The early Scots pioneers in Argentina and the Patagonia Austral (Chile)

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The early Scots pioneers in Argentina and the Patagonia Austral

As part of the massive exodus of European peoples, significant Scots emigrated overseas the hundred years before the First World War. Most settled in the United States of America or Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of Britain’s vast empire. A significant minority, however, emigrated to South American states, Argentina being a popular choice.

The first Scots settled there in the years before Argentina became an independent confederation in 1816; they were the forerunners in the broader immigration that would eventually contribute to a remarkable but little-known economic and social relationship between Scotland and Argentina, and Patagonia Austral, the southernmost provinces of Argentina and Chile.

The impetus behind emigration came in many forms. Changes in the Scottish rural economy, industrialisation and rapid population growth had profound effects, on the one hand leading to displacement from the land and internal migration to urban centres, and on the other promoting demands for export markets and the import of foodstuffs and raw materials. In these circumstances, emigration overseas appealed to many Scots. Rural workers had prospects denied to them in Scotland: to farm their own land, urban workers could escape from low wages, poor conditions and unemployment and establish themselves as prosperous artisans in developing communities, and merchants had opportunities to found highly profitable commercial houses. Some sought adventure, exploration, or escape from problems at home.

Consequently, the Scots who went to Argentina in the early years came from many backgrounds. As they established themselves so, they attracted not only more of their kind but also professional men such as ministers, doctors, teachers, representatives of Scottish companies and clerks to meet the needs of their communities, and members of the gentry and investors who put their wealth into land and infrastructure. Add to these wives, female relatives, governesses and female farm servants. By the end of the century, Scottish immigrants were to be found in all sectors of Argentine society and throughout the land, from Buenos Aires and other urban centres to the vast lands of the pampas and the sheep stations of Patagonia Austral. Immigration continued in the first half of the 20th century, then halted. However, the Argentine descendants of Scots have not forgotten their forebears and keep alive some of the family traditions and institutions introduced long ago.

The New Homeland

Immigrants had to come to terms with a strikingly different society from Scotland. Formed from former provinces of the Spanish empire, the Argentine Confederation inherited the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish language and culture as its defining national characteristics. Furthermore, in the earlier part of the century, most of the inhabitants were of Spanish colonial descent, forming a long-established society in control of political and social institutions. A land-owning elite dominated the established agricultural and pastoral lands. Its leading families fashioned the values and behaviours of upper-class society in Buenos Aires, Cordoba and other former colonial cities. Beyond the cities, the population consisted mainly of small farmers, labourers and cattle hands – gauchos – who handled the great herds of cattle and horses on the open ranges of vast estates. However, much of the great plains – the pampas – as far south as the Rio Negro was occupied by semi-nomadic Indian tribes whose skilled horsemen opposed European settlement. Here, as the century progressed, there were parallels with the expansion westwards of the U.S.A., with settlers moving on to Indian lands, resistance by the tribes, the slaughter of the animals on which they lived, military intervention, subjugation and destruction of their way of life.

The land itself was a striking experience for the Scottish immigrants. Stretching from the present provinces of Salta, Jujuy and Formosa in the north through to the fertile farmlands and pastures of the western and central provinces, then southwards to the vast, largely unoccupied plains of the pampas and finally beyond the Rio Negro into the unexplored heart of Patagonia, there existed every contrast and variety of climates and landscapes. The very vastness of the country was an invitation to settlement and exploitation of its natural resources, yet at the same time, it posed many difficulties for immigrants. Beyond the established cities, there was little infrastructure for communications and services. Consequently, those early settlers who sought to establish farms, especially in the frontier lands of the pampas and the south of the province of Buenos Aires, were largely dependent upon their own resources and the help of neighbours, facing hardship, primitive living conditions, crop failures and the hazards of Indian raids and civil disorders.

Independence from Spain in 1816 was soon followed by political conflicts, provincial uprisings, civil wars, wars with neighbours, campaigns against the Indians and military dictatorships, persisting in one form or another well into the second half of the century. In one way or another, these events affected economic development, territorial expansion, law and order and, consequently, the lives of immigrant families and communities.

The Scots merchant community in Buenos Aires had to contend with trading uncertainties; rural communities suffered from the depredations of conflicting armies and Indian incursions, and government control waxed and waned. General Juan Manuel de Rosas’s long dictatorship from the late 1820s to his downfall in 1852 imposed a harsh measure of political order and stability, and his campaign against the Pampas Indians brought vast areas of the plains under government control. However, his downfall led to further political instability and the resurgence of Indian occupation and raids on frontier farms. Yet despite all the problems, immigration continued to grow, the merchant community of Buenos Aires prospered, rural settlement expanded, and Argentina’s produce increasingly found its way to Britain and the Continent.

From the 1860s onwards, Argentina experienced dramatic development. The fertile lands of the pampas became geared to the massive export of products to Britain and Europe. A second brutal campaign against the Indians finally subjugated and dispossessed them, territories were re-occupied, and secure settlement extended as far as the frontier with Patagonia. Immigrants, especially from southern Europe, arrived in growing numbers, some moving on into rural areas while others swelled the populations of Buenos Aires, Rosario and other urban centres. The introduction of railways revolutionised internal communications, stimulating the movement of exports and imports and helping to weld together the widely separated provinces and communities.

