Pastures New: Scottish Emigration to Australia

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)

Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime 1870-1917

25 October – 1 December 2017
General Register House, Matheson Dome

NRS Rogues Gallery Poster_Portrait2 CMYKRESIZE

Thieves, confidence tricksters, pickpockets and more… Our new exhibition of photographs and criminal records from the Victorian and Edwardian eras will bring you face-to-face with Scotland’s criminal past.

National Records of Scotland will display previously unseen mug shot albums alongside official trial records as part of Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime 1870-1917, a free exhibition in partnership with Edinburgh City Archives.

Revealing fascinating personal details about criminals, their victims and the society that produced them, Rogues Gallery demonstrates how much we can learn about people of the past from criminal records and provides an insight into the development of policing and detection methods in Scotland.

SL260_ELC_6_3_1_Thomas Queen_1910_p15
Thomas Queen, criminal photographed in 1910 (Edinburgh City Archives, SL260/ELC/6/3/1)

On display for the first time: case papers from the trial of infamous poisoner Eugène Chantrelle. Purportedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Dr Jekyll, Chantrelle was tried for the murder of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1878.  A selection of the trial records will be exhibited, including a transcript of one Elizabeth’s letters, the volume of precognitions, Chantrelle’s declaration and detailed plans of their flat on George Street, Edinburgh.

The exhibition also includes a snapshot of the development of photography, as police and their forensic assistants began to realise its potential to record crime scenes and other physical evidence including the footprints that helped to convict serial housebreaker John Aitken Swanston in 1909.

NRS Rogues Gallery Poster_Portrait3 CMYKRESIZE

Rogues Gallery runs from 25 October – 1 December 2017 in the Matheson Dome, General Register House, Edinburgh. Admission is free.

To accompany the exhibition, you can also attend a series of free talks on the history of photography; how criminals used photos; how historical research informs creative writing and much more.

Jocelyn Grant

Outreach Archivist

Doors Open Day – General Register House and New Register House

Once again, that time of year is approaching when the National Records of Scotland throws open its doors and invites the public into the splendour of the General Register and New Register House, and offers a tantalising glimpse behind the scenes.

General Register House

National Records of Scotland, General Register House
National Records of Scotland, General Register House

Before records were officially stored in the archive, there was no permanent repository for Scotland’s national records. It wasn’t until 1774 that the construction of General Register House in part of Edinburgh’s New Town began; designed by Robert Adam (1728-1792), it is perhaps one of his finest public buildings. It is also uniquely, the first purpose-built public record repository inn the British Isles, and may be the oldest archive building in the world still being used for its original function.

Robert Adam and his younger brother James Adam were appointed architects of Register House in 1772, and as a purpose-built repository they deliberately incorporated special elements into the buildings design to defend against some of the traditional enemies of archives. Mainly fire and damp. To prevent fire the building was solidly constructed of stone with brick vaults, and stone flags were used for all the floors bar one. To protect the records from damp special flues were constructed in the floor to carry hot air through the building from 4 furnaces that were kept constantly burning in the basement.

Adam Dome, General Register House. Illustration printed p.369 in 'Old & New Edinburgh Vol.1' by James Grant
Adam Dome, General Register House. Illustration printed p.369 in ‘Old & New Edinburgh Vol.1’ by James Grant

The Adams brothers believed that you could judge a society by the quality and grandeur of its public buildings, and used this commission as an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice. So alongside these special design elements that have allowed General Register House to continue as the nation’s archive, they also designed a beautiful top-lit rotunda, known as the Adam Dome.

50 feet in diameter and 80 feet in height, this dome is the centre piece and main public access point for the public into General Register House. Recently renovated in 2008, the Dome features plaster decorations, antique bas reliefs and gilding which acknowledge the building’s national identity.

Today General Register House continues to house Scotland’s archives, and to provide public access to the nation’s records through our Historical Search Room, and ScotlandsPeople.

New Register House

Designed by Robert Matheson, New Register House was built between 1859 and 1863. Designed to complement General Register House, the internal finish of this building was kept simple and the main feature of this elegant building is the dome. Consisting of five tiers of  ironwork shelving and galleries, similar to those at the British Museum in London, this central fireproof repository is surrounded on the outside by staff and search rooms on three floors.

New Register House Dome

The 6.5km (4 miles) of shelving in the Dome contain some half a million volumes, in particular the statutory register of all births, deaths and marriages in Scotland since 1855. These are still being added to every year and can be identified by their colour, red for birth, black for death and green for marriage.

Doors Open Day

For Doors Open Day we will be offering tours of General Register and New Register House. These will give a bit more history about our buildings and offer a rare look behind the scenes. Tours will be running from 10.15am on Saturday 23 September and must be booked. To book see here.

As part of DOD we will also have a special display of historical records looking at Edinburgh’s New Town. We look forward to seeing you there!

Jocelyn Grant, Outreach Archivist

National Records of Scotland

Further Reading

  • ‘A Proper Repository’: The Building of the General Register House, Margaret H. B. Sanderson
  • Old & New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. Vol. I, James Grant
  • Old & New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. Vol. II, James Grant

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)


“The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow”
Elizabeth I, from her sonnet ‘The Doubt of Future Foes’
referring to Mary Queen of Scots

During her lifetime Mary Queen of Scots was a highly controversial monarch and she continues to divide opinion today. When we consider her reign, we often focus on the tragedy of her captivity and execution. These events tend to colour how we view her life, as if its trajectory was an inevitable journey towards the executioner’s block. This is not helped by the two melancholy portraits of Mary which are the most well-known: Clouet’s portrait of her in her white mourning (‘deuil blanc’) after the death of her first husband, Francis II, and the posthumous portrait showing the Queen as a Catholic martyr, now in the Blairs Museum. In the early years of her personal reign in Scotland, however, her success and personal popularity were such that no-one could have predicted her end. Continue reading “Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)”

Sir William Arrol (1839-1913) – The Engineer

B104_83_00001 CROP
Sir William Arrol aged 70, printed in ‘Sir William Arrol: A Memoir’ by Robert Purvis

A titan of engineering and construction, William Arrol established his company in the early 1870s, when Glasgow was developing as an industrial city and the revolutionary Siemens Martin process was enabling the mass production of cheap steel. Arrol made his name with the construction of the Forth Bridge (1890), and is also known for the second Tay Bridge (1887), Tower Bridge in London and elsewhere. Continue reading “Sir William Arrol (1839-1913) – The Engineer”

Madeleine Hamilton Smith (1835-1928) – The Accused

Madeleine Smith Snapshot
Portrait taken in court of Madeleine Smith from ‘The Trial of Madeleine Smith’ (National Records of Scotland, L034.087)


On 30 June 1857 the trial of Madeleine Smith began. A young woman from a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was charged with, on three separate occasions, administering arsenic or other poison to Pierre Emile L’Angelier with intent to kill, twice in February and once in March 1857. It was this accusation and the subsequent trial which brought to light the great volume of letters which had secretly passed between them. Presented as evidence of  Madeleine and Emile’s relationship and meetings, these letters formed a core part of the trial, and because of their frank expressions of desire and affection, they scandalised and excited the Victorian public of the time. Continue reading “Madeleine Hamilton Smith (1835-1928) – The Accused”