In the 19th century the voyage to Australia was long and arduous. Emigrants faced the constant threat of disease and malnutrition, the danger of storms or shipwrecks, and the possibility of piracy or crew mutiny.

One ship that had a particularly perilous journey was the HMS Hercules, which departed Campbelltown, Scotland in December 1852 carrying Scottish Highlander emigrants and arrived in Melbourne August 1853 – 8 months later!

Emigration from the Isle of Skye. (1853, January 15). Illustrated London News, p. 433.

In the 1850s over 90,000 Scots emigrated to Australia, 30,000 as assisted immigrants. [1] Many came from the Highlands, where the collapse of the economy, the eviction or clearance of tenants by the Highland landlords and the Potato Famine had left thousands without work and close to starvation.

Emigration from the Isle of Skye. (1853, January 15). Illustrated London News, p. 41.

A number of government and privately funded emigration schemes were established to encourage people to migrate overseas. One such scheme, the Highland and Island Emigration Society (HIES) believed that by relocating families to Australia –

`they who are a burden to the British community in the mother-country, will become a support to it when they have been transferred to the colonies’…`they will exchange a life of demoralising dependence for one which will abound with the rewards of industry and enterprise’. [2]

Between 1852 and 1857 nearly 5000 Highlanders were relocated to Australia by the HIES. Preference was given to the most destitute, to entire family groups and to those with relevant skills, such as agricultural labourers, shepherds, carpenters, and farm and domestic servants.

Rule of the Highland and Island Emigration Society [2]

The HIES ships were chartered by “Her Majesty’s Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners” who offered the Hercules at a reduced rate. The ship was intended to be used as a floating hospital for troops in Hong Kong, but would first be used to convey the emigrants to Australia. The Commissioners also reduced the deposits of the emigrants by 50%.

Married persons and unmarried women will be 10s., instead of £1; of children 5s. instead of 10s.; of single men, members of emigrant families, £l instead of £2; of persons between 45 and 50 years of age £2 10s. instead of £5; and of persons upwards of 50, £5 10s. instead of £11″.[3]

Clothing and funds were provided by the society with each family agreeing to pay back the full amount within 12 months. The HIES passenger lists include promissory notes detailing the amount owed. The lists also contain revealing comments regarding the health and circumstances of each family group.

Hercules passenger list (Dec 1852).
Entry for Archibald MacDonald and his family. [4]

In December 1852 emigrants were transported from Skye, Harris and North Uist in the Outer Hebrides to Campbelltown, where they boarded the Hercules. They spoke no English, were poorly clothed, and many were malnourished from years of living in poverty. James Chant, the HIES emigrant officer, wrote of their despair at leaving their homeland –

“The leave taking was the most painful scene I ever witnessed. Sturdy Highlanders grasped each other by the hand, while the muscles of their faces and bodies quivered with emotion. Women hung on the necks of their friends, and were in some cases removed by force. To say they sobbed aloud, would faintly express their sorrow… they threw their arms into the air, giving full vent to their grief, as they gazed for the last time on the black peaty glen and bleak rocky hills, over which they had long been accustomed to roam and to which they were so devotedly attached.” [5]

The Tide of Emigration to the United States and to the British Colonies. (1850, July 6), Illustrated London News, p. 20.

The Hercules departed on December 26 1852, carrying 756 passengers, and sailed for four days through a fierce storm, before anchoring in Rothesay to make repairs. Passengers had been confined below deck during the journey, and many were extremely distressed and unwell. Two men died of sickness. On December 30, Captain Baynton wrote –

“We have a case of fever, and another of small pox and measles on board, but I have no doubt that by the judicious arrangements of Mr Carey (the Ships surgeon) and his assistant, we shall prevent it’s spreading”. [5]  

Two weeks later the Hercules set sail and hit another severe storm. She docked in Queenstown, County of Cork, Ireland on January 20, by which stage over 50 cases of Small Pox and an outbreak of Typhus fever was discovered.  Fifteen of the crew were taken to the naval hospital on Haulbowline island, but an attempt to land the passengers in Queenstown was met with opposition by the townsfolk, the health officers and the Irish government.    

Irish news. (1853, Feb 3}. Stirling Observer, p. 2.

Discussion raged for several weeks, by which time several hundred passengers were infected.

The Cork Examiner wrote a damning article stating that this was –
`A revolting instance of the barbarous and cruel folly of our quarantine laws’ and referred to the Hercules as…`a prison of death’.

“News.” ( 1853, Feb. 18). Cork Examiner, p. 2.

 Eventually, a hulk was brought to the harbour where it acted as a floating hospital for the fever patients.  Small pox patients were housed in the hospital on Haulbowline Island, where a large shed was erected to house healthy passengers.

The ship remained in quarantine for three months, during which time 56 people died, including Laurence Carey the ship’s doctor, and Mrs Innes the matron.  Seventeen children were orphaned and returned to Scotland.  The Cork Examiner stated that the case of the ship Hercules was “without precedent in the history of official mismanagement and neglect”. [6]

Emigrants at dinner (1844, April 13). Illustrated London News, p. 229.