Similarly, expanding steamship services and the advent of refrigeration promoted trade with Europe and the United States so that by 1900, some twenty-five per cent of foreign commerce was with Great Britain. And, with many of the old constitutional conflicts resolved and Buenos Aires formally established as the federal capital, more excellent political stability coupled with great prospects of profitable investment in land and services stimulated colossal capital investment from Britain and France in particular.

Meanwhile, the settlement of Patagonia Austral was underway, administrations were established, and immigrants were encouraged to establish or work on sheep stations so that by the turn of the century, a significant export trade had been created.

In the 16th century, when the River Plate provinces were part of the Spanish Empire, some British merchants established trade links. Thus, a 1734 census of foreigners in Buenos Aires recorded over sixty Britons. To judge from the names alone, some were probably Scots – Robert Barclay, William Stuart, William Dickie, John Gibson and Thomas Maccadam. Still, the uncertainties of relations between Britain and Spain and the restrictions on foreigners owning property and operating commercial houses impeded development.

However, with the beginnings of the revolution against Spanish rule in the early 1800s, when the new authorities lifted some restrictions, merchants were better placed to trade and become permanent features in the expanding commercial and social society of Buenos Aires.

In these years before and after independence in 1816, several Scots established merchant houses in Buenos Aires, among them John and William Parish Robertson, Thomas Fair, John Miller, John Orr, George MacFarlane, Alexander MacKinnon, David Spalding and John McNeill. They came from various parts of Scotland, and it seems probable that many, if not all, already had trade experience and associations with the wealthy merchant community in their homeland. Also, they had sufficient personal wealth or the financial support of others in Scotland to enable them to establish themselves in the existing commercial world of Buenos Aires, where they had to develop contacts with Argentine merchants and landowners. Most seem to have adapted successfully to their new environment, laying the foundations of an increasingly prosperous business community.

Their success, based upon offering new services, providing superior products at low cost, opening up new markets and taking risks in anticipating demands for goods and services, encouraged others to follow them. Lists of Scottish merchant houses in the 1820s include Brown, Buchanan and Co., Dickson, Montgomery and Co., Anderson, Weir and Co., John Gibson and Co., Stewart and McCall, and Duguid and McKerrall, as well as long-established names like Daniel MacKinlay and William Parish Robertson. Later, they were joined by others, among them Duncan McNab, David Methven, Juan Smith, James Dodds and Thomas Drysdale. According to a British visitor to Buenos Aires in the 1820s, “The majority of British merchants are natives of Scotland, proverbial for their talent and activity in trade” [An Englishman (George Thomas Love)]. Perhaps the writer’s enthusiasm led him to exaggerate the role of Scots in the larger community of British merchants; nevertheless, their achievements were very significant, especially when set against the uncertain background of political and military conflict that bedevilled the country in the first half of the 19th century.

However, their prosperity rested not only upon business acumen but also on their relationships with one another and, importantly, with the Argentine community. This latter relationship was strengthened by acquiring knowledge of the culture and language of their hosts, forging standard commercial, property and political interests and, for some, through inter-marriage. Several of these early merchants married into Argentine families, for example, John McNeile, whose marriage in 1813 was reported in the “Greenock Advertiser”: ‘Married: July 1, at Buenos Aires, Mr John McNeile, merchant, to Donna Pasquala de las Talegas, with a fortune of 400,000 dollars”, and Dr David Reid, a Catholic convert, who married a sister of Bernardino Rivadavia, first president of the independent Republic.

At the political level, the commercial and other interests of Scots merchants benefited greatly from the enlightened policies of Rivadavia. As secretary of state and then president between 1820 and 1827, he encouraged immigration, decreed freedom of speech and the press, negotiated a treaty of amity and commerce with Great Britain in 1825 and fostered religious tolerance towards dissenters – all elements of his grand economic and cultural vision for his country’s future.

His downfall in 1827, essentially the consequence of the conflict between the Unitarios, who wanted a solid and progressive central government for the republic and the Federalists, who backed a looser federation of the provinces, was followed by civil war and then by the long, repressive dictatorship of General Juan Manuel de Rosas. However, the general principles of commercial freedom and toleration for religious dissenters, essential to the long-term success of the Scots community, had been established.

At a more personal level, records of social and family events in the Scots community often illustrate the importance of political and commercial connections. Among the guests at St. Andrew’s Day dinners in the 1820s were distinguished Argentines, such as the governor and ministers. This practice was continued later in the century with the formation of a St. Andrew’s Society in Buenos Aires in 1888. Funerals of eminent Scots were occasions for respects to be paid by Argentine notables. Thus, among those attending the funeral of David Methven, a member of one of the oldest Scots families in the country, were the President of the Chamber of Deputies of Congress, the Governor of Tucuman Province and the President of the National Bank.

The Scots kept their identity alive from the early days by celebrating Scottish events, such as St. Andrew’s Day dinners, Burns Suppers, Caledonian Balls and Gatherings of the Clans. These were occasions for meals of haggis, neeps and tatties, whisky, a bagpiper in Highland dress, Scottish dancing and innumerable toasts to the King (later the Queen), the Distinguished Guests, the President of Argentina, the City of Buenos Aires, the Lassies and recitations of the poems of Robert Burns. The annual dinners of the St. Andrew’s Society in Buenos Aires attracted large numbers; the one in 1894 was attended by three hundred members, including familiar names dating back to early times – Drysdale, Kincaid, Dodds, Burnett and MacKinnon.

