“Strangers in a Foreign Land – The Journal of Neil Black and other voices from Western District”. Edited by Maggie MacKellar. The Megunyah Press first published 2008.
Neil Black was a pastoral pioneer (settler/squatter) in Western Victoria near Mount Noorat. He kept a diary from the start of his arrival in Sydney from Scotland (Glasgow) in September 1839, his boat travel to Melbourne and subsequent expeditions to a run he purchased on the western plains in October 1839. His diary details all the issues associated with purchasing, setting up and running a sheep and cattle station approximately 250km west of Melbourne when the only towns in the entire district were Geelong and Portland.
The excerpts taken out by Patrick Francis relate to landscapes, pastures, wildlife, livestock, animal husbandry, labour, wages, living conditions and bushfires he observed over approximately 12 months. They provide a usually missed insight into Victoria’s pastoral history describing first settlement under the most austere conditions when pioneers lived in bark huts compared with the commonly described golden era of the squatters with their magnificent blue stone homesteads, blue stone shearing sheds, stone fences and huge sheep flocks.
Expedition by horse to Geelong region (100 mile round trip):
December 3: I traversed plains, thousands of acres in extent and as level as a billiard table without almost a tree. These immense plains are skirted round the edges with wood and bounded by hills. … the scene (is) a very imposing one and one well calculated to make one feel how trifling a creature man is amid the mighty works of creation. The soil upon the whole was comparatively inferior.
December 5: This day rather wet, the roads in a fearful state sinking at every step knee deep. …came up to a dray belonging to a Mr Scott, Larch Grove near Glasgow, and a Mr Kirkland from Glasgow. The pole broke (on the dray) and there they stood on the mud. The dray was covered with tarpaulins placed upon the top of strong hoops bent over the dray like a half circle. Upon either side a seat…sat Mrs Scott and Mrs Kirkland, the latter nursing an infant about six weeks old. …They had been eight days on the journey in consequence of the weather… in good weather it would have been about four days journey.
Scenes more rich and beautiful than those I passed through today cannot be imagined. It partook more of the character of fine old English lawn and parkland than anything I can remember in Scotland… In some places it is covered with fine old heavy timber, in others it opens up into rich grassy valleys miles in extent and without a tree. The sward is not so close here as at home, but I never saw even one pile of Fogg (moss). The grass is long and luxuriant and not so much in tufts as in some places I have seen.
I met a person of the name of Gibbs … he is now an overseer with a salary of somewhere from £60 to £100 a year. This is a good place for a poor man, and there is no place in the world like it for women. A servant girl will get from £15 to £25 of wages and I believe as many husband as they like.
People are coming here (Melbourne) with the intention of settling for life which is of great advantage to this place. I think a family may live as happy and as free from care in the Bush as in any place in this World, but it is a weary heartless life for a bachelor. The more he loves his home, the more urgent will be his desire, by foul or fair means, to obtain the command of a little money to enable him to return to it.
December 10: Visited several stations and flocks… Many of the squatters have miserable huts and take a detestable pride in what they call roughing it. Their houses are made of split slabs thatched with bark. They eat damper and drink tea three times a day and give the fat of the meat they boil to the dogs… They have no furniture, very little indeed even of the rudest kind, no windows in their huts.. In short it is the greatest possible achievement to live entirely void of every comfort… Yet some of these men, after they have been here a while will think nothing of spending on one trip to town as much as would build a comfortable hut and place in it every necessary…. Yet there are very many instances of the reverse. Two days ago I visited a squatter cottage. It had a nice veranda in front, was shingled, floored and plastered in a very neat style. It has glass windows opening like doors, and was neatly enclosed all round with a net slab paling placed upright. In front was a garden containing all sorts of vegetables, a great variety of fruits, among them were gooseberries, currants, various kinds pear and apple trees, rose bushes and flowers. Two unmarried brothers lived there…. Their garden cost them nothing as it was done by the men they employed for shearing when the weather was too wet for that purpose.
Second expedition (150 miles) to west of Geelong
December 20: We traversed this day some of the finest country that even the heart of man could desire to look at. .. The grass was so rich and close that the horses went down in it like as if they had been treading over a lump of hay. In some places it retarded our progress in the same way as dragging the horses feet through snow does. This is however, by no means common and I certainly never saw the least approach to it till this day, although I have now ridden hundreds of miles.
December 21: It is worthy of remark how much the lands where sheep and cattle are depasturing lose that rich and fertile appearance which it had previous to the eating of the grass.
