History of West Australia/Donald McDonald Mackay

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IN the lives of Australia's advance guard of pioneers there is much that appeals to human sympathy in the tales of quiet heroism, of hardships undergone, of lives surrendered at the shrine of duty. The memories of these men and women will ever remain green in the hearts of those who survive.

Donald McDonald Mackay HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

In Mr. Donald McDonald Mackay's life there have been many pathetic incidents and stirring adventures, and his expressive face tells the story of a hard-wrought life. In the place of his nativity, in the far-away Isle of Skye, where he was born in 1845, he passed the days of his infancy, listening to the Atlantic roaring upon the rocky shores. From those breezy wastes the little island lad inhaled the pure oxygen to which those hardy islanders owe their splendid constitutions. Donald's parents were farmers, and, like many others, were attracted by the prospects of wealth to be got in Australia, where emigrant ships by the score were sailing every year.

Fired with enthusiasm, the hardy Skye man, with his wife and family, determined to try his fortune in the south land, and in 1855 he embarked with all his belongings on board the emigrant ship Switzerland, bound for Adelaide.

On reaching South Australia, the family were engaged by Mr. Robert Lawson as station hands on a sheep run in the south-eastern portion of the colony for a period of twelve months. They had their abode about seven miles from the home station, and all were busy, and even young Donald was entrusted with the care of a flock of sheep. But the change of life did not suit the father, who pined for his island home until he became ill. And sickness hung gloomily over the lonely little bush house, and in less than twelve months from the time of entering the station so full of hope the father passed away.

The children were now cast on their own resources, and a right brave part did they play, for not only did they work on the station to the end of the term for which their father engaged, but did so under anything but favourable circumstances. In 1855 the blacks were not particularly friendly with their new white neighbours, and they showed their feeling by periodical raids. On one occasion young Donald, who was hardly eleven years of age, on returning home found his sister confronted by a huge aboriginal, who demanded "damper" under penalty of instant death. The little fellow proved himself a hero by energetically attacking the man, and through surprise for the boy's pluck, or fear, the man of the woods decamped, leaving the children in safety.

From the station the family removed to Narracourte, in the south-east, where they set to work to support their mother. The young Mackays became well known even in the short period of one year, and work was easily obtained at fencing and general bush-craft. Master Donald quickly tired of the monotony of this life, and his ambitions soared to the height of being in command of a bullock-dray. Then, at the age when most boys are at school, with stout whip and commanding voice he guided oxen on the road between Narracourte and Guichen Bay.

The distance between the two places was seventy miles, and owing to the bad roads the teams were frequently as long as six weeks on the journey. Although only twelve years of age, Donald frequently traversed this long road by himself, and the stout-hearted lad was conspicuous among his companions for his bravery; in tribulation he was sowing seeds of subsequent success. During following years he negotiated different descriptions of station work, and became a perfect bushman. His elder brother Roderick, having gathered together a little capital, invested it in the Denison Plains Squatting Company and decided to settle in Western Australia. He took over a number of cattle, sheep, and horses on behalf of the company, but the venture was not a success.

On returning to South Australia Mr. Roderick Mackay, in conjunction with others, chartered the Dutch ship Johanna Maria to take a second shipment to the West. On this occasion the stock was landed at Cossack, and travelled south-west to the Ashburton. The animals were so badly treated on the ship that they were not fit for the journey, and failure was once more experienced. These repeated disappointments broke Mr. Roderick Mackay in fortune, but not in heart, for so sanguine was he of the prospects of the country, if it once got a fair trial, that, on his return to South Australia, he was as anxious as ever to settle there. Donald accordingly placed his limited means at his elder brother's disposal, and the hardy pioneer, like King Bruce of old, "tried once more as he tried before, and did not fail."

The glowing accounts the brother gave of this great western colony induced Donald to try his fortunes here, and the following year he realised on property he had in South Australia and embarked on the old barque Freebridge, and reached Cossack on 17th March, 1869. At Cossack Mr. Mackay met Mr. Horace Sholl, who lent him a horse to complete the journey to his destination. On this journey he was so struck with the appearance of the country that he made the remark that he was certain valuable minerals would be found in the locality. Between Roebourne and the Maitland liver he came across huge outcrops of white quartz, near the very place where rich finds of gold have since been made. At that time, however, the country was not ripe for such discoveries, and nature's storehouses were allowed to keep their treasures for many following years. Thenceforth Mr. Mackay became intimately associated with the history of Western Australia, and saw the development of the pearl fisheries. On joining his brother, who had taken up a leasehold on the Maitland River, it was agreed to divide the work, and the elder brother took care of the stock while the younger augmented the tottering finances by taking contracts for road-making, &c. Then came the boom in the pearl fisheries, and with the money made at his contract work Donald bought a share in a small pearling craft. At this time the pearl shells were collected mostly on the rocks when the tide was out, the natives picking the shell up with their toes. By degrees they worked on into deeper water, and then the practice of diving commenced. Mr. D. Mackay took an active part in the operations, but the hard work and harder living told on his health to such an extent that, acting on the advice of Mr. McKenzie Grant, he, in company with a friend, a Mr. Loftus, returned to the mainland to recuperate. The two joined a schooner bound for the De Grey River, but on reaching the entrance missed the tide, and sooner than wait for twenty-four hours the two friends agreed to land and make their way overland to the settlement. They got ashore, but found themselves on the wrong side of the river, which was running a banker. How to cross was a problem which proved difficult to solve. Both men were far from well, but Mr. Loftus, who was the stronger and a splendid swimmer, decided to test the stream before allowing his less powerful comrade to venture. He first took the clothes over and then returned for Mr. Mackay, but he would not accept assistance. The current was running so strong that the swimmers were carried half a mile down the stream before they could land. On his return to health Mr. Mackay sold his interest in the pearling craft and went on the station with his brother, with whom he had previously entered into partnership.