Their identity was also expressed through philanthropy and public service. Thus, the 1893 obituary of John Drysdale, head of the firm of J. and J. Drysdale and nephew of John Drysdale, one of the“Merchant Princes of the Plate”, said, “He held a high position amongst the commercial public, being at various times appointed to the board of one or other of the State banks he has been in fact for a long time regarded as a representative of the British public in our city and whenever anything was wanted to be done his countrymen looked to him for counsel and co-operation… he was simultaneously chairman of the British Hospital, the Convalescent Home and the British Cemetery, in all of which he took a most lively interest… one of the earliest benefactors of the Boys’ Orphanage… he rendered many valuable services also to the Scots Church… suffice to say that he possessed like his uncle that spirit of munificence which has distinguished the name of Drysdale in Buenos Aires”. [E.T.Mulhall]

While these prosperous Scots were highly conscious of their origins, they shared a more comprehensive identity with their other British counterparts. Many interests bound them together so that British institutions, clubs, societies and masonic lodges existed as well as specifically Scottish ones – the early British Commercial Rooms, English language newspapers such as The Standard and The Herald, the British Philanthropic Institution, the British Hospital, the British Cemetery and such clubs as the Foreigners Club and later the Foreign Amateurs Race Sporting Society, forerunner of the Jockey Club and the Hurlingham Club. A shared interest in British sports existed in Buenos Aires and other centres such as Bahia Blanca, Rosario and Quilmes – cricket, polo, tennis, soccer, rugby, rowing, sailing and horse racing. And English was their preferred language, a mark of their status and power. Looking to Britain at the height of its imperial power for its values and attitudes to foreigners, they exhibited that superiority and exclusiveness that was often the hallmark of the British overseas. However, intermarriage and connections with influential Argentine families and members of other immigrant groups broadened their base in some measure so that the elite was increasingly defined by wealth, status and power rather than national origins.


In 19th century Scotland, as elsewhere, the possession of land was a means of living and a measure of one’s status in society. For the small farmer, it provided a livelihood, but for those who could afford substantial estates, it was an investment, gave higher social status, better marriage prospects and political influence. Thus, a merchant might transform the status and power of himself and his descendants while simultaneously diversifying his sources of income. Consequently, it is not surprising that the Scottish commercial class in Argentina invested in existing estancias (large estates) or obtained land in virgin territories on the pampas. Among the early merchants of Buenos Aires who bought estancias were Thomas Fair, John Hannah, Thomas Drysdale, John Gibson, James Lawne and George Bell. They were followed by many others, and it became a common practice to have a business establishment in Buenos Aires, a fine house in the city’s suburbs and an estancia. Some acquired huge possessions by raising cattle, sheep and agricultural produce. The Espartillar estancia owned by Thomas Fair and his family, eventually covered sixty square miles and carried one hundred thousand cattle and sheep. Similarly, the Gibson family of Glasgow and Buenos Aires had vast properties south and west of Buenos Aires at Tuyu and Lincoln and on National Territories on the pampas, in Cordoba and Paraguay.

For the wealthy merchant, landownership was a financial investment, a means of combining production and trade, and a source of relaxation and sport. At the same time, many ordinary immigrants with farming and other skills acquired in Scotland but little financial means came to the pampas, hoping to establish themselves as landowners. Some became wealthy estancieros; others created smaller farms; and the remainder became hired employees – managers, foremen, shepherds and labourers – on the large estancias. John Hannah came originally as an estate manager. Eventually, he became a great landowner: “In 1837, he purchased the Lagosta estancia, near Ranchos, which soon became known as one of the finest cabanas (livestock farms) for prize rams in South America. In 1863, he built a superb mansion house for £8,000 sterling., where he dispensed hospitality on the baronial scale of the Middle Ages. All the country people loved him for miles because of his munificent generosity. He possessed an accurate knowledge of the Spanish classics and was moreover of gentlemanly and unassuming manners”. [M.G.Mulhall] 

Others came out to work as shepherds on established estancias, raising sheep on a section of the land and acquiring a share ( Tercio) in the growing flock, providing the basis for their own farm. And for those who could raise sufficient capital as shepherds or cattle hands, there were opportunities to lease blocks of virgin land on the pampas in former Indian territories.

Scottish communities were established outside Buenos Aires on the settled lands south of the city, attracting farmers and shepherds. Quilmes and Chascomus were two such settlements where Scottish landowners encouraged others to farm and where they established Presbyterian chapels and schools. By the 1880s, a quarter of all the principal landowners in Chascomus were Scots, including Buchanan, Burnett, Campbell, Fair, Grahame, Maxwell, Auld, Bruce, Grant, Johnston, Wallace, Blythman, Davidson, Oliphant and Ross. To quote one writer, Chascomus “has been a favourite settlement for Scotchmen for thirty years, some of whom are the wealthiest farmers in South America “.  [M. & E. Mulhall]

In 1825, a remarkable and initially successful attempt was made to plant a large and distinctive Scottish colony. John and William Parish Robertson, merchants in Buenos Aires and Corrientes promoted the emigration on the “Symmetry” from Leith of over two hundred Scottish men, women and children, mostly from the east and south of Scotland, to found a colony located at Monte Grande, south of Buenos Aires, on lands purchased by the Robertsons. Among the colonists were male and female farm servants, clerks, carpenters, masons, surveyors, doctors and landscape gardeners. Many brought their wives and children with them.

