Geographic Origins

Scotland is one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is bordered by the North Atlantic Ocean to the west, the North Sea to the east and England and the Irish Sea to the south.

History of Immigration and Settlement

George Fife Angas and David McLaren were two prominent Scots involved in the founding and development of South Australia.

George Fife Angas was born in May 1789 to a family of Scottish descent in Newcastle-on-Tyne in England. He was a Calvinistic Baptist merchant who believed in the separation of church and state and the Wakefield theory of systematic colonisation. Angas was a member of the Colonization Commission, which was founded in May 1835 to negotiate with the British government to establish the colony of South Australia. He later formed the South Australian Company, which made the foundation of the colony possible through its purchase of land. Angas immigrated to South Australia in 1851. He died at ‘Lindsay Park’, his home in Angaston, in 1879.

David McLaren was the manager of the South Australian Company in the colony between 1836 and 1841. He was born at Perth, Scotland, in 1786. McLaren was a devout Calvinistic Baptist who believed it was his moral duty to leave his wife and family and contribute to the foundation of a colony based on the principle of religious liberty. McLaren’s Wharf at Port Adelaide, McLaren Vale and McLaren Flat are named after him.

Most of the Scots who immigrated to South Australia during the nineteenth century were from the overcrowded industrial cities of central Scotland or Lowland agricultural areas. Most Lowlander immigrants were from the Lothians, the Glasgow-Clyde regions, from Ayrshire, and from Dumfries, Fife, Angus and Perthshire in north-eastern Scotland.

Urban Scots emigrated as a result of social problems, unemployment and political unrest caused by the Industrial Revolution. Rural Scottish Lowlanders emigrated because of agricultural developments that led to the amalgamation of small farms and made many labourers redundant. The Scots who came to South Australia in the 1830s were among the first significant group of Scottish immigrants to arrive in Australia. Before then most Scottish emigrants had resettled in North America. Political and financial problems in North America during the 1830s increased Australia’s appeal as a destination.

Between 1836 and 1850 Scots formed 5.3 per cent of assisted immigrants to South Australia.

Nineteenth century Scottish South Australians were prominent as pastoral pioneers in the colony. The many settlements that developed from the pastoral interests of Scottish South Australians include Strathalbyn, Mount Barker, Naracoorte and Penola.

Strathalbyn, Valley of the Scots, was first settled by the Rankine family from Dalblair, Ayrshire, in 1840. William Rankine was born in 1799. He and his wife Jane and their six children arrived in the colony on 30 April, 1839. They travelled to South Australia aboard the Fairfield with William’s brothers James and John and numerous other relatives.

The Scottish settlements of south-eastern South Australia have been seen as emerging from the concentrations of Scots in western Victoria. Two Scottish immigrants were prominent in the foundation of Naracoorte. John Robertson established Struan Station on Mosquito Creek south of what is now Naracoorte in 1842. William MacIntosh arrived at what was then called Mosquito Plains on 4 July, 1845. He was born near Kincraig in Scotland and arrived in New South Wales in 1837. William was joined in South Australia by his brother John in the 1850s. The brothers based their properties in Naracoorte on the model of a typical Scottish manor. A visitor of 1859 described the ‘Highland lairds (lords)’ of Naracoorte, William and John MacIntosh. The visitor noted the prosperity and contented appearance of their ‘tenantry’, the majority of whom were Gaelic-speaking Highlanders from northern Scotland. These people had immigrated to South Australia as a result of the Highland clearances - the introduction of large-scale commercial sheep farming - and the potato famines of the 1840s.

Alexander ‘King’ Cameron settled what is now the township of Penola in 1844. He was from the village of Inverroy in the Scottish Highlands. Alexander was born in 1810, and immigrated to South Australia in 1838. He formally applied to lease the area of Penola in 1851. Alexander Cameron joined his uncles Alexander ‘Black Sandy’ and Duncan Cameron to develop the township. By 1852 Penola consisted of a hotel, a store, a blacksmith’s shop and four other buildings. By 1861 it had a population of 700. In 1863 a contemporary described Alexander ‘King’ Cameron as a Highlander of humble origins, a ‘sterling fellow’ who was like a Highland Chief. Another account recorded Alexander ‘driving through the township to the race course with a piper in full blast and ribbons flying’. He left the district in 1864.

