THE HIGH ROAD TO BALLARAT
For Auld Lang Syne: Images of Scottish Australia from the First Fleet to Federation Art Gallery of Ballarat, to July 27
THE Scots were always stubbornly independent, even when all the Britons were Celtic peoples. The Romans never conquered Scotland, and Hadrian built his wall to contain them in their wild northern lands. After the fall of Rome and the invasion of Germanic Angles and Saxons, Scotland, like other borderlands, was one of the places where the old Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles continued to maintain their separate identity.
In the 16th century, the Scots were converted to Calvinism, so while the English were Anglicans, the Scots were Presbyterians. The choice of Ireland to remain Catholic and Scotland to become Protestant had significant consequences for both peoples for the next half millennium. However humourless the Calvinists could be, they did believe that everyone had to form a personal relationship with God, and this meant reading divine scripture.
Thus the Reformation brought a higher level of literacy to Scotland than to many other countries. Building on this advantage, and on a longstanding commitment to public education, the Scots of the Enlightenment period made a disproportionate contribution, among British intellectuals generally, to history, philosophy, science and technology.
At the same time, life in Scotland was not easy. The land was comparatively poor and the weather harsh, and the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and early 19th century put additional pressure on rural populations, driving many to seek a new life elsewhere; the vast expansion of the British Empire in the late 18th century would open up abundant opportunities from India to Canada and Australia.
The Scots, educated, resourceful and tough, were prominent in the exploration and early colonisation of Australia. As we learn from this fascinating exhibition in Ballarat, Captain Cook’s artist Sydney Parkinson was a Scot, as was Thomas Watling, the convict painter who left us some of the first pictures of Australia and of the Aborigines by a trained artist.
The Scots were under-represented among the convict population, who were responsible for much of the early violence against the indigenous population, and Enlightenment social and political thought encouraged a sense of common humanity.
Watling’s portraits are sympathetic, with a concern both for culture and habits — such as the picture of a man standing on one leg with the other bent, his foot propped against his
The Heart of the Coolins, Isle of Skye knee — and for the personality of individuals. One sketch shows almost all the important members of the government — including Governor Phillip and Captain Hunter, another Scot and Phillip’s successor — visiting a native woman described in the caption of the drawing as distressed. A version of the same composition was adapted for the title page of an early volume on the progress of the new colony.
It seems that the woman’s child is sick or even dead; and perhaps the official party are visiting — accompanied by the medical officer, to whom Watling had been assigned — because they suspect an outbreak of smallpox. Nearby, the most moving image in the exhibition is a tiny watercolour sketch of what the artist believed to be the burial site of natives who had died of smallpox. The emptiness and stillness of the scene are underscored by the solitary figure of a horseman who looks on.
From a slightly later period, but beginning as early as John Glover, there are series of portraits of handsome houses and properties, many of which, especially in Victoria, were established by the enterprising and hardworking Scots. But here again, of course, the spread of colonial occupation was at the expense of the native inhabitants. There is a particularly telling pair of pictures by von Guerard — house portraits were not uncommonly conceived as a kind of diptych — in one of which a pale and a dark bull lock horns, perhaps a discreet allusion to the armed clashes that had on this occasion taken place, while in the other, a small group of Aborigines move in a desultory way through land they had once occupied.
Many Aboriginal place names at least were preserved by another Scot, Thomas Mitchell,
(1886) by Keeley Halswelle, top; portrait of Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1830s), artist unknown, above