On April 14th, the Hercules finally set sail for Australia, carrying only 380 of the original 756 passengers.  The remainder of the passengers were relocated to other emigrant ships – in many cases families were separated, never to see each other again.

From all accounts. the voyage to Australia was fairly uneventful. She docked in Adelaide on the 20th July, leaving 194 emigrants, and finally arrived in Melbourne on 3rd August, where 183 disembarked. Having survived this long and perilous voyage and finally setting foot on Australian soil, one might wonder where their journey would next take them.

Further information

  • If you’d like to know more about the voyage of the Hercules please view the accompanying video, available here.


1. Prentis, M. (2008). The Scots in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press 2008.
2. Victoria. Parliament. Legislative Council (1852). Emigration from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to Australia : ordered by the Council to be printed, 29th December, 1852. Printed by John Ferres, at the Government Printing Office, [Melbourne].
3. Emigrants by the Hercules. (1853, March 24). The Courier, p. 3. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from
4. ScotlandsPeople. Hercules passenger list. Retrieved from Highland and Island Emigration Society records.
5. McNeill, John, Great Britain Colonial Land Emigration Commission, British Library, and Adam Matthew Digital. Correspondence Relating to Her Majesty’s Emigrant Ship “Hercules” [electronic Resource]. London: F. and J. Rivington, 1853. Migration to New Worlds.
6. ‘News”. (1853, Apr. 6).  Cork Examiner. p. 2. British Library Newspapers.

Further reading

Haines, R. (1997). Emigration and the labouring poor : Australian recruitment in Britain and Ireland, 1831-60. New York St. Martin’s Press.

Highlands and Islands Emigration Society records. Scottish Archive Network – Virtual vault.

Highland Island Emigration Society. (2000). [List of Emigrants Assisted to Australia by the Highland and Island Emigration Society], 1852-1857 [manuscript].

List of persons who have received loans of money from the Island and Highland Emigration Society to enable them to emigrate from their native country to Victoria. (1854). [Melbourne]

Richards, Eric (1978). The Highland Scots of South Australia. A paper presented to a meeting of the Clan MacLeod Society in South Australia.

ScotlandsPeople. Highland and Island Emigration Society records.

Wilkie, B., & ProQuest. (2017). The Scots in Australia, 1788-1938. Woodbridge, Suffolk.

This article has 10 comments

  1. What an interesting and sad story. Thanks for telling the tale.

    • Thanks Andrew. Unfortunately many ships had similar experiences and it was quite common to have outbreaks of disease.If you’re interested, there’s a great book called Hell ship by Michael Veitch, which look at the journey of the Ticonderoga in 1952. Interestingly that ship also carried many Scottish Highlanders! Regards Ann

  2. A knock-out article. Oh, how much Melbourne owes these first immigrants. And we think we’re doing it tough today.

    Indeed: “Having survived this long and perilous voyage and finally setting foot on Australian soil, one might wonder where their journey would next take them.”

    What a fabulous sentence. Worth reading twice. Thanks.

    • Thanks so much Al, I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re absolutely right, the emigrants who travelled here in the 19th century really were courageous and displayed great fortitude. Their stories are well worth telling. Regards Ann

  3. Thank you Ann for providing another layer to my understanding of what was experienced by my great, great grandparents, highlanders from Ross Shire. They were passengers aboard the John Davies which left Liverpool on 23 July 1852 and arrived at Portland on 8 November, settling in the Hamilton area.

    • Hi Peter. That’s so interesting. I first heard about the Hercules when helping a researcher trace her Scottish ancestors, who settled in Hexham – not too far from Hamilton. I’m glad the story was of interest to you.Regards Ann.

  4. Hi Ann. My name is Criosdean and I am from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. I wanted to thank you for writing about HMS Hercules and its voyage to Australia with Scottish Emigrants in 1852. Many of my ancestors (who were ‘cleared’) left on that fateful voyage and disembarked in Adelaide, SA. I co-run a Facebook page which follows their story from leaving their beloved islands up until their final resting place at the White Hut Gaelic Cemetery in Clare, South Australia. I was fortunate enough to visit it in 2018 and my host (who also co-runs the FB page) and lives in Australia has ancestors buried there as well. We feels that it’s important to share their story with others across the seas who may not have the opportunity to visit and we also want to keep their memory alive. If anyone would like further information I have copied the link:

    • Hi Criosdean, thank you so much for your comments and for the Facebook link. It’s a great way for researchers to share their stories and research findings. Whilst researching the Hercules I came across this very informative article by Eric Richards, called The Highland Scots of South Australia. You might have already seen it. Eric Richards wrote many other excellent books and articles about the Highland Clearances and Scottish emigrants – they’re really worth tracking down. All the best, Ann

    • Thanks Chris for finding this and thank you Ann for the link to Eric Richards PDF.
      Tania … Adelaide

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