Shortly afterwards he returned to Fremantle, and with Mr. Walter Ledger purchased a vessel for the pearl fisheries. The cutter, the Victoria, was given a thorough overhaul, and in the month of July, 1871, the partners started away for the pearling grounds. They were only out a few hours when a terrible nor'wester overtook them, which necessitated the vessel being hove to. The jaws of the gaff were torn away, and the cutter had to run back to Fremantle, where she arrived at daybreak, but on dropping anchor carried away the chains. She rapidly drifted towards the shore, but fortunately Mr. John Bateman noticed their predicament, and calling for volunteers manned a whaleboat and carried off a line to the distressed vessel. After a lot of trouble they managed to make this fast to a buoy, and saved the cutter from destruction. Mr. Mackay landed, and was unable to board the vessel again for three weeks, so rough was the weather. In the meantime a cutter, Governor Weld, arrived from Roebourne with the news that a terrible "willy-willy" had swept over the Roebourne district and done an immense amount of damage to life and property. Mr. Mackay was naturally anxious to ascertain how his brother had fared during the trouble, but owing to the prevalence of the heavy gales was detained in Fremantle. Every morning he fully expected to find the cutter ashore, but by a wonderful dispensation of Providence she hung on to the mooring and weathered the gales. At last the storm abated, and a course was steered for Roebourne. On his arrival at the station Mr. Mackay found that the reports that had reached him in Fremantle had not been exaggerated. All the hard work on the station had resulted in disaster. Out of the 2,500 sheep with which the property was stocked 1,700 were drowned. When he reached home he found his brother had gathered the wool from the dead sheep, whose carcases were scattered over the plains, and thus saved a little from the ruin. When the "willy-willy" came Mr. Roderick Mackay sat in his house and saw the stock being swept away in all directions. As the waters spread over the plains and rose higher he gave up all hope of saving the stock and had to look to his own safety. A favourite mare was in the stable, which he saddled, and, gathering together a few valuables, started for the high hills. As he was leaving he saw a little collie puppy, which even in his danger he could not desert, so, picking it up, the disappointed man, with his two four-fooled friends, left his doomed home.

The brothers were so discouraged by their misfortunes that they determined to put the property on the market, and eventually a purchaser was found. The negotiations for the sale were almost completed when the intending purchaser got an idea that there was scab among the sheep and refused to complete the purchase. With the remnant of their stock the Mackays bade farewell to the river which had treated them so ill and settled on the Yule, sixty miles to the eastward of Roebourne, and with this change their fortunes improved. The elder brother Roderick remained to look after the stock, and Donald went with his partner on the long-delayed pearling voyage. The natives they engaged were not capable of doing the work in the deep water, and Mr. Mackay's partner went up to Exmouth Gulf for additional men. The blacks were known to be very treacherous in that locality, but Mr. Ledger had always got on well with them, and used to boast that they would never hurt him. So confident was he, that, on arriving at the recruiting grounds in the cutter Hamden, belonging to the Tuckeys, he remained on board by himself while the men were ashore. The unfortunate man was sitting in the companion way talking to one of the natives who had swam off from the shore when a second man came behind and struck him on the head with a tomahawk, splitting the skull. The poor fellow fell into the cabin, and, picking up a rifle, fired up the companion-way, blowing off the assassin's hand. The report of the rifle brought the Tuckeys back to the ship, but the natives escaped for a time by jumping overboard and swimming to an island near which the ship was anchored. The master of the vessel, on ascertaining what had happened, and having attended to the injured man, went ashore with his brother and captured the culprit, who was conveyed to Cossack. Mr. Ledger only survived his injuries a few weeks, but the murderer, for some extraordinary reasons, was only sentenced to a short term of imprisonment.

Fortune favoured the Mackay family both in the pearling and squatting ventures. Large areas of land were added to the original station, which is now one of the largest in the colony. Mr. Donald Mackay continued pearling, and in 1882 the hard life which he had lived brought on a serious illness. His schooner, the Myria, was at this time lying off Broome, 500 miles north-east of Cossack, and it was in the endeavour to visit him that his brother Roderick lost his life. The schooner in which he had taken his passage left port in the teeth of a terrible storm, or "willy-willy," and was never heard of again. Mr. Donald Mackay saw the best of the pearl fisheries, and only left it when the falling price of shell and the restrictions placed on the trade by the Government rendered it unprofitable. The station which was founded with so much pain and trouble is situated on the Yule and Turner livers, is named the Mundabullangana, and has an area of over 3,000,000 acres. The stock comprises 90,000 sheep, between 2,000 and 3,000 cattle, and 500 horses. In 1875 Mr. Mackay commenced importing blood stock, and several high-class blood horses were placed on the station for breeding purposes. Mr. Donald Mackay retired a few years ago from the active management of the property, which is now entrusted to his nephew, Mr. Samuel Mackay. He soon after settled in Fremantle, and in 1893 married Miss Vincent, of that town.

Mr. Mackay is one of nature's gentlemen. barred by the circumstances of his early life from attending school, he is yet an educated man, conversant with the manners and customs of all kinds and conditions of men. The school in which he studied was the rough one of experience, through which he has emerged with the highest and best qualities of man. In the Legislative Council, to which he was elected in 1896 to represent the North Province, he will be a valuable acquisition, as his knowledge of the country should enable him to suggest laws that will be a benefit to the whole community.