Most of them had little idea of what lay ahead, for as Tam o’ Stirling, the poet of the party, wrote:

‘They wondered what people the Argentines were
Savages or civilised – colour and figure;
And lassies resolved they would droon themselves ere
They’d gang without claes or be kissed by a nigger!

The Symmetry anchored, boats gathered around them,
While jabbering foreigners their luggage received;
The Babel o’ tongues was enough to confound them,
But naebody understood Scotch, they percei ved!” [

Cited in I.A.D. Stewart

After arriving in Buenos Aires, their goods and implements were loaded onto bullock carts and taken to the community site, where their industry soon established the basis for a prosperous future. However, after this promising start, the colony failed, a victim of economic depression and the military conflict in 1829 between Generals Juan Manuel de Rosas and Juan Lavalle, which overran the colonists’ lands. Most of them left for Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the province. Generally, Scots immigration was a more gradual process, gathering pace over the century and involving small groups, families or individuals who, for various reasons, chose to settle where others had gone before them or headed for territories where virgin land could be acquired cheaply.

As the lands of the southern pampas were increasingly opened up and government land grants were available, the Buenos Aires merchants and others established further farms and cattle or sheep stations. Some settlers took advantage of ports on the Atlantic coast, particularly Bahia Blanca and Carmen de Patagones. From the 1860s onwards, Patagones, a thriving town and free port on the Rio Negro, the southern boundary of Buenos Aires province, became a point of entry to the fertile river valley. George Musters wrote: “Englishmen arrive at Patagones by every steamer, to lay down wheat as the land is very cheap and there is no fear of Indians”. [G. Musters] Among these so-called Englishmen were the Scots brothers, Alexander and Thomas Kincaid, the first British settlers. In 1866, they established the estancia Balcleuther, some sixty miles west of Patagones. The Kincaids employed a Scottish shepherd, and there were other Scots: Adamson and MacGregor, tenants on Balcleuther; Charles Morrison, son of a wealthy Glasgow textile manufacturer, was in Patagones in 1868; and two unnamed Scottish brothers who bought land in the valley to raise sheep.

Settlement on the pampas to the west of Rosario and south of Cordoba was long hindered by the hostility of the Indians who, following the downfall of General Rosas, had reasserted their control, attacking small settlements, killing settlers and stealing cattle and horses. Despite this threat, settlement continued, although security as far south as the Rio Negro was not fully established until General Roca’s campaign in the late seventies. “The salidas de Roca penetrated deep into Indian territory, villages were destroyed, many of the young men and women were massacred, and the remainder were dispersed”. [H. S. Ferns]

Among the prominent settlers on the western pampas in the mid-1860s were the Bell brothers from Dunbar, who were founding members of the community of Scots and English at Fraile Muerto, on lands beyond Rosario. They attracted other single young men from the United Kingdom to settle there, and Fraile Muerto grew into a substantial community, large enough to have monthly visits from an English parson from Rosario and a small Protestant burying ground. The original intention had been to raise cattle and sheep, but economic circumstances caused the settlers to shift to arable fanning. However, the uncertainties of farming in the area led to the departure of many early settlers, and by the 1880s Fraile Muerto had lost much of its pioneering character. Richard Seymour’s “Pioneering in the Pampas” gives an excellent account of the early years. The present town of Bell Ville is named after the settlement’s founders. Meanwhile, expansion across the pampas south and west of Fraile Muerto continued as plots of land were auctioned off by the government to settlers. By the 1880s, landowners of various nationalities had established themselves, amongst them some Scots.

Scots also established themselves in provinces to the north of Buenos Aires, for example, in the fertile territories of Entre Rios, lying between the rivers Parana and Uruguay and the neighbouring Banda Oriental (Uruguay). Initially, wealthy Scots had bought estates (estancias) in these areas. In the 1860s, fifty “English” landowners were reported in the department of Gualeguaychu in Entre Rios, among them several wealthy Scots. [M & E Muthall] And in the Banda Oriental there were estancias owned by such men as George Bell, James T. Ramsay and James Mohr Bell. Poor immigrants seeking plots of land were encouraged to settle either on estancias or local/central government lands. For example, near the town of Concordia in Entre Rios, a group of Highlanders and others, including Macdonalds, M’Neills, Sinclairs, Buchanans, and Frasers, were given plots of land. They called their settlement Colonia Nueva Escocia. Their minister for many years (1866-77) was the Rev. Lachlan M’Neill, a native of Kilmun in Argyllshire and brother of one of the colonists, who held services in Gaelic and English. His “parish” stretched for three hundred miles on either side of the Uruguay River, so he constantly moved from one “preaching station” to another. These are usually held on estancias owned by Scots. Some of these colonists prospered and moved to another part of the province where they established their estancias, giving them names such as Clyde, Kintail, Caledonia and San Martin, the last named after the village of St. Martins in Perthshire. There, they built an interdenominational chapel and founded a cemetery. Some of their descendants still live there, and a monthly service in Spanish is held in the chapel.

