Some first encounters between Scots and Indigenous Australians

There were myriad encounters and relationships between Scottish migrants and Indigenous Australians, and the outcomes of these encounters did not always follow a linear pattern. Indeed, some Scottish settlers were notably sympathetic and helpful to Aboriginal people, and the degree of cross-cultural interaction and transmission between British arrivals and Indigenous Australians has sometimes been underestimated. But we should not fall into the trap of claiming, incorrectly, that something about being Scottish — alleged clan structures, better education, or the experience of the Highland Clearances, for example — meant settlers from Scotland were especially kind to indigenous peoples. The overall result of Britain’s colonisation of Australia was a great loss of life and the destruction of societies across Australia, a process in which Scots played no small part. Because the literature on Scots and Indigenous Australians is so thin, I have been particularly interested in filling this gap.

Scots, as we know, had been in Australia since the arrival of the First Fleet of convicts in 1788. Scottish convicts were few and far between, and Scottish free migrants were also rare before the 1820s. Many of those who did migrate and settle were civil and military officers charged with maintaining the threadbare apparatus of Britain’s new colonies. Defence forces contained a significant number of Lowlanders, while Scotland was overrepresented among civil officials and colonial administrators in the early nineteenth century, especially under the Scottish governors of New South Wales, who include John Hunter, Lachlan Macquarie, and Thomas Makdougall Brisbane. Scots monopolised the Commissariats of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, exercising significant control over the early colonial economies, and were prominent in various other arms of the civil service.

These were inquisitive Enlightenment men, and they expressed genuine curiosity about Indigenous people in Australia. John Hunter, the governor of New South Wales between 1795 and 1800, wrote and drew sketches of Aboriginal people he met for his own collections and for the information of others, including his friend the botanist Joseph Banks. Thomas Watling, the convict artist, sketched many Aboriginal Australians, many of whom were Cadigal people from the coastal area around Sydney who also taught him the names of local flora and fauna he had drawn. But, as revealed in letters home to his family, Watling’s real opinion of Indigenous Australians was remarkably negative when compared to the sensitivity of his illustrations.

‘A native women and her child’, Thomas Watling, c.1788-97.

Beyond mere curiosity, interactions extended into various attempts at mutual understanding between the two cultures. Indeed, the earliest arrivals in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land, and Port Phillip were prepared to negotiate with Indigenous Australians, who were likewise enthusiastic to educate the newcomers about their land and cultures. There are numerous recorded instances of Scots in Port Phillip dancing with Aboriginal people in shared corrobborees, for example, which were likely intended to inform the settlers about Aboriginal country and customs. Although relations would invariably deteriorate, Scots initially participated with well-intentioned enthusiasm.

The Glasgow-born migrant, Katherine Kirkland, observed one such occasion. ‘While they [the Wathaurong people] were going through their strange antics,’ she wrote, ‘a tall handsome young man jumped into their midst … He let out a wild shriek and then began to dance a fierce highland fling. The blacks stopped and looked on half frightened and half amused. When he had finished he let out a tremendous highland war cry.’

Another account described a group of recently-arrived migrants from Scotland in 1839: ‘the whole party, headed by the band of wind and pipes, went off through the bush of about a mile to see a grand corroborie of the blacks; it was a singular event to hear the blending of their highland music with the deep monotonous chant and beat of the Austral aborigine.’

‘Ben Lomond’, John Glover, c.1840. Note the Highlanders in corroboree.

Aboriginal performances began to borrow from Scottish music, dance, and religious rituals. In 1840, a group of Kulin people near Melbourne were recorded as being able to replicate a ‘near perfect brogue’, and were founded singing ‘Hura my boys, it’s time for us to go bonny highland laddie’. Mimicry extended beyond the songs and phrases Scottish shepherds taught Indigenous people. Joseph Panton, from Aberdeenshire, recalled a Dja Dja Wurrung corroboree near Bendigo during the 1850s thus: ‘the leader had a book in his hand, which he pretended to refer to, as he led the song. During the interval I approached him and asked what book he had. Ie Yabberea “Belong to that one” pointing to the heavens thereby indicating the Deity. I looked at the volume and found that it was a Testament in Gaelic.’ By the middle of the 1840s, it was observed that Aboriginal people in Port Phillip distinguished between English (‘their language’) and ‘the other language, which was Irish and Scotch’ – Gaelic, perhaps.

