Bonnie Wingham Scottish Festival

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It was generally understood that the English, and even more so the Irish, had the greatest influence on the development of the Australian character.

The Scots were not mentioned. Yet it should not be overlooked that the Scots pioneer immigrants, especially those who stayed within their communities and lived in relative isolation, have helped to produce the distinctive Australian character, apparent in many aspects of today’s life. Such a community existed in the Manning River Valley in the 1850s.

The Sixth Bonnie Wingham Scottish Festival is on our doorstep come the 27th to 30th May. Traditional Highland dancing, market stalls, Clan information and re-enactment of Highland Games will entertain the visitor.

The experience is more worthwhile when we look back to why these Highlanders and Islanders, tied to their country and kinship, had to break away from all they knew and loved.

In the years between 1755 and the 1820s the population of Northern Scotland increased considerably. At the same time the English, and Lowland Scots landowners, turned the crofting land over to the grazing of sheep and evicted the crofting populace.

They foraged without proper shelter on the rocky shores of the Highland and Western Isles to gather and burn kelp (seaweed) that produced an alkaline ash used in the making of glass, fertiliser, soap and more.

Living conditions were incompatible with civilised life and the hardship of existence inclined these Scots to try for a better life in remote and untamed regions around the world.

The famine and distress that prevailed throughout the Highlands and Scottish Islands sent a deputation headed by the Rev. Dr Macleod to petition the Imperial Government to send out by way of relief, 30,000 of the Highlanders to Canada. The government had no funds for this venture but gave a palliative donation of £10,000.

Dr Dunmore Lang, back in Britain from Australia, informed a meeting that a fund was available to transport many of these Scots to the Colony of New South Wales. The fund arose from the sale of so-called waste lands in the Australian Colony, now coming into prominence.

According to an unpublished record from the Dennis article ‘The Manning and its Resources’, “The Manning was generally considered as an outlandish place, only fit to be inhabited by cannibals. Its name was associated with regions most dismal.” Dr Dunmore Lang’s scheme enabled people from the Isle of Skye and other parts of Scotland to immigrate to Australia from 1837 onwards. A total of eighteen shiploads of Highlanders (4,000 immigrants) were brought to the Colony of New South Wales.

Historical records disclose the story of privation on the long voyage in the small ships to their new home in the Antipodes. Sickness and a death rate as high as 10%, struck mainly among the children. The first migrant ship William Nichol, of 408 tons, accommodated 250 migrants, and allowed about 18 inches of space for each individual.

The ship sailed from a Highland Port on July 6, 1837 and arrived in Port Jackson on October 17 that same year. Most of the immigrants from this vessel settled in the Hunter Valley and later moved to the North Coast.

The Wallace and Tyrie families settled on the Manning River. Other settlers were the McLeods, who named their property “Dunvegan” after the McLeods’ castle on the Isle of Skye. Alexander McDonell, a resident of Cundletown, died there in 1934, at the aged of 99 years. He was the last surviving migrant of the William Nichol.

Alexander and Flora Ross and their five children embarked on the Ontario. Alexander died on the voyage and son John died on landing. Mrs Ross and her fatherless children settled in the Hunter where daughter Anne died. When son Donald grew up he took his mother and younger sister Margaret to house keep for him on the Mackaye’s cattle station at Cooplacurripa.

A large proportion of all ships went to the Manning Valley where it formed a hard core of Scots settlers.

The going was as hard. With little or no money they lived by bartering their produce. Their belief in the future of this new land kept them going till time brought the deserved change when most of these tall men from the Isle of Skye and Highlands became prosperous farmers and graziers in our northern areas.

Henry Carmichael, Government surveyor in the 1850s, was responsible for dividing the bend in the Manning River, known as ‘The Bight’, into 15 blocks. Eleven of these blocks were taken up by Presbyterians (9 Scots and 2 Ulster Irish) and only 4 by English Protestants in these Crown land sales.

Most of the Free Kirk Presbyterian settlers spoke no English. Dr JD Lang, realising their need, managed to install a Free Presbyterian Church Clergyman at the Old Wharf in Tinonee before there was a population to support him.

This clergyman lived in a bark hut, 24 by 12 feet, with his wife and family. He gave food and shelter to anyone in need, regardless of religion or nationality. Some homesteads kept a special ‘prophet room’ to which any weary clergyman could retire and refresh.

Free Kirk services were conducted in Gaelic, a practice that continued till the early 19th century while there remained pockets of Gaelic speaking fundamentalists throughout the Northern Rivers of NSW.

Free Presbyterian churches survived on the Manning till the last Gaelic service at Tinonee in 1899 when the language was dying after the first generation of settlement. Their children learned English as their first language. The importance of reading the Bible in Protestant communities meant that Scots immigrants were highly literate. The Scottish Reformation had aimed for every parish to have a school to enable the population to have the opportunity to read the Bible.

Scots were the most highly literate of most immigrant-groups. “82% of Scots could read and write, compared with 70% of English and 40% of Irish.” The Scots community of immigrants was concerned about education and self improvement. Within one generation of settlement they produced an Inspector of Schools, Alexander Lobban Jnr, and later the NSW Director of Education, Peter Board.

In the career of Peter Board alone, one of his sons provided the foundation of the New South Wales public school curriculum for the 20th Century.

As such we are presented with an alternative to the view that the Australian identity is overwhelmingly of Anglo-Irish working class construct. Think again, and look at the influence of the Scottish culture on the wellbeing of our Nation.

> From The Scots and the Manning River 1840–1860 by Ross Galloway and Manning Valley Historical Society Journal, June 2003.

Rewritten by Mieke van Werdt for the Manning Valley Historical Society.

One Response to Bonnie Wingham Scottish Festival

  1. Alan Runciman says:

    An interesting article. Maybe a couple of typos which changes the readers understanding if not spotted. Between 1755-1820 the population of Northern Scotland decreased, rather than increased as stated. The Free Kirk conducted its services in Gaelic into the 20th Century, not 19th as stated – as settlers weren’t arriving at turn of 19th Century?

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