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The Robertsons of Alvie in Van Diemen’s Land

In the opening half of a two-part study, Dr David Taylor tells the story of the Robertsons, a group of brothers from Badenoch who emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land – modern Tasmania – in the early 19th century, hoping to strike it rich as farmers

Part 1

Badenoch, Invernesshire, in which lies Alvie, onetime home of the Robertson brothers

Within a rather quirky publication entitled The All-Time Australian 200 Rich List appear the names of Daniel Robertson and William Robertson, at 75 and 141 respectively. The book’s scant biographical details do not even recognise them as brothers. Yet they and two other brothers emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) from Dunachton in the parish of Alvie, Inverness-shire, all achieving undreamt success. Their oldest brother, Duncan, remained in the Highlands to eke out a living as a poor tenant farmer. Nothing better illustrates the opportunities of emigration – and these brothers were far from the only Alvie residents to make their mark in Australia, for over the next three decades 70 members of the Robertson family emigrated, not including their equally successful McBean and Mackintosh relations.


Dunachton lies on the north side of the river Spey in the central highlands of Scotland, part of the old lordship of Badenoch. A small estate owned by the chief of clan Mackintosh, Dunachton was, in common with the whole of the Scottish highlands, undergoing a period of profound economic, social and cultural upheaval arising both from the gradual post- Culloden disintegration of the old clan system and the rising tide of commercialism.

Many old highland estates were in the process of being sold or broken up, with the traditional communal runrig farms converted into single-tenant units or taken by wealthy sheep farmers, resulting in clearances, landlessness, unemployment and rising levels of poverty. The unprecedented rate and extent of change brought not only a traumatic destabilisation of the traditional social and economic fabric of the highlands, but an equally signiicant cultural dislocation – and with it a sense of betrayal by the clan elite. If not always erupting into open anger, it implanted at the very least a considerable degree of unrest into the psyche of the highlander regarding future security.

Mackintosh himself had begun just such a process in 1791-92 with the issue of eviction notices to all his Dunachton tenants, a process not inally complete until the 1820s. By then, the old runrig farms had been entirely replaced by nineteen small to medium independent farms resulting in the loss of many of the old tenantry. It is hard to conceive just how stressful and disruptive this prolonged process of restructuring and dislocation must have been to families who had farmed there for generations.

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About History Scotland

Explore centuries of history and archaeology in the first History Scotland issue of 2019. Inside you’ll find history, archaeology, genealogy and heritage from some of the country’s top experts. Top reasons to read this issue: • Discover the tough reality of life as a Dundee whaler – and why the city’s female population was crucial to the success of the whaling industry • Read about Mary of Guelders – the Stewart queen who used her European connections to succeed in her royal role • See amazing images from the restoration of Monteath Mausoleum • Discover history events around the country during the winter months • Explore a new project to discover what we know – and have yet to discover – about the uses of gold in prehistoric Scotland