The Professionals

The growth of the Scottish commercial community in and around Buenos Aires, coupled with increasing investment in Argentina’s infrastructure and services, attracted numerous professionals – church ministers, doctors, teachers, engineers, and managers.

The early merchants promoted the establishment of the Scots Church in Buenos Aires and other communities, having secured guarantees under President Rivadavia and the 1825 Treaty, enabling them to develop their own religious and educational institutions. Initially, in Buenos Aires, the Scots had to worship privately in the Church of England or under the guidance of a Presbyterian North American Bible Society missionary. However, in 1828, it was proposed to establish a Church of Scotland chapel and appoint a permanent minister of religion. A temporary chapel was leased, and Dr William Brown, initially minister to the short-lived colony at Monte Grande, became the first minister. Then, in 1835, St. Andrew’s Church in Buenos Aires, the first Scottish National Church in South America, was consecrated, followed by a second church at Florencio Varela. The growth of rural communities stimulated the building of further churches: St. John’s at Quilmes in 1855 and St. Andrew’s, the Rancho Kirk, at the Adela estancia, owned by James Dodds, James Burnett and George Bell, at Chascomus. And, much later, a minister was appointed to a church in Bahia Blanca.

The ministers of the Church of Scotland had always had significant influence in their parishes in Scotland; they were all university graduates and often the most learned men in their parishes. Consequently, they were a powerful, cohesive presence, active in religious and moral affairs, strong advocates of education and promoters of charitable and commemorative activities. Those who came to Argentina brought these qualities with them. For example, it was said of Dr. James William Fleming, Minister of the Scots Church in Buenos Aires from 1883 – 1925, that: “his powers of organisation and commanding personality gained for him a foremost place in the British community in Argentina. The Scots School, the St. Andrew‘s Society of the River Plate and the British Hospital owed much to his wise guidance”4or of Dr James Smith, a minister in Buenos Aires in 1850, “He was a tower of strength to Presbyterianism in Argentina and was everywhere known as ‘Padre’ ” [A. Graham-Yooll]

Since public schools in Argentina were Roman Catholic in ethos and curriculum and used the Spanish medium, the Scots developed their own schools. In 1826, a kindergarten school was established in Buenos Aires under the patronage of Thomas Fair and others. Meanwhile, Dr William Brown, the Scots minister, established a school at Monte Grande, and he, his wife and Miss Dick, a schoolmistress, started St. Andrew’s School in Buenos Aires in 1838. It became the leading English medium school in Buenos Aires, eventually becoming, as it is today, a bilingual, co-educational and non-denominational college. With the continuing connection with Scotland, it was expected that their schools in Argentina would recruit graduate schoolmasters from Scotland. One of these was Alexander William Hutton, who became headmaster of St. Andrew’s School in 1882, credited with introducing sports into the curriculum, and later founded his own English High School.

In the rural areas, it was sometimes the practice of landowners to employ so-called camp schoolmasters to teach their children and those of employees. Often graduates from Scotland or England, these men were usually treated as family members; thus, Henry Geddes and later Alexander M’Laren, a minister’s son from Glasgow, were employed to teach fifteen or twenty children on the Adela estancia owned by Mr Dodds. The Burnett family employed John Thompson, M.D., and John Sand, a native of Tranent, a poet and author of works on the fauna and flora of the pampas.

Doctors educated in the medical schools of Scottish universities came to Argentina to practise their profession. Among the early ones were George Fair, William Mair, Robert Tait, Robert Reid, John Aiston and Andrew Dick, who served as physicians at the British Hospital in Buenos Aires and Robert Rodman, who practised in Chascomus. General Rosas had a Scottish doctor, John Crosbie, attached to his staff at the battle of Caseros in 1852, and John Macdonald served as a surgeon to the Argentine Army. Andrew Dick, who came to Buenos Aires in 1817, was highly esteemed as a professor of medicine and philanthropist, founding the Academy of Medicine in 1822, promoting the creation of the British Hospital, and subsequently serving as an honorary physician and member of the board of management. He died in 1867, and his monument stands in the Chacarita cemetery in Buenos Aires. Many others were to follow in their footsteps later in the century.

The advent of railways in the 1860s and their subsequent rapid expansion throughout Argentina transformed the transport infrastructure. Where bullock wagons and horseback had been the means of overland communication and transport of goods from the distant pampas, railways facilitated bulk transport to the ports of Buenos Aires and elsewhere. They strengthened the unity of this vast country. By 1882, eleven railways were operating, reaching well over two thousand miles, with nearly six thousand miles by 1890. Between 1858 and 1878, Britain invested ten million pounds in railway construction, providing much of the capital, locomotives, rolling stock, equipment, and British coal. The construction and operation of the railways attracted new groups of immigrants. Engineers came from Scotland and England. In 1884 Alexander Kincaid, one of the Kincaid brothers of the Balcleuther estancia, became locomotive superintendent during the construction of one of these railways and later carried out studies on behalf of the Rio Negro Salt Company for a railway from the salt deposits to the port of San Blas. According to Mulhall’s directory, this Glasgow/Argentine enterprise was still operating in the 1890s, with a Kincaid as one of its principals. Robert Crawford, another Scots engineer, constructed the Buenos Aires Southern Railway from Buenos Aires to Chascomus. David Angus surveyed and constructed lines in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay. His work in Argentina included constructing part of the railway between Buenos Aires and Rosario and an electric tramway between the federal capital and La Plata. These engineers were followed by train drivers, stationmasters, workshop staff, managers and supervisors recruited in the United Kingdom. Communities of railwaymen grew up near the depots and workshops, such as those at Burzaco. At Temperley, south of Buenos Aires, the Scots had a Presbyterian church and a cemetery at Llavallol.

