Scots and Indigenous Australians

This is an edited excerpt from a research note I am preparing for Australian Aboriginal Studies.

Scots were in the vanguard of both imperial and global European expansion. In Australia, they were over-represented in the chief sectors of the frontier economy, pastoralism and squatting, and this is precisely where Scottish-Indigenous relations were brought into the sharpest focus. In the Western District of Victoria alone, where Scots such as the Cameron family dominated the region’s political, economic, and social life, from 1840 to 1859 there were reports of 35 massacres and killings of Indigenous people. In the Hamilton area of the Western District, the Scottish squatters were known for their violence towards the Indigenous population. When Chief Protector George A. Robinson toured the area in 1841, he reported a culture of barbarism and cruelty amongst the squatters. Robert Tulloch, a Scot from the Bochara pastoral station, proudly told Robinson of an Aboriginal child being burned alive on his property, and of another who was kicked to death by a group of labourers. Robinson reported that it was the practice of Western District settlers to go out on Sundays and hunt Aboriginal people for sport; allegedly, Tulloch himself attached a pair of sheep shears to a long pole, and ran them down on his horse.

Scots were at the forefront of the extensive dispossession and expropriation that was required for the achievement of mass European settlement of the new lands of the Americas, Africa, and Australasia and the spread of the British Empire across the world. The multiple ways in which Scots influenced and experienced Britain’s colonisation of Aboriginal Australia have not been extensively addressed in the literature; such a survey would help to provide a fuller picture of Scotland’s imperial activities abroad. British historian T. M. Devine has been notably critical of existing investigations of Scottish-Indigenous relations in Australia. There are many possibilities for investigating Scottish encounters with Indigenous Australians in the context of British colonisation.

Some writers have viewed relations between Scottish and the indigenous peoples of the various lands they settled with optimism. For example, Arthur Herman writes: “In one colonial setting after another, Scots proved themselves far better able to get along with people of another culture and colour than their English counterparts.” British historian Michael Fry wrote of Scots and Native Americans, “the generosity and freedom of both peoples made a mutual appeal to them across the racial barrier.” Australia historian Patrick O’Farrell has made similar arguments in favour of the Irish based upon their ‘non-Britishness’, while Bob Reece contended that Irish-Aboriginal intermarriage (as evinced through surnames) bolstered the view of Irish Catholic settlers as ‘good colonisers’. Malcolm Prentis has undertaken a similar investigation of Scottish surnames and marriages as a method of exploring the amicable relations between Scots and Indigenous Australians.

The evidence indicates, however, that Scots were not significantly more generous or benevolent than the norm for British or European settlers with regard to their relations with indigenous peoples. In South Africa, they were as complicit as other nationalities in their racial discrimination. In New Zealand in the nineteenth century, Scottish relations with indigenous Maori were not observably different from the British norm, and there was little evidence of an alleged affinity between the ‘clannish’ Highlanders and ‘tribal’ Maori. In North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Scots and Highlanders displayed the same prejudices, sentiments and behaviour as other Europeans when dealing with Indigenous communities and were as zealous as any other group in their enthusiasm for colonisation. As Colin Calloway notes: “The notion that peoples were less prone to abuse or kill each other because they shared similar tribal structures does not stand up to historical scrutiny anywhere in the world.” Indeed, as Don Watson revealed in 1984’s Caledonia Australis, Highlanders led one of the single most notorious massacres of Aboriginal people in Australian history when Angus McMillan and his ‘Highland Brigade’ slaughtered over one hundred men, women, and children at Warrigal Creek in Gippsland, Victoria.

Claims about the particular generosity or brutality of individual British settler groups are problematic insofar as, in order to stand up to historical scrutiny, they must be quantified with evidence that is often incomplete or inaccurate. It can be difficult to ascertain who exactly the main perpetrators of massacres were, let alone their ethnic background. Scots were, nevertheless, at the vanguard of British colonisation and thus unquestionably had a great deal of contact with Indigenous Australians, whether violent or amicable.

Recent research on the encounters British settlers had with Indigenous peoples in North America and Australasia points out that both the Irish and Scots were some of the most active and enthusiastic participants in what is described as “the greatest single period of land theft, cultural pillage, and casual genocide in world history.” On the other hand, some settlers attempted to understand Indigenous society rather than destroy it. One central theme has been the extent to which being Irish and Scottish influenced settlers’ attitudes to Indigenous peoples. David Wilson concludes, in the introduction of his edited collection with Graeme Morton, that the Scottishness and Irishness of settlers was less important in shaping attitudes and behaviour, and that the unique circumstances in which those settlers found themselves at different times and places in North America and Australasia were far more decisive.

This body of literature, though offering a more helpful account of relations with indigenous peoples, could be extended more fully to the Scots in Australia. Some recent work by Ian  D. Clark and Fred Cahir at Federation University has sought to address the lacunae, while some of my own work-in-progress, including research from my PhD thesis, will hopefully add to the literature; I will be sure to update this post once details on this work are available.




  1. Interesting. two thoughts – do you think the differences in land law between England and Scotland played a part in their attitudes? Scottish land law was still feudal, not based on freehold tenure and with no law of trespass – that might affect their attitude to Aborigines crossing their squatting runs (in accord with the rules imposed on pastoral leases). Secondly, did the history of Highland Clearances make them more ruthless?

  2. I am a direct descended of one of the colonialists who founded Bowen and Townsville, James Gordon (1822-1904) who was born in Dumfries Scotland. This is a decent account of the ‘expedition’ he co-led in 1859, where indigenous people where murdered – Following the establishment of a white settlement at Bowen (Port Denison) an exclusion zone was established around the settlement where no Aborigines where allowed to be. From 1861 to 1871 the region was in open warfare between settlers and indigenous people.

  3. Look forward to reading more of your work. It’s so important that we as Scots or any other colonists(it continues though under different guises) know the history. As one arrived from Glasgow some decades ago am very interested to learn the history of the oppressed peoples including my fellow Glaswegians who are not so different in their health education situation from the indigenous peoples of this land.

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