Beannachd leat, Alba – Goodbye, Scotland

For a number of Scottish women, the Hyde Park Barracks immigration depot was a refuge from the devastating Highland Clearances of the 19th century. 

In July 1852, Catherine and Mary Dingwall, sisters aged 20 and 16, left Kingsburgh, a crofting community in the parish of Snizort on Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebridean islands situated off the north-western coast of Scotland.

Bounded on the west by Loch Snizort, an arm of the Little Minch straight, the parish was described in the 1845 Statistical Account of Scotland as having a mix of flat hills of low elevation, heath, and green pasture. Small freshwater streams ran through its glens, making their way to the sea, and the glens hosted vast numbers of sheep and cattle in good quality pasture. Overall, the parish benefited from cooler summers and less severe winters. However, a susceptibility to cold and moist soils presented challenges to farmers sowing and rearing crops to maturity; the preceding decades had also seen a decline in local fishing stocks.

The people of Snizort were described as 'kind and hospitable', always welcoming a stranger. But the last century had seen the parish's population more than double, increasing pressure on food resources and available land for subsistence farming. Better opportunities in America had already compelled some to emigrate in the 1840s. 

Map of the Isle of Skye, 1837

Parishes on the Isle of Skye, 1837. RHP143 (Detail) Plan of MacDonald Estates in the Isle of Skye and Long Island, 26 October 1837. Crown Copyright. National Records of Scotland.

Catherine and Mary endured a four-month journey on a ship racked with fever, resulting in the deaths of at least 34 passengers and the ship’s captain. Upon arriving in NSW, those on board spent three weeks in quarantine. Finally, on 15 December, under a blue sky streaked with cirrus clouds, they made their way by paddle-steamer from the North Head Quarantine Station to Circular Quay. From here, the sisters, along with other single women, were taken up to the Hyde Park Barracks immigration depot. 

But Sydney had a proper December welcome in store. Throughout the day, the air pressure dropped, humidity rose, and threatening clouds gathered from the south-west; by the afternoon, strong winds buffeted the streets. From the evening until the next morning, a summer thunderstorm pelted rain on the shingled roof of the immigration depot.1 Welcome to Australia.

  • 1. Meteorological report, South Head, 14–20 December 1852, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 December 1852.

Traces and lists

There are traces of Scotland in the Hyde Park Barracks archaeology: a small brooch with a generic tartan pattern; a scrap of stitched fabric that hints at designs produced in Glasgow in the 1850s; and a small tartan rosette, possibly a shipboard sewing project. Catherine and Mary Dingwall are just two names among the estimated 40,000 unaccompanied women and girls (one as young as eight), primarily from England, Ireland and Scotland, who passed through the immigration depot between 1848 and 1887. The sisters had sailed to NSW on the Ontario, one of 26 ships arranged by the Highland and Island Emigration Society – an organisation established in 1852 with the stated aim of ‘alleviating destitution in the Highlands by promoting and assisting emigration’ to Australia.2 Those selected by the society ranged from ‘very eligible families’ to ‘severely destitute’.3 

  • 2. Highland and Island Emigration Society records,
  • 3. Highland and Island Emigration Records, HD4/5, p23, National Records Scotland.
Circular domed brooch with a generic tartan pattern, blue and green tartan rosette, possibly a shipboard sewing project and fragment of checked fabric.

Circular domed brooch with a generic tartan pattern, blue and green tartan rosette, possibly a shipboard sewing project and fragment of checked fabric. Hyde Park Barracks Archaeology Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo © Jamie North

The society’s shipping records list Catherine and Mary as orphans, with a £7 debt to be paid back once they found employment. In fact, both parents were alive, and the young women also left behind brothers and another sister. In the shipping lists held by NSW State Archives their surname is recorded as ‘Dengall’, perhaps reflecting how their Scottish accents sounded to the ear of the clerk.4 Small yet significant anomalies like these help to give life to the thousands of people who otherwise exist only ‘in the lists’. 

But what might have compelled Catherine and Mary to declare themselves orphans and leave their home and family? What was life like on Skye in the years preceding their departure? 

[Clear] the hills of people … to make sheep walks5

From the mid-18th century to the 1880s, the people of the Highlands were subject to waves of forced removal from their homes and land. Following the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745–46, reprisals by the triumphant English saw Highlanders dispossessed of their land, culture and way of life. Legislation aimed at suppressing any further resistance to English rule banned the wearing of tartan, playing of bagpipes and speaking of Gaelic. Those who didn’t submit were turned out of their ancestral homes. 

  • 4. Passenger list for ship Ontario, 15 December 1852, Persons on bounty ships, Agent’s Immigration Lists, 1838–96, NRS 5316 [4/4790], NSW State Archives.
  • 5. James Loch, 1821, quoted in E Richards, The Highland Clearances: people, landlords and rural turmoil, Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2008, p6.
Catherine and Mary ‘Dengall’, listed among the ‘Single females’ arrived on the Ontario.

Catherine and Mary ‘Dengall’, listed among the ‘Single females’ arrived on the Ontario. NSW State Archives: Agent’s Immigration Lists, 1838–96, NRS 5316 [4/4790]

Catherine and Mary Dingwall, identified on the Ontario passenger list as orphans with a £7 debt.

