in 2001); Welsh ancestry increased by the a factor of 1.34, while English and Irish ancestry identification shrunk slightly. Increases between 2006 and 2011 were of a smaller magnitude and more even across ancestry groups.

It is also interesting to note longer-term changes. The ancestry question featured in the 1986 (but not 1991 or 1996) census, and the following data was collected: the number of Australians claiming Scottish ancestry in 1986 was 339 800, and second or later generation Australians accounted for 44 per cent of these, while those born in Scotland accounted for 31 per cent of those who claimed Scottish as their sole ancestry.

Over the last 25 years there has been a gradual downward trend in the percentage of Scottish Australians who are actually born in Scotland (or overseas), and an upward trend with regard to those claiming Scottish ancestry who are second or later generation Australians.

Most of this growth occurred between 2001 and 2006.

The 1986 census compared the numbers of those claiming Scottish ancestry and those actually born in Scotland with those born in Ireland and those claiming Irish ancestry. Census reports noted that the frequency of Irish ancestry was much higher. Indeed, second generation or later Australians made up 69 per cent of those reporting ancestry to Ireland (compared to Scotland’s 44 per cent), and this has risen slightly to 72.4 per cent in 2011.

At the time, these results suggested that there was greater tendency for those of Irish descent to maintain their cultural identity over longer periods of time in comparison to those of Scottish decent. Indeed, today, of the 2 087 758 individuals who claim Irish ancestry, only 12.9 per cent were first generation migrants; 73.2 per cent were of the third or later generation.

Today, however, the number of second or later generation Australians claiming Scottish ancestry has increased drastically. Of the 1 792 621 individuals who claimed to have Scottish roots in 2011, 17.1 per cent were first generation migrants, 19.1 per cent were second generation migrants, and 63.8 per cent were third or later generation migrants. Additionally, 78.3 per cent of those claiming Scottish ancestry also stated another ancestry in comparison to 80.4 per cent of Irish.

This suggests that maintenance of Scottish cultural identity over the last quarter of a century has become more widespread among Scottish Australians, and that rates of Scottish cultural identification are becoming comparable to Irish identification.

The reasons for this are hard to pin down, and would take more than a blog post to explore. For now, we could tentatively look at developments in Scottish politics since the mid-1990s, the coming-of-age of Australia’s multicultural generation for whom ethnic identity has become a more prominent question, and the release of Braveheart (I am serious!) in 1995, and Highland Homecomings in 2009. It may also have to do with the passing or ageing of first generation migrants and the impetus to retain their cultures.

More in-depth questions are left to be answered, as well.

If Australians are increasingly identifying with their Scottish roots, in what ways are these identities manifesting themselves, and are Australian and Scottish identities hierarchical? To what extent are expressions of Scottish Australian identity symbolic and pragmatic, drawing on an essentialist conception of ethnicity? Or, will the rise of Scottish Australian cultural identity – and thus the reinforcement of the diaspora – strengthen existing migratory and commercial links, and forge new political connections, with Scotland?

These questions have implications beyond academia, and have relevance to Australian cultural and social cohesion, as well as the engagement of Scotland with its growing diaspora.


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