December 22: Rode through a country.. in every respect beautiful. On the margin of some of the salt lakes we passed is the most delightful scenery my eye ever beheld. None can imagine a thing so perfect in a state of nature, the only eyesore is the fallen trees not being removed.
December 24: We were led to believe at home that stock here was nursed with the most tender care, in place of which (so far as I have had any opportunity of judging) they are neglected and abused to an incredible extent in the great majority of instances, but there are some exceptions.
December 26: It were useless to attempt to describe the lands we travelled in both places, actually finer, richer and more beautiful than the finest park land I ever saw at home, grass in many instances up to the flaps of the saddles. But let it be remembered that I have travelled hundreds of miles before I saw this, and a very great proportion of this fine land is totally useless for want of water, but in the course of time it is probable well will be found by digging. I have seen 40 miles of barren plain without a drop (of water).
December 27: I believe that a person feels less fatigued after a long journey here than at home…… horses here being all intended for and accustomed to the saddle, travel lighter and easier, certainly lighter than highland ponies accustomed to work. Another thing, a canter is the favourite pace.
Neil Blacks run
January 4 1840: The run is one of the most wonderful in the colony, situated about halfway between this (Melbourne) and Portland Bay. …The blacks have been very troublesome on it and I believe they have been very cruelly dealt with…. The poor creatures are now terror stricken and will be easily managed. This was my principal reason for fighting so hard for it (the run). Cangaroos and emus are as common on it as crows in a rookery at home. If crop is grown I don’t understand how they can be kept from destroying it.
Everything a person possesses is always for sale….if a very large profit can be realised a bargain is struck. No man is colonised who will not cheat his neighbour. The profits that are sometimes made ….by speculators are incredible.
January 10: I have not seen an acre of land in this settlement but what would be valuable in Scotland, but many thousands of these are quite useless here from want of water, an immense plains are usually barren but the soil would be thought good at home.
Provisions needed for the bush
January 11: A (single) person coming here should not bring one single (thing) along with him from home. The only thing I wish I had brought is a lot of double barrelled guns. With respect to clothing, coarser and equally thick may be worn here as at home.
Unusual summer rain
In respect to the quantity of rain that falls, this climate so far as I have seen is not so far superior to Scotland as is supposed at home…and I think that there is just as much rainfall here as at home… It is said, however, that this is an uncommon season of wet and that the like was never seen before.
January 12: This day fearfully wet…the streets are all floating.
January 18: The heat for the last two days is rather oppressive….about 90F. It is a good deal hotter than the hottest day at home.
Travelling to the run and overnight in a shepherd’s hut
January 23: This hut is entirely built of bark peeled off large trees and placed like the roof of a house. The furniture consisted of one pot, two pannikins, two quart pots, one spade, a bed made of the branches and leaves of trees laid up the ground and around sticks laid along the front, for bed clothes it had one blanket and cover of sheep skins sown together There was also a stretcher and sort of mattress with something of the shape but not the colour of a blanket. Campbell and I had some tea and damper and took possession of the stretcher between us. …a man and boy lived here for 12 months. Australia is not altogether a bed of roses.
January 24: Sheep shearers…are at present paid 20 shilling per 100 sheep and they shear about 60 sheep each per day.
Horse ‘planting’ and reward around Melbourne
January 30: Even in the neighbourhood of Melbourne a horse cannot be tethered although there is abundance of grass free to all who choose to take the risk, but any man from the country is sure to have his horse ‘planted’ as it is called. That horse is removed from the place where he is tethered and planted at some distance in a close part of the bush, where he is not likely to be soon found, till the horse is advertised and a reward offered for finding him. If the reward is sufficiently high, the person who planted brings forth the horse and demands his reward; if not he keep him till it is increased. This is frequently done by a person’s own servants.
February 1: It I astonishing the number of accidents that occur here. Another suicide was committed a few days ago in the Lamb Inn by a Dr Smith from Edinburgh.
Travel to Glenormiston
February 9: About 6 o’clock we came to a station from Strathdownie (now called Glenormiston) about 10 miles after riding 50 miles across a barren plain affording neither one mouthful of food nor one drop of water over all its extent, excepting in place where a brackish creek runs over it, the same that passes Glenormiston house.
Setting up the run starting February 10 1840
The run had been set up by a previous owner and valuations had to be put on sheep, bullocks and drays, house, huts, garden of tobacco, four acres wheat, two acres oats etc
February 14: Finished valuation …there were about 80 men living here for the last week. The quantity of mutton used and destroyed is incredible; head, feet and …thrown away.