Catherine and Mary Dingwall, identified on the Ontario passenger list as orphans with a £7 debt. Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, HD4/5, p22

By the 19th century, however, clearances were mainly undertaken by Scottish landlords, within their estates, for economic reasons. Tenants were relocated from inland to coastal areas, and landlords leased out the freed land for sheep grazing, at higher rents. Crofters (tenants who farmed small lots called crofts) had long relied on fertile inland holdings to grow produce used to supplement their rents. In 1809, rents on Skye were partly paid with wheat, barley and oats, using measures such as ‘lippies’, ‘firlots’ and ‘bolls’ (one boll of wheat was about 144 litres). Relocated to smaller, less fertile coastal holdings, crofters were forced by landlords to engage in by-employments such as fishing or kelping (gathering and burning seaweed to extract alkaline ash used to make soap and glass). For a time, kelping was profitable – Lord MacDonald, whose estate included Snizort, earned up to £20,000 from it annually – and labourers were a precious resource. But the industry declined after 1820, making them redundant. 

Take the Island of Skye and empty it into the Antipodes6

At the same time, an agricultural monoculture emerged: by the 1830s, the potato made up almost three-quarters of the crofters’ diet. Bliadhna gaiseadh a’bhuntata (the year the potato failed), in 1846–47, exacerbated hard living conditions for crofters – notably on Skye, where parishes like Snizort had long been feeling the hunger pains of poverty. Lasting nearly a decade, the famine again changed the nature of clearances. Rather than relocating tenants within an estate, landlords now sought to permanently remove them through forced emigration, often to North America, Australia and New Zealand. This was a gross betrayal of the longstanding traditions of the clan system, in which tenants looked to their lord for protection within his estate. 

  • 6. Inverness Courier, 10 June 1852, p4.

The Highland and Island Emigration Society was ostensibly set up for charitable purposes and focused its initial efforts on Skye. However, its motives for facilitating the emigration of more than 5000 Scots to new lives in Australia weren’t entirely benevolent. In some instances, communities refused the landlord’s ‘offer’ of assisted emigration, only to acquiesce when faced with the prospect of having their homes destroyed. 

Meanwhile, governments in the colonies were keen to welcome immigrants, to work as labourers and domestic servants. Migration perpetuated the misery of displacement: some of the Scottish emigrants who had been moved off their land to make way for sheep were now employed in Australia as shepherds, tending to vast flocks of sheep that were displacing Aboriginal peoples

While there’s no direct evidence to suggest that Catherine and Mary were evicted, Skye was not exempt from forced emigration. In 1854, two years after the sisters had left, distressing scenes occurred in Suishnish, a small village in southern Skye: ‘Everyone was in tears … and after the last emigrants had disappeared behind the hill [a cry of grief echoed] through the whole wide valley of Strath in one prolonged note of desolation’.7

  • 7. A Geikie, Scottish reminiscences, J Maclehose, Glasgow, 1904, quoted in Richards, op cit, p2.

Chan ann air dhìochuimhn’ (Not forgotten) 

Many clearance refugees leave no trail. The last trace of Catherine and Mary Dingwall is on a request for a paddle-steamer 170 years ago. They stepped from one shipping list to another, and as yet no further footprint has been found in the historical record. The sisters would have waited at the immigration depot to find work. It’s possible they were ‘forwarded’ to Maitland on 18–19 December among 150 Ontario migrants – families, single men and 38 ‘young women’. Some of these girls and women found employment in that region on wages of between 5 and 11 shillings per week. 

A request for a paddle-steamer to pick up unaccompanied women from quarantine on 15 December 1852.

Perhaps the last trace of the Dingwall sisters – a request for a paddle-steamer to pick up unaccompanied women from quarantine on 15 December 1852. NSW State Archives: NRS-5247-3 [4-4641], p238

Civil registration of marriages in NSW wasn’t introduced until 1856, leaving a gap of three years during which the sisters may have married and possibly changed their surname. But with no record of a ‘new life’ to focus on, we reflect on their past: where they came from, why they came, and what they brought with them and passed to their own families, if they had them. 

The Highland Clearances have been described as ‘one of the sorest, most painful, themes in modern Scottish history’.8 Many in the Scottish community recognise that trauma and betrayal in some way, both at home and abroad, in places like Australia. It weaves through their family history and forms part of their identity today. The Hyde Park Barracks, offering a momentary place of refuge for people disoriented by catastrophic change, has a fleeting place in that story. 

  • 8. Richards, op cit, p3.
Abandoned homes in Bressay, Shetland, Scotland.

Abandoned homes in Bressay, Shetland, Scotland. Islay and Shetland also experienced clearances, with the landscape today preserving groupings of homes and outhouses, once thriving communities. Photos © Edward Washington

Note: The author acknowledges the research assistance of archivists and other staff at NSW State Archives, Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre, National Records of Scotland, National Library of Scotland and University of Glasgow Archives.  


About the author

Head and shoulders portrait of man standing holding old bottle and in front of shelf of bottles.

Edward Washington

Program Producer – Learning

Ed is part of the Sydney Living Museums learning team, which provides curriculum-based programs to more than 60,000 students and teachers every year. In 2019 he received the Ruth Pope Bequest Annual Travelling Scholarship for international travel and study.

This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our Members’ magazine.

Not a Member?

Join now

Related stories