The Scottish settlements of the Adelaide Hills and the South-East were so strong that it has been suggested you could once travel from Warrnambool in Victoria to Aldgate in the Adelaide Hills through property entirely owned by Scottish Australians.

The South Australian towns and suburbs of Ardrossan, Bute, Glencoe, Largs Bay, Melrose, Rosslyn Park, St Kilda and Urrbrae provide further evidence of the influence of Scots on South Australian settlements. They are all named after places in Scotland.

Nineteenth century historian Samuel Sidney has provided us with a description of a Scottish immigrant of modest means who arrived in South Australia in the early years of the colony. He purchased an 80-acre section of land ‘on the other side of a steep range of hills, over which no road had then been made, ten miles from the town’. The Scot and his 12 children came to the colony with ‘a little furniture, a few Highland implements, a gun or two, very little ready money, and several barrels of oatmeal and biscuit’. Sidney recounted how this family quickly built a simple house and established a garden, crops and an assortment of livestock, living on wild quail, ducks, parrots, oatmeal and biscuit until their first harvest, when they were able to send produce to Adelaide.

Approximately 90,000 Scottish immigrants arrived in Australia during the 1850s. They came in response to worsening conditions in Scotland, and a small number were attracted to the Australian gold rushes of the 1850s. Around 6,300 of these Scottish immigrants resettled in South Australia, constituting ten per cent of the total number of assisted immigrants arriving in South Australia in the 1850s. Two-thirds of Scottish assisted immigrants came as family groups. Male assisted immigrants included tradesmen, miners and blacksmiths.

A significant number of Highlanders arrived in South Australia during the 1850s. The traditional semi-feudal way of life in the Scottish Highlands had been subjected to radical economic and social change since the 1780s. Problems caused by the Highland Clearances were compounded by an increasing population and famine caused by the failure of potato crops during the 1840s.

The Highland and Island Emigration Society was established in Scotland in 1852 to encourage the poorest Highlanders to emigrate. The society raised money for passages from public subscription, colonial governments and Highland landlords. The repayment of passage fares meant that the scheme could go on indefinitely. Between 1852 and 1858 about 5,000 Highlanders were assisted to Australia by the society. Most travelled as family groups.

In 1852, 2,605 Highlanders emigrated to Australia from estates including those of Skye, Macleod, Ulva, Strathaird and Skeabost. 411 of these people landed in South Australia. Most were unskilled, illiterate and spoke Gaelic.

In 1853 the Highland and Island Emigration Society’s Scheme was extended to include the poor from Ardnamurchan, Tiree, Glenmoidart, Glenshiel, Bundalloch and Harris. In July of that year the Hercules left Campbelltown, Argyll with 756 Highland emigrants and a crew of 160. Following an outbreak of fever and smallpox on board the ship put into Cork, Ireland. There were deaths amongst the emigrants and some returned to Scotland or stayed in Ireland. When the Hercules finally arrived in South Australia there were approximately 379 pauper Highlanders on board, and 192 of them disembarked at Port Adelaide. The group consisted of 62 married adults, 67 single adults, and 61 children. Many were from the Hebrides. Two young mothers died within a few weeks of disembarkation at Port Adelaide and their children were taken to the Destitute Asylum in Adelaide. Their fathers, like many other men, were employed in South Australia as shepherds, labourers, and domestic servants in Clare, Tatiara, Port Gawler, York Peninsula, Port Lincoln, Aldinga Plains, Gumeracha, Morialta and Mount Barker.

A group of 31 Highland families arrived in Adelaide in September 1855. They came to South Australia from the estates of Glendale, Skeabost and Dunvegan in Skye. At the time when arrangements had been made for them to settle in South Australia, there had been a demand for labour. By the time they arrived the demand had passed. Twenty-nine of the families settled in Robe. Most had found employment by March 1856. 