February 15: Afternoon all hands employed in burning a small strip of grass all round the establishment as a safeguard in the event of the sweeping fires made in the bush by the natives coming so near as to endanger the houses.
February 16: …saw the finest cattle country the eye of man ever rested upon within 6 miles of my place, and taken possession of sheep just the morning after I came here.
February 17: About 2 o’clock surrounded on all hands by fire. Send Anderson to clear out a spring with a view to remove a flock to it. About 6 o’clock wind changed and a volume of smoke surrounded us and caused a darkness and gloom through which we could not see each other at 100 yards distance. Woemen all crying; some of the men proposing to try to burn a wider circle about ourselves, others praying not to attempt it. The world around us had a most dreadful appearance. …at the moment when certain ruin seemed impeding over us and we unable to do anything for ourselves drops of rain began to fall and in a few minutes were succeeded by a heavy shower.
February 21. Reaping and preparing the sheep wash. Rode out to see a saltwater lake and cattle run. Finest feed and soil I have yet seen but no fresh water. Shot a black swan 14 lb in weight.
February 24: Sheep rushed in one of the yards last night by a native dog…. Some of the men dressing sheep with tobacco water. Finished cutting tobacco.
February 25: Had our harvest home consisting of four stacks wheat, one small stack oats and a small one of barley. My own is the first stack yard I have seen in the colony and the best crop I have seen… Followed up a chain of reeds that indicate water till it began to form into a cluster of tea tree. This tree … always indicates water of the best quality.
February 26: Washing sheep, some of them very ill with scab. It may appear strange that I should buy scabbed sheep. The reason is that the Sydney sheep are liable to a most ruinous disease, viz catarrh. … Sydney sheep are finer in the wool but do not carry nearly so much of it, and they are a third short of carcase. .. the Sydney sheep are delicate in constitution – the finer the breed, the more delicate the constitution and the smaller the animal. Breeding in and in may be one among many reasons for this.
February 28: The garden contains an acre of land, grows most splendid vegetables. All the servants are daily enjoying a sumptuous dinner of vegetable broth and as much fine fat wether mutton as they can eat. This saves flour, tea and sugar and they are much better off.
Set fire to some of the run in the afternoon with a view to have fresh feed when the rains set in. ..About 8 o’clock it was observed flaring through the trees at a fearful rate …as it was making its way fast to one of the stations we fell to work with branches to put it out. We continued at it till past 12, …the dew began to descend and all our labour was uncalled for as the dew would have stopped it. A grass fire is not near so hot and much easier killed than a heather one, although it flares higher.
How to expand the run
February 29: I must plant a station at every three or four miles distance where water can be had, a hutkeeper is required at each station, and with a view to keep country only one shepherd with one flock consisting of about 600 is sent to each station.
March 1: I claim 10 miles square of the finest land in Australia, and if I take possession of the lake I will have much more. This I must do in a few days as others are on their way up to put stock on, and the first occupier shall possess it..
One third of the year may fairly be given up to unforeseen accidents and occurrences.
March 2: ..ride to all the different stations. They are distant from each about three miles and there are five of them including home station.
Finished turning over tobacco…. We use it for sheep washing alone; colonial tobacco is seldom used for any other purpose.
March 3: Five native dogs attacked D. McNicol’s flocks.
How houses are built in the city and on runs
March 4: I will try to describe the way in which houses are built here. In the country…many are made of bark but 99 out of 100 are made of split slabs six and a half feet long. …The roof is put on of bark taken off large trees and laid flat on the small poles used in place of rafters…. In a hot day a wooden house is disagreeable.
MARCH 5th. All hands employed at sheep dressing being obliged to finish the whole flock on the day we begin those flocks that have lambs, as it would not do to keep them separate from their lambs at night. Shepherded a flock of sheep myself today and rode round the stations in the evening.
Dingo chase and lost flour
March 8: Yesterday his (Donald Black’s) hutkeeper took away a bag containing 32 Ibs flour. On his way back he came across a mob of lambs feeding and a young dog (dingo); he (the dingo) began to chase them. He threw off his bag and after the dog, but when he got him stopped he could not be sure of the spot in which he threw down his bag. He sought for it till night closed in and then could not find his way back to either hut or home station. Like a true philosopher he made the best of his fate and slept contentedly at the root of a tree all night and sought for some hours again this morning with the same success. He is now back here and got more flour, and is just going off with it to the (by this time) half-famished, half-starved men.
