‘Unknown and uncared for’? Scottish Catholics in Australia

The Scottish diaspora in Australia was and is a diverse grouping of individuals who quite often have little in common with each other. As ethnic diversity is observable in both anecdotal and statistical records, cultural variation, too, is evident. As an identifiable and recordable sub-category of ‘culture’, religion provides an opportunity to explore this cultural heterogeneity. This post briefly highlights the position of Scottish Catholics in the Australian Scottish diaspora, who offer an interesting case study of diversity and tension under the vast group we call the Scottish diaspora.

By the time of mass migration to Australia, Presbyterianism had long been integrated into Scotland’s cultural and civic landscape and the church was a key reference point for national identity. For some migrants in the early days, however, often from the Highlands, Catholicism and Scottish Gaelic combined to form a powerful ethno-religious identity. As one history observed, ‘In the earlier years of Victorian settlement, Gaelic-speaking Catholics from the Highlands of Scotland came in considerable numbers to Port Philip. Many of them settled at Little River and others in the Western District. In 1852, a meeting of Scotch Catholics was held at Melbourne, and a memorial to Rome, praying for the appointment of a Gaelic-speaking priest was adopted.’

In the Western District of Victoria in particular, Scottish Gaelic was heard widely among Highland shepherds and some bilingual landowners, and both Catholic and Presbyterian services were delivered in Gaelic into the early-20th century. Among the Western District and South Australian Scottish Catholics of the late-19th century was Mary MacKillop, who became Australia’s first saint in 2010.

Scottish Catholics were, as Malcolm Prentis described them, a ‘tiny minority within two minorities’ — a minority within Scots migrants, and a minority within Catholic migrants — and because of this ‘they are a virtually forgotten group.’ Throughout the nineteenth century and up to 1900, only about two per cent of Catholic immigrants were Scottish.

By 1911, over two-thirds of Scots in Australia were Presbyterian, and around one-fifth were of other Protestant denominations. Catholics accounted for just 4.3 per cent of Scots and were often likely to be of either Highland or Irish background. There were 46 Jews in 1911, while a handful of Buddhists, Pagans, Freethinkers, agnostics, and atheists accounted for the remainder. Among other Protestants, eleven Lutherans, presumably of German descent, were born in Scotland and migrated to Australia.

Non-Presbyterians were the minority among Scottish migrants in Australia. Nevertheless, the evidence for a variety of different religious groups among the migrants is suggestive of broader cultural diversity, especially with regard to Scots whose religious background set them apart from the majority in Scotland and in the Scottish migrant population in Australia. In a mostly Protestant and British diaspora, some of these migrants held an ambiguous status among other Scots in Australia.

Catholics, in particular, have been important in the defining of Britishness. Linda Colley describes the ‘omnipresent menace’ of the Catholic, mostly Irish, ‘Other’ as being integral to the forging of an Anglo-Protestant British identity. Donal Lowry observes that anti-Catholicism was most pronounced in Britain when directed at the Irish; he describes English and Scottish Catholicism as ‘harmless and quaint survivals’.

In Australia, however, the position of Scottish Catholics was complicated by both the centrality of denominational allegiance in the social and political development of the colonies, as well as the representation of Irish Catholics as non-Anglo foreigners. The marginalisation of Irish migrants increasingly placed the Catholic Church in the role of a vessel for cultural identity and mediator for their political and social interests in Australia and, indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century the vast majority of Catholic laity and clergy were Irish.

By contrast, Ulster Presbyterians may have assimilated effortlessly into the Scots-dominated Presbyterian Church in Australia, perhaps because of their shared cultural background and close links between the Synod of Ulster and the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales.

In 1911, there were just over four-thousand Scottish Catholics in Australia. Despite claims that Scottish Catholicism was benign, Catholics of Scottish birth brought with them an anomalous combination of national and religious identities – connected to Scots in the diaspora through nationality, but alienated by a religion deemed foreign to mainstream British Protestant Australia.