The last significant group of Highland paupers arrived in South Australia in late 1855. Most of these 27 families were from Harris. They arrived in South Australia during a time of high unemployment. Some of them were employed as stone-breakers at Dry Creek. The Highland and Island Emigration Society wound up in 1858 after being instrumental in assisting about 5,000 Highlanders to emigrate.

The 1850s was the last decade in which significant groups of Highlanders immigrated to Australia; after 1860 over 90 per cent of Scots who resettled in Australia were from the Lowlands.

Low wages and the decline of Scotland’s coal industry maintained the flow of Scottish immigrants to Australia until the economic depression of the 1890s. In 1891 there were 124,000 Scottish Australians. Of these, 8,874 lived in South Australia.

The number of Scottish immigrants to South Australia declined during the early years of the twentieth century, so that as late as 1947 there were only 5,138 newly arrived Scottish-born South Australians.

Approximately 15,000 Scots resettled in South Australia between the Second World War and the mid-1960s. Many emigrated from Scotland’s overcrowded southern cities under the Assisted Passage Scheme. They immigrated to South Australia in search of employment opportunities and an improved quality of life. Many of them settled in Whyalla, Elizabeth, Salisbury, Christies Beach and Noarlunga. In 1966 there were 17,566 Scottish South Australians.

Scottish South Australians have made an enormous contribution to the state. Prominent Scottish South Australians include John McDouall Stuart, who explored Australia from south to north between 1861 and 1862; Sir James Fergusson, Governor of South Australia between 1869 and 1873; Catherine Helen Spence, who played a major role in the 1894 enfranchisement of South Australian women; the South Australian parliamentarians John Cockburn, John Gunn and Sir Edward Charles Stirling; the Blessed Mother Mary MacKillop, who founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart; and Dr. Sir Charles Duguid, who worked tirelessly to assist South Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Community Activities

Scots people, like all other emigrants, retain the traditions of the country of their birth. The wearing and honouring of the national dress, the kilt and its accoutrements, is a Scotsman’s pride. The haggis, a traditional dish immortalised by Robert Burns, is served with neeps and tatties. It is ceremoniously piped in and toasted with the appropriate piper’s toast.  Whisky has been for centuries the traditional drink of the Scots. It is considered to be most appropriate that a ‘wee drachm’ be offered whatever the occasion. For guests the whisky-filled quaich is a symbol of the bonds of friendship.

The Highland, Scottish Country and Broadsword Dancers all depict in dance the traditional stories of the history of Scotland. The Dancers perform at functions such as public social gatherings, and Highland Games. Highland gatherings are held to display not only the dancers, but also include pipers, drummers, and pipe band demonstrations and competitions. Field events such as the Caber Toss, the Haggis Hurl, Puttin’ t’ Stane, Tug-o-war, Hammer Throw, and Grouse Hunt are all practised together with the usual children’s and adult foot races.

Shooting is also a popular Scottish sport. A rifle club was established in Strathalbyn in the earliest years of the settlement. Practice and competitions were held on what was known as the Target Paddock on Glenbarr, the Rankine family’s estate. Teams from Strathalbyn competed against the neighbouring towns of Milang, Mount Barker, Goolwa, Echunga, Macclesfield and Hahndorf. Matches lasted for two or three days and attracted people from all over the colony.

Horseracing was also popular. Strathalbyn, Penola and many other settlements of Scottish South Australians had racecourses. Alexander ‘King’ Cameron of Penola was a keen race-goer. He often gave balls after Penola race days. In 1878 Mrs Henry Jones recalled the balls at the Cameron homestead. The ‘tall, fine Highlanders… performed the reel in the grandest style with all the zest and activity which that inspiring dancing requires’. She described small women dancing the Reel O’Houllachin, winding in and out in figures-of-eight between the tall men while they hooted and ‘cracked’ their fingers.

Golf originated in Scotland. It was pioneered in South Australia by Sir James Fergusson, who became Governor of South Australia in 1869. In that year a small course was laid out for him in Adelaide’s East Parklands. Governor Fergusson and a small group of mainly Scottish friends confounded onlookers with what was then regarded as a bizarre sport. The first Adelaide Golf Club was founded in 1870. It collapsed three years after Fergusson’s departure in 1873.