Other Immigrants

However, whilst Argentina and particularly Buenos Aires attracted merchants, landowners and professional men, these groups were only part of the wider Scottish community. Real or imagined opportunities in this distant land brought many others, from the skilled to the unskilled, seeking employment. Having arrived at Buenos Aires and other ports of entry, some moved on to the pampast to find jobs on estancias or perhaps with sufficient means to lease a block of land to build a crude shelter, grow crops or raise animals. Not all realised their hopes, some drifted back to Buenos Aires to find what work they could or re-emigrated. Others made Buenos Aires their goal, with or without any guarantee of employment, perhaps seeking work in shops, offices or in trades. Again, some prospered, while others could only find menial employment. These immigrants had little familiarity with the wealthy and professional sections of the community except for their language, religion and Scottishness. Information from censuses is minimal, but data on ninety Scots in the 1869 census for Buenos Aires show half of them were manual working class, tradesmen, labourers, servants, waiters and cooks, and a third were non-manual workers, mainly clerks and shop assistants. These different socio-occupational groups, from the rich to the unskilled labourers, formed a diverse Scottish community in the city, living in different areas and following distinctive lives.

Scots in Argentine and Chilean Patagonia

South of the Rio Negro, the boundary of the province of Buenos Aires, lay the great plains, mountains and rivers of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost part — Patagonia Austral – divided between Argentina and Chile, and occupied by semi-nomadic Indians; a thousand miles of territory covering half a million square miles and a quarter of the eventual land mass of Argentina In the preceding centuries Patagonia had exercised a fascination for the European sailors who had travelled along its coasts and the occasional explorers and naturalists who had entered its rivers; a land which had generated legends of giants, monsters and a city of gold in its mountains. However, the truth was no less striking: a vast landscape, harsh, windswept and often hostile, with fertile plains intermixed with barren areas scoured by ancient glaciers, rivers running from the mountains to the Atlantic seaboard, forests and an abundance of wildlife — fish, seals, whales in the seas and herds of guanacos and rheas on the plains. However, it was not until George Musters, in 1869, travelled with a band of Tehuelche Indians from south to north, a journey of one thousand miles, that a remarkable picture emerged of the interior and of the life of the Indian people, a way of life that had disintegrated by the end of the century under the impact of settlement and sheep farming, and disease. Musters’ journey ended on the Rio Negro, where he visited the Kincaids at Balcleuther (the settlement on the Clyde!)estancia before proceeding downriver to the frontier town of Patagones, looking across to the small settlement of Viedma and the empty landscape beyond.

Writing about Kincaid’s property in the 1875 edition of their directory, the Mulhalls say:

“The fine estancia of Balcleuther belongs to Messrs. Kincaid, the first English settlers on the Rio Negro, who came hither in 1866 with sheep from Azul and may be considered as the founders of this thriving little Colony. The estancia is azotea, brick-built, like an English farmhouse, with all the appointments of farm sheds, Howard’s machinery, corrals made of willow and poplar, and some seven thousand sheep. Farm lots on the estancia, which is 2 square leagues or 13,000 acres in extent, are held by Captain McGregor (late 93rd Highlanders), the brothers Buckland, Mr Adamson, and a Welsh family named Wilson, whose wheat crops this year will make up an aggregate of 600 fanegas. Some of these tenants have only been established here for three years. Messrs. Kincaid’s house is about 18 leagues from the town, at a river bend. On the opposite or south bank, they have a Pulperia or camp store for Indian trade: this is in charge of the Cacique Hernandez, who has an Indian family around him and keeps two boats for crossing over to the estancia, the river here being about 200 yards wide.” [M.& E. Mulhall

Preoccupied with the political and economic affairs of the established provinces of Argentina and expansion into the territories north of the Rio Negro, governments in Buenos Aires had little involvement in their Patagonian territories. Moreover, the landscape and climate led some to believe that extensive settlement would be unlikely. The 1875 Mulhall Directory observes, “Serious efforts at colonisation must always fail in these parts” and “Patagonia will probably be unpopulated for centuries “. [M.& E. Mulhall] They were entirely wrong! Indeed, until the 1880s, there were few settlers other than a Welsh colony established in the Chubut Valley in 1865, where some of their descendants still live. Substantial settlement by Scots and other foreigners did not come until government promotion of land grants, coupled with an awareness of the potential for sheep farming. However, by 1900 the southern Patagonian province of Santa Cruz had a major sheep-rearing industry, vast estancias and a sizeable population of British and other immigrants. Similar development of the Chilean territories in southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego took place, with Punta Arenas, a port and former convict settlement on the Magellan Straits, one of the flourishing centres for their sheep industry.

