St Andrew’s Day in the Australian colonies

Today is #StAndrewsDay! Saint Andrew was a Christian Apostle and the brother of Simon Peter, and is the patron saint of Scotland, of course, along with Greece, Romania, Russia, the Ukraine and many more. Every year, Scots around the world celebrate St Andrew’s Day. Tanja Bueltmann of the Scottish Diaspora Blog observes:

At the helm of organising balls and other St Andrew’s Day events, now as much as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a plethora of Scottish ethnic associations, most notably St Andrew’s societies. The Scots spearheaded the development of these ethnic associations world-wide. In North America, St Andrew’s societies were established as wide-ranging benevolent societies in the eighteenth century, giving support to new immigrants, while, in New Zealand, the Scots exercised remarkable influence through their Caledonian societies and the promotion of sports.

I had a look around to see if I could locate the earliest instances of St Andrew’s Day celebrations in Australia. I started with newspapers. The first (digitised) reference I could find was from the Sydney Gazette on December 2, 1804 – a short poem was published:

After this, St Andrew’s celebrations appear more often. Perhaps the first widely reported was in 1820 in the Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser on December 7 of that year:

There are reports of celebrations  in Van Diemen’s Land again in 1822, and then in 1824 the Hobart Town Magazine observed “We have pleasure in noticing the revival of the festival (in this Colony) of St. Andrew’s Day. Any thing which can remind us of ‘dear native land,’ is pleasing; and if we had our will not one national fete day should be allowed to pass without being properly noticed.” The St Andrew’s Day festivities would include a dinner at the Commercial Hotel, and the magazine noted that “all who can afford it, that come north of Yorkshire, will dine there, and most probably, many Southerners will be there also.”

St Andrew’s celebrations seem to have grown in popularity from the 1820s onwards. Indeed, if we take a look at newspaper coverage, we can see a spike in mentions of of St Andrew’s Day during this decade . Gradually, though, the proportion of newspaper articles covering Scotland’s national day decreases over the next 100 years (this graph shows the percentage of all newspaper articles featuring the phrase “St Andrews Day” – it’s not perfect, but it’s a good start):


Why didn’t St Andrew’s celebrations gain momentum until the 1820s when Scots had been arriving since the first days of European settlement? In 1829 Henry Widowson, agent to the Van Diemen’s Land Agricultural Establishment, hinted at the answer when he wrote

The Scotch gentlemen of the colony have established a club for the benefit of decayed or distressed country-men, under the denomination of ‘The St. Andrew’s Charitable Institution; but to the honour of the land o’ cakes,’ be it recorded that very few of Scotia’s sons are to be found among the convicts. and those who come free, except from accident or unforeseen casualty, rarely require eleemosynary assistance, the ruling principle of their country, perseverance and industry, invariably directing them to the attainment of an honest livelihood. The anniversary of the tutelary Saint day, is uniformly observed by the sober enjoyment of an excellent dinner and jovial reciprocity – Dr Scott is the president, and Dr Hood the vice-president of the institution.

Indeed, there were just not that many Scots around to form organisations and to celebrate St Andrew’s Day, and Widowson was probably fairly accurate when he noted that the charitable activities of the St Andrew’s organisation in Van Diemen’s Land were limited in their usefulness.

As it was with convicts, the Scottish portion of free emigrants in the early nineteenth century was a small one. Aside from convicts, in 1820 the few Scots in Australia were mostly colonial administrators, officers, and soldiers. The first application to emigrate to Australia from Scotland was only made in 1814. Out of 380 land grants of over 100 acres given between 1812 and 1821, only 34 were granted to Scots. Overall, of those who received large land grants in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land before 1820, around one-sixth were Scots, and about Scots held around one-tenth of the smaller grants. Mostly hailing from the Lowlands, the early Scottish migrants in Australia were a mixed cohort of artisans, skilled farm labourers, displaced tenant farmers, half-pay officers, and the younger sons of Scottish gentry. The small numbers were due in part to the distance of the Australian colonies from Scotland, exclusive land policies that did not encourage free emigrants (without substantial independent means) to settle, and a poor reputation in Scotland. Other older and more established imperial colonies were far more attractive than Australia before the 1820s.

Scottish emigration to Australia increased from the 1820s onwards. By 1828 in Van Diemen’s Land, there were 190 settlers from Scotland and a small number had significant holdings. From 1815 to 1833, a disproportionate 24 per cent of 2232 land grant applicants were Scottish. In some years, the Scottish element of emigrant and land grant applicants was substantial – in 1820, a third of applicants were from Scotland, and in 1826, 40.3 per cent were Scottish. Again, most early Scottish settlers were from the Lowlands, with the Lothians, Fife, and Angus being prominent in the regional origins of emigrants. Scottish immigration to Australia until the 1830s was a considerably middle and upper class phenomenon, and most settlers were farmers, merchants, military officers, craftsmen, and landowners.

The influx of Lowland Scottish emigrants to the Australian colonies from the 1820s onwards had much to do with economic and social conditions at home. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, Scotland had gained prominence as one of the world’s leading industrial nations. The economic revolution bestowed benefits on manufacturing and agricultural industries alike, and Lowland capitalist farmers gained immensely. The scarcity of rentable farms in Scotland and an impetus to find positions for their younger sons motivated wealthy agriculturalists to seek investment and land opportunities abroad. The availability of substantial land grants after 1810 and the government’s provision of cheap convict labour to the larger landholders was attractive to Lowland Scots.

From the 1830s, the nature and numbers of Scottish free emigrants to Australia changed as colonial employers looked to assisted immigration for their growing labour needs. While few of the female migrants from workhouses and reformatories between 1831 and 1836 were Scottish, around 18.2 per cent of the 50 000 people who came to New South Wales under private bounty and government immigration programs from 1837 to 1842 were Scottish. Approximately one quarter of unassisted immigrants in the 1830s and 1840s were from Scotland, or around 7000 of the total. Between 1832 and 1850, an estimated 15 per cent of the 110 000 assisted immigrants were Scots. Apart from the unassisted migrants, who were much like the arrivals from the 1820s – merchants, landowners, officials, and artisans with their own means – Scottish immigrants in Australia were drawn from a more working class background than previously. Maidservants, urban and rural labourers, and shepherds were the most common occupational group.

While settlement patterns were varied and diverse, and Scots spread across all the colonies, many of the newly arrived Scottish workers came to work with Scottish landholders. In areas were Scots accounted for a large proportion of squatters, the number of labourers and shepherds who followed was disproportionately high. Scottish pastoral lease holders between 1839 and 1848 were particularly numerous in Moreton Bay, where over half were Scots, Port Phillip (over 40 per cent), and New England and Darling Downs, where around a third of pastoralists were Scottish.

Apart from a more recent bloom in Scottish organisations, events, and identification, Scottish cultural activity in Australia hit its peak in the late 1880s and early 1900s, when Caledonian societies and Highland games took prominence. In the earliest decades of the colonies, however, there just weren’t that many Scots around to do the celebrating on St Andrew’s Day.

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