March 9: Two young men (Bates) are now in my house on their way from Portland Bay. One of their horses knocked up on the way going and they were obliged to leave him behind. The other they used as a pack horse to carry their blankets &c and they travelled on foot. They have yet 130 miles to walk by one route or 150 by another, and their remaining horse cannot travel above 12 or 15 miles per day. Their boots are in tatters and I may add their clothes. They have slept ten nights in the open air without meat or fire, and their journey has already taken up a month of their time.
Black comment’s on his run – “no…. finer place”
March 10: I dare say it would keep 3 or 4000 head of cattle and from 10 to 15 000 sheep, perhaps even more, if I could keep it entire, and it is certainly my opinion that neither I nor any other in New South Wales ever had the like of it, nor do I think that any other place equal to it has yet been seen. What a pity that I have not money to make use of it, as it is it will for many a day be an expense to me, but cannot think of losing one inch that I can keep, as I will never get the like of it again. No Duke in GB has a finer place.
Protecting sheep from scab (caused by a parasitic mite called Psoroptes ovis, which is a skin surface feeder).
March 13: The division of the sheep was proposed to commence today and I have not one man on the home station to do it. Every man of them is out at different points fending off intruders and we can hardly defend ourselves but hope the worst of it is over, as scabbed sheep are prohibited from travelling excepting in the month of February, and all the sheep in Port Phillip are scabbed.
March 17: Dividing sheep. It is rather a troublesome business to mother so many young lambs. The increase is about 80 per cent and the sheep were much neglected.
March 18: Had the honour of a call from the Frenchman today, and an invitation to his hut. His partner and he have separated, and his wife (a lady brought up in Paris) herded the sheep alone without another soul on the place.
March 24: About 3 o’clock p.m., heard that a party (new settlers) had settled on my run and occupied one of my huts which I left for want of feed, as it had been eaten too bare and the lambing flocks unable to travel far.
MARCH 25th. Mr Riddell started with his flocks for Mount Macedon where he has bought a run from Hunter Dunhome Airshire, capable of keeping 4000 sheep and which he has a chance of occupying for two years before it is sold—at £220. (There is a small town called Riddells Creek on the southern side of the Macedon Ranges)
March 26: Washing the sheep a second time with tobacco water and a little corrosive sublimate.
Hut keeper’s job
March 27: Last week I engaged a sort of thing in the shape of a man—but certainly not a man among men—as hut keeper @ 15/-per week of wages, and thought myself fortunate in getting him. All he has to do is to shift the hurdles (15 minutes work at most) and cook his own and another man’s damper and tea. It is also usual for the hut keeper to sleep in a watch box beside the yards. On a new station it is more common to shift the huts or tents occasionally to where the yards are placed. On a home station it is not necessary for any person to sleep beside the sheep unless it be a newly formed one. Good and careful shepherds are very necessary to attend lambing flocks and they may be a little better than other for dry flocks, but for the latter care without skill is sufficient and skill without care is useless. But if a hut keeper can boil a kettle, bake a damper, shift yards and sleep the rest of the day in his hut, it is all that is necessary. He by no means keeps watch at night; he only sleeps in a box or small house that can be carried about [by] two men from one place to another, and is often much more comfortable than the hut. Tradesmen such [as] shoemakers, tailors &c make a good deal of money by working at their trade in day and sleeping in their boxes at night.
Dingo attacks and pasture
March 29: Native dogs are amazingly numerous here and very troublesome, both in day and night. When they come to the yards at night the sheep rush and break down the hurdles, and ten to one they get some of them before they can be collected again.
Where sheep are yarded a native yellow clover spring up in rich abundance. Cultivation and attention to a proper system would make this part of the country equal to any on the face of the earth. This chain of rich land crosses from east to west. It is about 200 miles long and 10 to 15 broad. I believe mine is the best part of it, and for soil I must say Glenshiray cannot by any means stand the comparison I once drew between them. I am certain, if properly cultivated, an acre of this is worth four of the Bonny Glen I never well forget, but for pasture the difference will not be so great although certainly richer here.
Reflection on Scotland versus a “new” life in the colony
April 9: If my friends had come here at an earlier age they would be happier here than at home, but I fear the anxiety would be too great of breaking off all their former ways and habits and beginning a new world or life at their time of day. Doubtless the climate is fine and must tend to spoil the enjoyment of Home after experiencing it, and so far as I can yet judge money easier made, but it is a hard task for persons comfortably established in life to throw off all and begin the world anew. To persons otherwise circumstanced I think I might safely say ‘come here’—whether struggling with difficulties they cannot overcome, or whether youth has prevented them from having yet cast their net and tried their fortune in life’s troubled sea.