The Scots who came to Patagonia Austral from the 1880s onwards had no connections with the merchant class of Buenos Aires or the landowners of the settled provinces. They had little or no wealth; most came from crafting communities in the Hebrides and Highlands or the Scottish Borders. All of them had gained past experience as shepherds, and those from the Hebrides brought with them the Gaelic language and its traditions. William Halliday was one of the pioneers of sheep farming and the first foreign settler on the plains by the Rio Gallegos. Born in the Scottish Borders, he had been recruited by the Falkland Islands Company to work on one of their sheep stations. He prospered and married while he was in the Falklands/Malvinas. Still, there was no opportunity to buy his sheep farm, so he contemplated moving to Patagonia, where he knew the Argentine Government was leasing land. In 1884, Argentina established a real administrative presence in Patagonia. The Governor of the new province of Santa Cruz, Carlos Moyana, whose wife came from the Malvinas/Falklands, encouraged shepherds to move. As a result, Halliday leased thirty thousand acres on the land north of the Rio Gallegos, and he and his family settled there. His estancia at Hill Station became one of Patagonia’s great success stories of sheep farming.

The connection with the Malvinas/Falklands led to other Scots following Halliday’s example: William Douglas, William MacCall, George MacGeorge, John Hamilton, William Blain and John Rudd. Others came directly from Scotland, including William Ness, John Tweedie, John Scott, John Macleod, John MacLean, Alexander Finlayson and William and Donald Bain. Among the Scots who came – some eventually returning home and others staying permanently – were men with shepherding skills from the Hebrides. The people of these islands, such as Lewis and Harris, had a long tradition of emigration, mostly to North America.

Changes in land use, over-population in small crofting communities and lack of employment opportunities encouraged many to leave to find employment in industrial cities or overseas. And, coming from a landscape and climate not unlike Patagonia, they were well-equipped for the harsh life on the distant plains. A close relationship developed between Patagonia and people in some of the crofting communities through word of mouth or correspondence with shepherds who had been to Patagonia. One instance was the connection with the parish of Lochs in Lewis, where the parish minister fostered the link by speaking to his parishioners and writing references for those seeking work in Patagonia.

A major employer of Scottish shepherds was the Sociedad Anonina Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego, a Chilean/British company. The SETF had vast sheep ranches and processing facilities in Chile and Argentina, employing men on contract. Some returned home after several years, while others stayed with the Company or branched out as sheep farmers or shepherds.

As mentioned earlier, the connection continued well into the 20th century. Today, people in Lewis and Harris recall the stories of their forebears who travelled to Patagonia Austral, taking their dogs with them, the shepherds’ essential assistants! Records show over two hundred Lewismen who went there: Macdonalds, Morrisons, Macleods, Mackenzies, MacAulays, Finlayson and others, men from the clan groups that had inhabited Lewis for centuries. These Lewis men were Gaels, steeped in Gaelic traditions in poetry, storytelling and the music of the bagpipes. In distant Patagonia, they continued to use Gaelic among themselves, wrote songs and poems about their experiences and kept strong connections with family in the Western Isles.

Initially, life in Patagonia was particularly harsh. The Hallidays, for example, lost many of their possessions on landing on the deserted northern bank of the Rio Gallegos and began living in a rough shelter. They had no neighbours other than a few Tehuelche Indians, who helped them to acquire hunting and riding skills. The nearest settler was sixty miles away, and William had to drive his first flock of sheep from a distant estancia near the Straits of Magellan. The story of the Hallidays and their rise to success has been published. Less well known is the unpublished journal of William Blain, a shepherd from Dumfriesshire who worked for the Falkland Islands Company before moving to estanciasin Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

The journal provides a detailed account of the life of a shepherd: the daily duties, living conditions, the climate, the people he met, his social lives, hunting expeditions, and contacts with Indians. He mentions other Scots: ‘Five Scotchmen came to the house “; Mr McCrae near Cabo Virgenes gave me a bottle of whisky” W. Blain and mentions a Halliday, Campbell, Gillies and Jamieson. Blain preferred to work as a shepherd rather than own an estancia, moving from one estate to another on the mainland and Tierra del Fuego and eventually returning to Scotland.

Some of the Scots who went to Patagonia remained shepherds while they were there. Others leased or bought land and developed estancias. The 1895 Santa Cruz census shows that about forty per cent of the foreign settlers were Scots, of whom thirty per cent were described as estancieros (landowners), another thirty per cent as peones (labourers), ten per cent ovejeros (shepherds) and the remainder as miscellaneous group of managers and foremen, a cook and so forth. Some men had wives and families with them, but a much larger number were bachelors.

As mentioned earlier, life was difficult for the pioneers. The flocks of sheep were vulnerable to winter blizzards, diseases and the depredations of pumas. Families were often remote from neighbours, sources of provisions and medical services. And, there were difficulties in exporting wool, since in the early days they were dependent on ships calling occasionally. However, by 1888, they could sell wool and sheepskins directly to British merchants, with ships belonging to the Glasgow companies, Thom and Cameron and Spearing and Waldron, calling annually at Rio Gallegos and other Patagonian ports.