Additionally, their Irish counterparts did not necessarily acknowledge Scots Catholics as belonging to the Catholic community in Australia; the Irish dominance had a marked effect on the outlook of Australian Catholicism. In 1914, the Rev. Father M. J. O’Reilly recommended to his congregation at St Benedict’s Church in Sydney the establishment of a club for ‘weak-kneed Roman Catholics … by which they could pose as Scotchmen,’ learn to play golf, change their names, and thereby be guaranteed ‘to obtain preferment and position which are denied to people of Irish birth or name.’

In 1917, antagonism arose between one Charles Heydon and firebrand Archbishop Daniel Mannix over conscription for the First World War. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in November 1917 Heydon denounced Mannix’s anti-conscription stance and his criticism of the British Empire, and said that for Mannix ‘to lead his flock along the paths of sedition is to disobey the clearest teachings of the Catholic Church.’ Mannix did not respond kindly to the attack and, commenting on the controversy, Anglican Archbishop John Wright asked ‘why Catholics do not disavow Archbishop Mannix in such outbursts,’ and observed that non-Irish Catholics ‘including English and Scottish, strongly resent Dr Mannix’s apparent assumption that Irishmen only are entitled to speak about Catholicism.’

The strong Irish character of the Catholic Church in Australia sometimes placed Scottish Catholics in a position of religious unity but social and political disparity with Australia’s Irish community, a condition aided in no small way by such divisive characters in the Church as Archbishop Mannix. Scottish Catholics occupied a distinctive location on Australia’s early-twentieth-century religious landscape.

Recognising the uniqueness of their situation in Australia, in 1936 in Sydney a group of around 600 individuals met for the inaugural rally of the Caledonian Catholic Association. The English-born Rev. Dr Leslie Rumble spoke to attendees, aptly, about the relationship between nationalism and religion, and provided a brief history of Catholicism in Scotland. Scottish and Hebridean songs were sung, and the president – A. L. McLaren – announced that the Association would form a pipe band. Responding to accusations that members of the Caledonian Catholic Association had been drinking heavily at their inaugural ball, McLaren denied the claim ‘in spite of the fact that we all hail from Scotland where we are supposed to be fond of ‘whusky’ – which is about the last of the feeble Sassenach funny stories.’

The Sydney organisation was likely modelled after the Caledonian Catholic Association in Glasgow, established in the 1880s, which claimed that it sought to unify Catholics in Scotland and ‘assist any of their number who might come to that great city and be thrown among the Protestants, unknown and uncared for.’ The Glasgow organisation was still in operation during the 1930s, and was active in condemning protests against Catholics in Scottish cities during that time.

It was perhaps the association of Scottish Catholics, made explicit or not, with Britain (and by extension, the Empire) that protected them from the kind of discrimination directed at Irish Catholics. This was evidently the case for New Zealand’s Scottish Catholic community, and among other groups (such as the Australian Jewry at this time) an adopted pro-imperial, pro-monarchical patriotism was vital to assimilation into Australia in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.

Whatever the case, self-identification as Catholic could, and often did, take priority over self-identification with the existing Scottish diaspora in Australia. While migration histories often focus upon national origins as categories for analysis, cultural or religious identity can often take primacy over place of birth. The formation of the Caledonian Catholic Association suggests, for example, that Scottish-born Catholics could consider themselves different and apart from the Scottish Presbyterian mainstream. Catholic identity was at least equally as important to these Scots. As the Archibishop of Sydney told the Caledonian Catholic Association in 1945,

You have a right to be proud of your Scottish origin and descent when you recall the heroic and good men and women of great achievement who have been, and are, fellow-nationals of yours. You are proud of your Catholic Faith, because you know it was established by Our Divine Master Himself … You are proud of your citizenship of Australia, because you realise that this is a land that has been lavishly blessed by the Creator.

What examples such as this alert us to is the fact of cultural and ethnic diversity among the Scottish-born in Australia. With the exception of the First World War conscription debates and other sectarian tensions, there is little evidence of strong animosity between Scottish Catholics and the British Protestant majority. But, nevertheless, their existence and experiences provide a sense of contrast to others who proclaimed themselves as the keepers of true ‘Scottishness’ in Australia. Furthermore, as a ‘virtually forgotten group’, it is important to continue exploring their history and experience in Australia.



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