Buying stock north of Melbourne
APRIL 28th. I have been up at Mount Macedon (40 miles north of Melbourne) and bought fifteen rams at £5 each, and sent them off with the dray home. Came back and from here went up to the Goulbourne (70 miles) and bought 115 head of cattle mixed herd for £800. I rode 122 miles in two days and on two meals of meat, and at the end of it paid 18/6 for a glass of brandy, tea, a bed on the floor, breakfast and two feeds of corn to my horse. Today I mean to go 40 miles up the Yarra to buy more cattle.
Neil Black’s diary Edited by Maggie MacKellar ends at this date
In early 1839, G McKillop and J Smith established the pastoral run known as Strathdownie (later Glenormiston) on Mt Emu Creek (originally known as Taylor’s Creek), and the overseer of the property was Frederick Taylor. Taylor’s house was built alongside Mt Emu Creek (located on a site about one mile east of the present homestead), and a contemporary description of the house reveals it was in the style of a ‘Swiss cottage with a heavy overhanging roof’ thatched with long grass and walls of wattle and daub construction. It contained a sitting room and two bedrooms with a detached kitchen. Other buildings at Strathdownie included workers huts of slab construction with thatched roofs and sod chimneys, a storehouse roofed with shingles, a woolshed/barn with a thatched roof and huts situated at the outstations.
Niel Black and Co. Ownership (1840-1869)
In early 1840 Strathdownie (around 17,000 hectares) was purchased for £773.17 by Neil Black, newly arrived from Scotland, on behalf of Neil Black & Company. The company’s purpose was to invest in Australian pastoral ventures. The other partners were William Steuart of Glenormiston, Peeblesshire (Scotland); Thomas Steuart Gladstone, member of the Liverpool firm of Gladstone, Serjeantson and Co and Alexander Struthers Finlay of Toward Castle, Argyllshire. Black renamed the station Glenormiston.
Born in 1804, Niel Black had gained a thorough knowledge of practical farming in Argyll and although Black initially contributed little capital, he was able to offer much practical experience. In early December 1839 he set off in search of a run in the Western District and visited a number of stations. Impressed with the Scottish-like countryside, Black arrived at Strathdownie and decided to purchase the property. He kept a journal detailing his new life in Australia (now held by the State Library of Victoria).
In 1843, Black returned briefly to Scotland to report progress and renew the partnership. On his return the following year he purchased the nearby run known as The Sisters and in 1845 bought the run Warreanga on the South Australian border. Many other extensive Western District properties were also acquired by the partnership and were held for various periods of time.
During Black’s early ownership of Glenormiston in the 1840s, wool production was the primary business with the wool transported to England for sale. Sheep were also raised for meat, for example in April 1852 two thousand fat sheep were advertised for sale. Cattle production, for both beef and dairy purposes, grew in importance during this period. In 1841 Black established a Shorthorn herd, which would later be described as ‘unsurpassed in Australia’. Black kept horses and as early as 1846 was advertising the availability of two stallions for breeding purposes. In addition some crops were grown during the 1840s including oats, potatoes and wheat, and to a lesser extent tobacco.
The Glenormiston homestead was one of the finest in the district and in December 1867 hosted the first royal visit to Australia. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, was a guest at Glenormiston during this visit and an engraving of this event was undertaken to record this special occasion [Illustrated Australian News, 4 February 1868]. Black was a member of the Legislative Council from 1859 until his death. In 1869 Black acquired the southern part of the Glenormiston run which he named Mount Noorat. His Mount Noorat homestead remained in the family until demolished in about 1940. He died at Mount Noorat in May 1880 after a severe illness and left an estate of £179,208.
Source: Victorian Heritage Database Report GLENORMISTON (HOMESTEAD AND FORMER AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE) https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/1150/download-report
After the dissolution of Niel Black & Co in 1869, partner Alexander Finlay acquired Glenormiston and his sons ran the 17,000 hectare property until 1889 when it was subdivided into 240 allotments. At this time Steuart Black, son of the original owner, acquired the homestead lot of 708 hectares. The homestead and English garden were continually renovated by successive owners until 1908. The 280 hectares of land, containing the Glenormiston homestead, was sold to the Victorian State Government in 1949 and the remaining land was sold as farms. It was used as a research farm until 1972. In 1973 Glenormiston homestead became the administration centre for Glenormiston Agricultural College. I was lecturer in animal production at the college from 1975 to 1980. The college went through a range of administrations after it was removed from the Department of Agriculture in 1977. It closed as an agricultural college offering a Diploma in Farm Management in 2014.