Refrigerator ships and, later, the opening of a freezing plant in 1894 made the export of mutton and wool possible. Many of the estancieros – Scots, English and others – prospered, built fine homes furnished with goods from Buenos Aires and Britain, sent their children away to school in Buenos Aires or Britain, and had a wide circle of friends as numbers grew. And, inevitably, the Scots and English took their “institutions” – clubs, societies and sports – with them, founding, for example, a British Club in the growing port of Rio Gallegos, which still exists and houses a plaque bearing the names of over three hundred “gringos” who came to the area.

Wives and Mothers.

Any account of Scots in Argentina would be fundamentally incomplete without recognising the role of women in the development of the community, not only because they shared the uncertainties and hazards of life in an alien land but also because of the influence they had as wives and parents on domestic and social activities and values. Among the early settlers, there was a minority of women. While this situation changed substantially over the century in Buenos Aires and the more settled provinces, it persisted in Patagonia Austral into the last decade, where the 1895 census for the province of Santa Cruz reveals a ratio of three men to one woman among the identifiable Scots.

Scotswomen arrived in Argentina in various ways. Some came with their husbands, and others were relatives and family friends invited out. In contrast, yet others came as unmarried farm and domestic servants, teachers and governesses and were snapped up by bachelor Scots and others. Little general information is available on their numbers and backgrounds, but there is some illustrative information. Among the early bachelor members of the merchant community of Buenos Aires, most marriages were contracted with Scots or English women, either arrivals from Britain or the daughters of other Scots immigrants. A third of the farmhands and artisans who sailed on the Symmetry from Leith in 1825 to found the Scots colony at Monte Grande were wives or single women, and there were also numerous daughters. Subsequently, marriages were contracted between some of the bachelors, the single women and the older daughters.

As the century progressed and more single women immigrants and second-generation daughters increased the Anglo-Scots community, in-group marriage flourished. Thus, of one hundred and forty-six proclamations of marriage recorded at the British consulate in Buenos Aires between 1855 and 1866, four-fifths were between Britons and only a tenth between Britons and Argentines. The Scots in this record showed the same proportion. Also, data from censuses in 1869 and 1895 in Buenos Aires show that in-group marriages predominated later in the century, with two-thirds of British men and three-quarters of women marrying within their community. Few of the remaining women married Argentines, tending to choose men from other immigrant groups from Europe. In these respects, they differed little from other immigrant communities, where parental attitudes and cultural factors similarly encouraged in-group marriages.

The predominantly domestic role of women in Scottish society in Argentina had great significance. Since they were primarily restricted to running the home, child-bearing and the upbringing of children, socialised mainly among their own kind and lacked many of the cultural and working contacts that their husbands had with Argentines, they reinforced traditional values and practices of their in-group, and as such strengthened the sense of a British community positioned apart from others. Some found self-expression beyond domestic roles in charitable activities and a few in professional work; for example, Dr Cecilia Grierson, who was well-known for her medical work and now, long after her death, has a street in Buenos Aires named after her.

Those who lived, married and had families in prosperous urban communities were typically the more fortunate since they had British neighbours and friends, comfortable homes, access to medical and educational services for themselves and their children, and servants to do domestic duties. Life in Buenos Aires was beautiful. Described by a speaker at a St. Andrew’s Society dinner in the 1890s as “The Paris of South America” [St. Andrew’s Gazette], the city displayed European tastes in civic architecture, cultural activities, attractive suburbs, clubs and societies or the latest fashions in dress and manners. It offered middle-class and professional families a good and sometimes far better lifestyle than many could have expected in their homeland.

The lives of women and their families in rural areas varied considerably. Those settled in established and developed parts of the “camp” benefited from community support, English-speaking neighbours and at least some basic services. However, living conditions might be initially primitive, and there were the heavy demands of domestic work, self-sufficiency, child-rearing and assistance with farming. Life was more complex and hazardous for those families who moved deeper into the plains, settled on the Indian frontier, were in former Indian territories, or were pioneers in Patagonia Austral.

Social isolation, remoteness from medical and other assistance, primitive dwellings, and the possibilities of Indian incursions or crop failures called for courage and determination. In all these circumstances, some families prospered, even became very wealthy, building fine homes furnished with goods from Buenos Aires or Britain, enjoying visits to Buenos Aires and Europe, sending their children away to private schools, and participating in many social activities as communities grew. For many, however, modest homes, demanding labour and remoteness from others characterised their lives. However, by the last quarter of the century, improvements in services and communications helped improve the quality of life.

We thank Arnold Morrison for allowing us to publish part of this book on the site.

He retains the copyright of this publication, and you can visit his website and purchase a copy of this publication at

Contact the Gateway to South America team to learn about the best investment opportunities in the region. The company is a benchmark for foreign investors wishing to invest in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, providing expert advice on property acquisition and investment tours.

The Gateway Team – When You are Serious About Property

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About Geoffrey W W McRae

With a highly distinguished career spanning more than three decades across five different countries, New Zealander Geoffrey McRae has established himself as a leading authority on South American real estate, agricultural, and commercial matters. As the founder of Gateway to South America – a real estate consulting group specialising in six South American countries – Geoffrey has developed a reputation for discretion, expertise, and experience that has seen him represent some of the most prestigious clients in the region. His deep knowledge and experience of South American markets have placed him at the forefront of the industry and given him the opportunity to guide and advise with confidence and surety. His long and successful career – which continues to evolve and expand daily – is a testament to his talent, tenacity, and ambition.

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