It is common knowledge that Australia was originally treated as a penal colony by the British Empire. In May 1787 the first fleet of convict ships set sail from England and arrived in Botany Bay some 8 months later in January 1788.

As a punishment for persistent offenders – most commonly crimes of housebreaking, theft or forgery – it is estimated that between 1787 and 1868, 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia. A mere 5% of these were Scottish, nearly 7600 people. However this first transportation would later hinder the settlement of Australia by free men and their families, as in the early years convicts greatly outnumbered free settlers.

The large number of convicts, along with other disincentives – such as the long and hazardous journey, the extreme expense, and the unknown nature of Australia to those in Scotland – meant that it was difficult to break the long tradition of Scottish emigration to Canada. However, Australia was in desperate need of labour and it quickly became clear that only through some form of assisted emigration, that this demand would be met.

This demand for labour, coinciding with political unrest in Canada, resulted in Scots being squeezed out of the home labour market by industrial or agricultural improvement, and the development of societies and schemes to aid with emigration, helped to turn the tide. Encouraged by the lure of higher wages, better working conditions and the prospect of marriage or of owning land, many Scots decided to make the long journey to Australia as economic migrants.

Government poster providing ‘General Information for Intending Emigrants’ to Canada, Australasia and South Africa (National Records of Scotland, AF51/91)

The McCrackens

Robert McCracken (born March 1813) and his brother Peter (born Feb 1818) were members of  a large family of seven brothers and three sisters whose descendants had moved to Ayrshire in the southwest of Scotland from the parish of New Luce, Galloway in the 18th century. Their father Robert (1770-1831), was the tenant farmer of Ardwell, and his brother William farmed a few miles away at Auchencrosh near Ballantrae.

The McCrackens had benefitted from an ongoing process, discernible throughout the Scottish Lowlands from the 1760s, in the emergence of larger, economically more effective farms. But this resulted in a decline in the number of available tenancies, thus increasing the likelihood that several of the next generation of the McCrackens would have to seek employment elsewhere.

Among the National Records of Scotland’s (NRS) collections are papers relating to the McCracken family, GD533, which include Peter McCracken’s journal detailing the voyage to Australia and genealogical research by Coiler McCracken (Peter McCracken’s son). Through these papers we have a unique insight into members of the McCracken family’s experience of travelling, and of the situation in the Australian colony.

“I attended school for several years at Girvan and then went for 7 months to Ayr Academy. On returning from which in 1835 I filled my brother Robert’s place…on the farm, and remained with the family, sometimes doing a little in cattle and now and again offering for a farm none of which I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to get. In 1839 I began to think of going out to Australia but my mother being much against it, it got no further than talk.

…on the 11th Feb[ruar]y our dear mother and only parent was dangerously struck with paralysis from which she never recovered…

Immediately after the death of my mother I began to think seriously of starting for Australia – and during the Spring leaving made up my mind to go. I wrote to brother Robert (who was in Manchester) regarding a passage & he not being in good health resolved to go along with me.”

(Extract from ‘Events in the Life of Peter McCracken and of the family to which he belonged – copied from his own writing by his son Coiler McCracken on September 1st 1888. GD533/4/12)

Peter McCracken made the long trip to Australia to seek his fortune. Through Robert McCracken’s journal we get a colourful insight into the difficulties of the journey.

“We had plenty to eat although not of the finest quality. It is no easy matter to chew sea biscuit for four months yet still I got quite stout on it. We had also plenty to drink, except water.

There was a strange medley of passengers, and nearly all of them towns people. They were mostly proud enough, but I believe also mostly poor enough…

There was a great deal of drinking on board, and in our mess there were three confirmed drunkards. One Sabbath afternoon there were no fewer than six drunk, one of them a woman, she and one of the men fell down the companion ladder, which helped to sober them a little, and where there is drinking there is sure to be quarrelling. Sometimes they were for Pistolling each other but they could never screw their courage to the point. Peter and I managed to keep friends with them all, but were often troubled with arbitrations, which was far from pleasant.”

(Extract from Robert McCracken’s journal of the voyage from Liverpool to Victoria, Australia, on board the ‘Nimrod’, 1840-1841. GD533/4/4)

Peter and Robert arrived in Melbourne in January 1841. They were not the only emigrants from their family. Their younger brother, Alexander Earle, followed in 1850, although he returned to Scotland several years later. Initially, the McCracken brothers barely made ends meet, however they persisted with their endeavour. The brothers, in partnership with their brother-in-law, James Robertson, went on to establish a brewery. The initial yield of this brewery, was small, making only 4 barrels of beer per brew. However, good business acumen and a willingness to embrace new methods and techniques led to the company’s success.

Robert ‘tied’ publicans to his brewery, securing a guaranteed buyer for their beer. This coupled with the steady improvement of the product, the regular provision of their beer accompanied by large quantities of wine, tobacco and sweets at a discount, made them a reliable supplier that could meet the demand of thirsty settlers.

By 1861 James Robertson was able to retire a wealthy man, after which the brewery traded as R. McCracken and Co, until 8 May 1907 when it became part of Carlton and United Breweries.

Education Workshops

NRS - Outreach and Learning - Migration and Empire Workshop - 29 January 2018
Migration and Empire Workshop in New Register House. Head of Learning, Tessa Spencer, addressing Webster High School Students

The remarkable story of the McCracken family held in our records has formed the basis for one of our educational workshops, led by our new Head of Learning Tessa Spencer.

New Register House Dome (National Records of Scotland, Crown Copyright)

Recently NRS was delighted to welcome a Higher History class from Webster’s High School into New Register House for a workshop on ‘Migration and the Empire’. This learning activity looked at both primary and secondary sources, and explored the McCracken correspondence and journals alongside published accounts of their lives. We asked the students to examine what the information presented revealed about the McCrackens’ experience  and to consider the push and pull factors of emigration, the development of the colony on Australia, and the different perspectives offered by personal and published accounts.

For more information about NRS’ education workshops please see the ‘Services for Schools’ section of our website.

For more information about records relating to migration held in NRS and other archives see our ‘Emigration Records’.

Jocelyn Grant


National Records of Scotland

Further Reading

The Emigrants. Historical background, list of documents, extracts and facsimiles, National Archives of Scotland, History at Source, 1994

The Scots in Australia. Historical background, list of documents, extracts and facsimile, National Archives of Scotland, History at Source, 1994

Australian Dictionary of Biography, McCracken, Robert (1813-1885)

3 thoughts on “Pastures New: Scottish Emigration to Australia

  1. This is very interesting and a great read! Since this McCracken family originated from Galloway. We are very likely related. My family migrated after Culloden to what is now Pennsylvania, USA. Thank you for sharing dear cousins! Jan McCracken


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