Lawn bowls was another popular sport. The first bowling green in South Australia was established by Andrew Thompson in 1876. He had brought his bowls with him from Scotland when he immigrated in 1854.

Traditional cultural heritage is displayed for the celebrations of the birth date of Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns. Ceremonies are held by various groups on both the Bard’s birthday itself, 25 January [1759], and in July. On these occasions ceremonial ritual such as wreath laying at his statue on North Terrace is performed, followed by a ceilidh.

Towards the end of March each year a commemorative ceremony is held at the statue of John McDouall Stuart in Victoria Square, followed by a meeting where papers and historical reminiscences of members of his exploration party are given by descendants.

Kirkin’ o’ t’ Tartan celebrates the International Day of the Tartan when on 1 July, 1782 the Act of 1746 banning the use of the Tartan and all things Scottish was repealed. In 1982 the Director of the Tartan Museum in Comrie, Perthshire, promoted the celebration of the proclamation. A street parade on or about 1 July and services in Presbyterian Churches celebrate the event. The first celebration honouring the Patron Saint of Scotland, St. Andrew, was held in the colony on November 30, 1838. A church service to mark the anniversary is held; in addition a dinner with the proper speeches and toasts is arranged, the ceremonial haggis is piped in and addressed, and the evening’s entertainment of Highland dancing, music, song, and pipers all add to the occasion.

Celtic Hallowe’en celebrates the ancient Celtic festival of Samhiunn, traditionally held on the old New Year’s Eve to give thanks for the safe return of the cattle and to ask for the renewal of the food supply in the coming year. In later times the festival became a feast of the dead and was grafted on to All Saints Day by the Christian church. Today the celebration is held by most of the Caledonian Societies on a day as near as possible to October 31 and takes the form of children dressing up to ward off evil spirits and the making of pumpkin lanterns to light the way of the spirit to All Saint’s Day. The ‘dookin’ for apples or trying to eat a dangling treacle bun with hands behind one’s back are all part of the evening’s entertainment.

Hogmanay is a truly Scottish custom of the farewell to the old year and a happy welcome to the New Year. Entertainment, dancing, pipers and bands feature, until at midnight Robert Burns’ For Auld Lang Syne is sung with dance steps and the joining of hands in friendship.

There were a number of Scottish organisations in colonial South Australia. A Saint Andrew’s Society existed during the 1840s. The society encouraged Scottish immigration to South Australia, but warned prospective applicants that those ‘from behind counters’ were not ideal colonists. In 1849 the society asserted in the press that ‘our good men are sturdy farmers with large families and small or large capitals. They are the sheet anchors of successful colonisation’.

The Royal Caledonian Society of South Australia was founded in 1881 under the title ‘The South Australian Caledonian Society’ which grew to include 38 ‘Branches’ or ‘Kindred Societies’. Alexander Hay was the society’s first Chief. He was born in Dumfermline, Fife, in 1820. The Society aimed to uphold Scottish traditions, promote and maintain Scottish culture and assist fellow Scots. In its early years the Society met at rooms in 22 King William Street and 82 Rundle Street, Adelaide, moving to premises at 379 King William Street in 1927. The foundation stone of the Society’s rooms was unveiled on 17 October, 1925 by Chief Andrew Young. The Royal Caledonian Society hall was sold in 2003. 

The Society is proud of its fine Pipe Band and was granted permission to use the term ‘Royal’ in 1947. In August 2017 the band performed at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo having previously performed there in 2001, 2007 and 2011. The Band also performed at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Australia in 2005, 2010 and 2016.  In May 2016 the Band had the honour of being the only Pipe Band from Australia to be invited to perform with other International Pipe Bands at HRH the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations. In present times the band uses the Kensington Park RSL as headquarters.

There are numerous South Australian Pipe Bands and Scottish Dancing Groups throughout South Australia.

On May 5th 1894 a statue of the Scottish bard Robert Burns was unveiled by the Chief of the South Australian Caledonian Society, The Hon. J. Darling, M.L.C. During the ceremony, invited guests wearing sprigs of heather, listened to bagpipes playing and to readings of the poet’s verse. The sculpture was funded by Society members such as Sir Thomas Elder and Robert Barr Smith, and by public subscription. It was the first statue given to the City of Adelaide. 

