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Tartan Ferret

Early History

Scottish Forebears in Argentina and Southern Patagonia

Reproduced with kind permission of Arnold Morrison from his website 'The Scots in Argentina'

Life below deck

In the hundred years prior to the First World War the great majority of emigrant Scots found new homes in the U.S.A. and Britain's vast overseas empire. Others, however, were attracted elsewhere, notably to the emerging nations of South America such as Argentina. Scots formed a small minority among the many nationalities that contributed to the development of Argentina from former provinces of the Spanish colonial empire into a modern national state. Yet despite their small numbers - perhaps no more than four or five thousand by the end of the 19th century plus others who came and went - some played a highly significant role in international commerce, the agricultural development of the vast plains of the pampas and the sheep industry in distant Patagonia, while others merged into the body of clerks, artisans and labourers in cities and towns throughout the land.

Whilst many Scots, knowingly or speculatively, have forebears who went to Argentina or Southern Patagonia and may have descendants there today, past difficulties of access to records and the language barrier have deterred them from research into the lives of their forebears in these fascinating lands. However, opportunities for research have improved significantly in recent years, due in large measure to communication through internet websites and e-mail and to individual researchers in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere who are communicating information previously restricted to archival searches.

Immigrants disembarking

Scots first made their presence felt in Argentina between 1800 and 1825, when enterprising merchants founded business houses in Buenos Aires and elsewhere. Despite the political uncertainties of the years before and after the creation of an independent state in 1816 and the problems of coming to terms with the Spanish language and culture they prospered. According to an English observer in 1825, "The majority of British merchants are natives of Scotland, proverbial for their talent and activity in trade". From this core of men, such as John and William Parish Robertson, Thomas Fair, John Gibson and John McNeile, there developed a business community of Scots which by the end of the century saw key involvement in commerce, banking and insurance; some, like the Drysdales, becoming "Merchant Princes of the Plate" famous for their wealth, philanthropy and support for the Scots Church.

Wealthy members of the early business community were soon investing in land, buying estates - estancias - in previously settled areas, and this encouraged other Scots to follow them to work on estates and start their own farms. Chascomus, south of Buenos Aires, became one such centre for Scots, described by one writer as " (Chascomus) has been for thirty years a favourite settlement for Scotchmen, some of whom are the richest farmers in South America". And, wherever substantial communities of Scots developed, as in Buenos Aires and Chascomus, they signalled their Scottish identity through establishing Scots Churches and celebrating events such as St. Andrew's Day and Burns Suppers.

Horse transport

Apart from one deliberate attempt to found a whole Scottish community, when over two hundred Scottish men, women and children sailed in 1825 in the "Symmetry" from Leith to Buenos Aires and settled at Monte Grande, others came as small groups, families and individuals to work on the land or in urban professions and occupations. Many of these emigrants knew little or nothing about their new country, its Spanish language and culture, but had been drawn to it by stories of opportunities to own land or find profitable occupations. It was a culture shock, eased somewhat by keeping alive their Scottish identity.

Beyond the settled, former colonial provinces of Argentina lay the vast plains - the pampas - stretching to the south and west, inhabited only by semi-nomadic Indians, many of whom were hostile to settlers. The Argentine government carried out savage campaigns against them, and by the 1880's the whole country as far south as the Rio Negro was being laid out for settlement for farming and stock-raising. Scots such as the Bell brothers from Dunbar settled on the western pampas, at what is now named Bellville, and the Kincaid brothers had a large estancia, named Balcleuther, in the fertile valley of the Rio Negro.

Sheep shearing

South of the Rio Negro lay the Patagonian territories of Argentina and Chile, a thousand miles of plains, river valleys and mountains stretching down to Tierra del Fuego. In the 1875 edition of the Mulhalls's "Directory of the River Plate Republics", the writers commented that "Patagonia will probably be uninhabited for centuries". But they were wrong! Scots played a pioneer role in settling the territories of southern Patagonia. Some of the first settlers were Scots from the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), tempted by land grants in the province of Santa Cruz. Among them was William Halliday, originally from Dumfriesshire, who settled with his family on the bank of the Rio Gallegos and founded one of the best known sheep stations in the province. Others followed from Scotland, notably the shepherds from Lewis and Harris who came to work on estancias in the Argentine and Chilean territories. Arriving (with their dogs) to work on contract, some stayed and became owners of estancias. So, by the beginning of the 20th century Patagonia had become one of the major world exporters of mutton and sheep products.

The settlement of Scots in Argentina and Patagonia is a remarkable story of enterprise and endeavour in a land initially alien in language, religion and culture. It has been a largely neglected aspect of Scottish emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but one well worth exploring by the descendants of those who went to that fascinating land.




Map of Argentina

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