Early Aboriginal responses to the arrival and settlement of Scots and other British colonists were diverse. Indigenous Australians took on the role of guides and interpreters, for example, as the settlers sought out land for cultivation and resources to support the expansion of settlements. Scots in particular made a disproportionate contribution to the European exploration of the Australian continent in the nineteenth century.

John MacDouall Stuart. Source: SLSA.

Perhaps the most famous of the Scottish explorers, apart from Thomas Mitchell, was the Edinburgh-born John McDouall Stuart, who was the first European to traverse the Australian continent from north to south. Unlike Mitchell and most other explorers, however, McDouall made almost no use of Aboriginal guides or Indigenous knowledge. Indeed, if he made contact at all, his interactions with Indigenous people in Central Australia were brief. Travelling quickly, and without Aboriginal guides, Stuart named landmarks after European friends and financiers and ‘remained utterly oblivious’ to the mythologies and traditions of the lands through which his exploratory party moved.

Yet Stuart’s expedition also produced an important record of first contact between Aboriginal Australians and white people. So significant was the arrival of Europeans in Central Australia in the middle of the nineteenth century that when anthropologists set out in 1901 to record the culture of Indigenous people in the centre of the continent, stories of first contact with Stuart emerged. One man who was witness to events at Attack Creek – where Stuart’s party was turned back by Warumungu men – told anthropologists that he ‘remembers seeing Stuart the Explorer passing here [at Tennant Creek] on two occasions … no doubt he is one of the natives who successfully barred the great little Scotchman’s forward march.’ Jim Kite Alyelkelhayeka Penangke, a Lower Arrernte man who accompanied the expedition in 1901, and who remembered similar stories from his youth, carved the scene of the encounter into a boomerang, producing a rare visual record of first contact between Aboriginal people and ‘the new pale-looking pioneers on their packhorses’.

Detail of Jim Kite’s boomerang showing John McDouall Stuart on horseback. Source: Museum Victoria

When, in April 1860, Stuart climbed Mer Amakweng in central Australia – a mountain that he had named Central Mount Sturt after the explorer Charles Sturt – he recorded the events in his journal:

Built a large cone of stones, in the centre of which I placed a pole with the British flag nailed to it. Near the top of the cone I placed a small bottle, in which there is a slip of paper, with our signatures to it, stating by whom it was raised. We then gave three hearty cheers for the flag, the emblem of civil and religious liberty, and may it be a sign to the natives that the dawn of liberty, civilization, and Christianity is about to break upon them.

With this small ritual, replicated across the continent in the late eighteenth century and throughout nineteenth century, Stuart had claimed central Australia for the British Crown, displacing whatever claims Aboriginal people such as the Arrernte, Anmatyerr, or Warumungu might have had to the land.

Indigenous belonging to the land was, however, sometimes recognised. Among those who attempted to negotiate a peaceful treaty with the Woiworung, Bunurong, and Wathaurong as members of John Batman’s Port Phillip Association in 1835 were Inverness brothers John and William Robertson – William financed a substantial proportion of Batman’s first expedition to Port Phillip – and the Edinburgh-based George Mercer, who was central in ultimately unsuccessful attempts to lobby British authorities for recognition of the group’s land claims and, implicitly, recognition of prior ownership. By and large, however, Scots ignored or did not understand that Australian land already belonged to somebody else, and they took it for themselves accordingly. There was a fundamental philosophical gap between European and Indigenous understandings of the land and its uses.

Despite earlier attempts at mutual comprehension and understanding, it soon became clear to Indigenous Australians that the new arrivals were, in fact, permanent invaders and occupiers of their country. As settlement progressed and the frontier expanded rapidly between the 1820s and 1870s, conflict and violence inevitably followed.


This post is an edited excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Scots in Australia 1788-1938, which contains a substantial amount of material on Scottish-Indigenous relations in Australia. The featured image for this post is a Comunn na Feinne Valuable Service Medal (Geelong, VIC, 1877).



  1. Looking forward to reading more of your book as it unfolds. How important it is for the Scots and others to recognise the role we played in the decimation of the indigenous peoples of this amazing land Australia

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