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Issue 49 - Aussie inventor

Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


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Aussie inventor

Although an increasingly multi-cultural society, this is an important year for Australia’s Scottish community in that it is two hundred years since a Scotsman, Lachlan Macquarrie, was appointed Governor of New South Wales. His is one of those classic stories of a native son leaving home to conquer the world. It is also provides an example of how the enlightened thinking of one man can shape the future.

From the start of his governance, Macquarrie encouraged those sent out as convicts under his control to settle permanently instead of returning to Britain when they had completed their sentences.

In so doing, he met with fierce opposition from the early “free settlers”, who understandably felt that they had precedence over the land.

But it is generally agreed that Australia would be a very different place today had Macquarrie’s policies not succeeded. Over a period of twelve years, he transformed what was in effect a penal colony into a thriving country and Sydney from a makeshift shanty town into a fine Georgian city.

Moreover, Lachlan Macquarrie was the first person to make use of the name Australia in an official document. Not without justification is he therefore regarded as the “Father of Australia”.

But who was this British army officer who took up what was considered a most unenviable post and left a mark which none of his predecessors could ever have emulated?

Lachlan Macquarrie was born in 1762 on the island of Ulva in the Inner Hebrides. Closely related to the Macquarrie Chief, who owned Ulva, his father around 1772 took up the lease of some land on the adjacent Isle of Mull before dying three years later. It was an all too commonplace situation in the impoverished Highlands of Scotland. With seven siblings, Lachlan’s education was to begin with financed by his uncle, Murdoch Maclaine of Lochbuie, but in 1777, at the age of fifteen, he volunteered for the British Army and served thereafter in Nova Scotia as well as New York and Jamaica.

From 1787 to 1801, he was to be found in India where in 1791 he took part in the defeat of Tippu Sultan at the siege of Seringapatam Ten years later he was appointed Deputy-Adjutant General of the Indian Army in Egypt and plunged into the war against Napoleon Bonapart. It was here that he was re-united with his brother Charles and because by then he could both afford to, decided to purchase a parcel of land at Jarvisfield on Mull. It was the old Scottish maxim that wherever you go in life, you always yearn to return to your roots.

Lachlan had earlier married, but his wife, Jane Jarvis, had died of tuberculosis in Macao. He was devastated, but in 1807 was married again, this time to a distant relative Elizabeth Campbell of Airds. Three years later they sailed from Portsmouth to take up his appointment of Governor of New South Wales. An authoritarian but astute administrator, his impact on the emerging colony was incisive.

It seems only yesterday that I was the guest of the Scottish Australian Heritage Council for Sydney Scottish Week and I can vividly recall the opening parade from St Stephen’s Church along Macquarrie Street to the Domain and wondering why I knew so little about this remarkable man. Subsequently on Mull for a friend’s wedding it was such thoughts that prompted me to visit the Macquarrie Mausoleum at Gruline, his final resting place.

Unprepossessing although functional in appearance, the Macquarrie tomb stands within a grass enclosure surrounded by stone walls and is maintained by the National Trust for Scotland on behalf of the National Trust for Australia.

With rivers, a mountain, a port, a harbour, a pass, a lighthouse, an island, a lighthouse, a hospital and various parishes, streets and a bank named after him, there are plenty of tributes to Lachlan Macquarie to be found in modern Australia, but it does surprise me that the statue which I remember seeing in the forecourt of the New South Wales parliament has been removed without public consultation and relocated in Sydney Botanic Gardens.

Despite the immediacy of modern communications, or possible because of them, it strikes me that the world in which we live today is becoming increasingly disenfranchised from its past. My Australian friends have always expressed concern over the preservation of their Scottish heritage against the forces of multiculturalism and this year they will be going ahead full steam with tributes to their founding father. I wish them well.

For somehow on this rainy Hebridean island, 1024 miles from the searing heat of the Domain, the shed-like tomb of a Scotsman who forged the destiny of a great nation on the other side of the world made me realise that anything is possible.