A local stonemason was commissioned to sculpt the statue. William Maxwell of Edwardstown was born in Largs, Scotland. He trained as a stonecutter in Edinburgh. He had worked on the restoration of the ornamentation of Westminster Cathedral before immigrating to Australia in the 1870s. He worked in Melbourne, on one of Sydney’s cathedrals, and on the Bank of South Australia building (now Edmund Wright House) in King William Street.

The statue of Robert Burns now standing outside the State Library on North Terrace was based on a painting that depicted Burns reciting ‘A Winter’s Night’ to the Duchess of Gordon in Edinburgh in 1787. At the time the Barr-Smith family owned the painting. The white marble for the statue came from Angaston. The grey granite base was from Mintaro.

The Robert Burns Society of South Australia was formed in 1982; it is affiliated with the Burns Federation, Kilmarnock, Scotland. The Society’s aims are to dedicate and encourage the appreciation of the life and works of Robert Burns and the teaching and retention of the language that he used.

Other statues given by the Scottish community include: The Angas Memorial Shrine, 1915, Sir Thomas Elder statue, 1903, Sir Walter Watson Hughes, 1906, Charles Cameron Kingston, 1916, Monument to John McKinlay, 1875, Bust of Sir J. Mellis Napier, 1970, Catherine Helen Spence, 1986, John McDouall Stuart, 1904.

Scottish immigrants of the nineteenth century also brought the traditions of various branches of the Presbyterian Church with them to South Australia. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity. The first Presbyterian congregations were founded after the arrival of the Reverend Ralph Drummond of the United Secession Church on June 9, 1839, and ministers from the Church of Scotland in 1841.

The colonial Presbyterian Church of South Australia was weakened by theological disputes the colonists had brought with them from Scotland. Financial problems caused by the lack of government aid for religion in the colony were not helped by the fact that the wealthy Presbyterians of the South-East tended to belong to the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, rather than the South Australian Church. The lack of Presbyterian clergymen in rural areas led many Scottish South Australians of that denomination to either worship in the Church of England or in their own homes, in the tradition of their Fathers until the arrival of their own Minister.

Most South Australian Presbyterian Churches joined the Uniting Church when it was established in 1977. However, fifteen congregations chose to retain their distinct traditions. In 2018 there were Presbyterian congregations for the areas of Elizabeth, Millicent, Mt Barker/Adelaide Hills, Mt Gambier, Naracoorte, North Adelaide, Norwood, Para Hills, Penola, Pt Augusta, Seacliff and Whyalla.

The exhibition ‘Scottish Heritage and Migration to South Australia’ was shown at the Migration Museum from 1 September 2003 to 2 December 2003.

Scottish radio programs can be heard on Radio Stations 5EBI-103FM and 101.5FM. Great Southern Radio also broadcasts a Scottish radio program on Happy FM90.1.

The journal, The Caledonian, is circulated three times a year by the Scottish Associations of South Australia.

Organisations and Media

  • Scottish Associations of South Australia
  • For a complete listing see: Medhurst, B.M., Scottish Reference Book, 1999.
  • South Australian Presbyterian News, web editions quarterly
  • The Caledonian, circulated three times a year.


According to the 1981 census there were 17,532 Scottish South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 17,161, and 43,286 South Australians said that they were of Scottish descent.

The 1991 census recorded 17,826 Scottish-born South Australians. 31,107 people said that their mothers were born in Scotland, and 33,417 that their fathers were.

The 1996 census recorded 16,717 Scottish-born South Australians, and a large second generation enumerated at 23,049.

The 2001 census recorded 15,234 Scottish-born South Australians, while 43,443 people said that they were of Scottish descent.

The 2006 census recorded 14,291 Scottish-born South Australians, while 110,672 people said that they were of Scottish descent.

The 2011 census recorded 13,902 Scottish-born South Australians, while 128,042 people said that they were of Scottish descent.

The 2016 census recorded 11,991 Scottish-born South Australians, while 140,427 people said that they were of Scottish descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

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