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McMillan, Angus (1810–1865)

by Cheryl Glowrey

This article was published online in 2017

Angus McMillan (1810-1865), by unknown photographer

Angus McMillan (1810-1865), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 24595

Angus McMillan (1810–1865), explorer and pastoralist, was born on 14 August 1810 at Glenbrittle, Isle of Skye, Scotland, fourth son of Ewen McMillan, sheep farmer, and his wife Marion, née Macleod. Angus received his education at home before the family moved to a larger property on the island of Barra. Against a backdrop of economic hardship, he chose to find his future in the colonies, arriving in New South Wales in January 1838 on the Minerva. Employed by Lachlan Macalister as an overseer, he moved first to the Clifton station near Camden and then further south to Currawang on the Monaro.

In 1839, battling drought, Macalister encouraged an enthusiastic McMillan to seek new pastures and a route to the coast. Europeans were settling on the Tambo River above Ensay, having followed the Aboriginal route through the ranges.  Accompanied by Jemmy Gibber, a Ngarigo man from the Monaro, McMillan saw extensive lands and coast in the distance. Months later, he ventured further south, accompanied by Matthew Macalister, a nephew of his employer, and two stockmen, John Cameron and Edward Bath. The men selected Numbla Munjee station on the Tambo River at Ensay, but were unable to find a path into Gippsland.

With Numbla Munjee as a base, the group attempted to reach the coast in January 1840, this time taking two Jaimatang guides from Omeo, Cobbone Johnny and Boy Friday. Climbing a hill along the Mitchell River, McMillan, named the land Caledonia Australis. He then pushed south to the Avon River to claim the Nuntin run for Macalister, and Bushy Park for himself. On the return journey he left Macalister at Ensay while he travelled to Monaro to report to his employer. During McMillan’s absence the explorer Paul Strzelecki made his way to Numbla Munjee and followed McMillan’s route into country he named Gippsland.

McMillan cut a track and drove 500 head of Macalister’s cattle from Currawong to the Avon River in August 1840, when he received an urgent direction from Macalister to find a port for Gippsland. This expedition was aborted on the banks of the Latrobe River, about thirty-two kilometres from Corner Inlet. He travelled to Monaro, returning to find that his men had retreated to Numbla Munjee following a fierce attack by the Brayakaulung of the Gunai Kurnai, who made several attempts to drive McMillan’s establishment from their land. The ferocity of early attacks, McMillan’s own descriptions of the ‘park like’ nature of the environment, and a later comment that Bushy Park was a gathering point for the Gunai Kurnai highlight the significance of this country for the Brayakaulung. When McMillan returned to Bushy Park in December 1840, a second attack occurred, the pastoralist’s ferocious defence leaving the Brayakaulung subdued.

Finally, a determined McMillan reached Port Albert on 14 February 1841, days after the arrival of the Gipps Land Company on their chartered ship, the Singapore. He abandoned the secrecy surrounding his explorations to publicly challenge claims by Strzelecki for the ‘discovery’ of the region. As a result, many of his names for rivers and mountains were retained, perpetuating the Scottish influence on Gippsland at the expense of Gunai Kurnai place names. He continued to invest in the region when he chartered a ship to secure the cattle trade to Hobart in 1842. Considered a pioneer, McMillan was honoured by his peers with a portrait in 1854, currently held by the Sale Art Gallery. At an anniversary dinner held in Port Albert in 1856, he outlined his exploration of Gippsland, creating a narrative that dominated early historical interpretations.

On 30 March 1861 at Bushy Park Station, Sale, McMillan married Christina MacNaughton. He was elected the first representative of the South Gippsland electorate in the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1859, but resigned in 1860; in 1861 he became president of the Caledonian Society of Victoria. With commitments in Melbourne, his renowned generosity to his countrymen together with poor investments contributed to the loss of his pastoral lands. In 1864, he accepted a government contract to establish a road between the goldfields at Crooked River and Dargo River, known as the Alpine Expedition. He died of endocarditis at Iguana Creek, Crooked River on 18 May 1865. He was buried in the Sale Cemetery, leaving his wife and two sons in an impoverished position.

Public interest in McMillan and Strzelecki was reignited during a 1920s campaign to recognise European explorers in Victoria, and a chain of commemorative cairns was erected across the region. McMillan’s contribution to the region was also conferred in naming the Federal Electoral Division of McMillan in 1948, which includes original lands of the Gunai Kurnai in west and south Gippsland.

The view of McMillan as heroic explorer and pioneer was disrupted in the late 1970s when the historian Peter Gardner highlighted the extent of frontier conflict in Gippsland, naming McMillan as a key figure. The attack on the Brataualung camped at Warrigal Creek following the murder of Ronald Macalister in 1843 was the foremost of several incidents that resulted in the loss of Gunai Kurnai lives. The historian Don Watson named McMillan as the leader of the ‘Highland Brigade’, a group of Gaelic-speaking Scotsmen who conducted reprisals against the Gunai Kurnai. The extent of McMillan’s leadership of these conflicts has been contested although his own accounts indicate that he was involved. Decades of silence on the Gippsland frontier, often attributed to a reaction to the Myall Creek judgments, has blurred the extent of violence. 

McMillan was responsible for raising fears of a European woman held captive by the Gunai Kurnai, firstly in 1840 and again in 1846-47. Little was made of the earlier claim, but in 1846 with the European population of Port Phillip District expanding and frontier conflict a matter of public anxiety, McMillan’s reports sparked a heightened reaction to the missing ‘White Woman of Gippsland’. Two search parties travelled throughout Gippsland, bringing much disruption and more violent deaths to the Gunai Kurnai despite there being no firm evidence of a kidnapping.

McMillan’s role in the settlement of Gippsland and the destruction of traditional Gunai Kurnai culture and sovereignty has been explored in a range of creative and community responses. In 2002, the West Gippsland Reconciliation Group requested that the Federal seat of McMillan be renamed in view of his role in atrocities against the Gunai Kurnai. This debate re-emerged early in 2016 in the lead up to a planned redistribution of electoral boundaries. In the same year, Cal Flyn, a relative of McMillan’s from the Isle of Skye, questioned how McMillan could participate in atrocities on the colonial frontier in Gippsland. In the spirit of reconciliation, Flyn met Gunai Kurnai senior elders before travelling with them to learn their perspectives about McMillan. Flyn’s exploration, written from the standpoint of a young person, captures the essence of the wider Australian community’s response to understanding the frontier and the need for national reconciliation with a colonial past.

♦♦    This article replaces the original Volume 2 ADB biography, authored by Theo Webster. To view original, see link below.

Select Bibliography

  • Attwood, Bain. ‘Blacks and Lohans: a study of Aboriginal-European Relations in Gippsland in the 19th Century’, PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 1984
  • Crowley, Peter. ‘Is This Such a Man?’ insidestory.org.au/is-this-such-a-man/ (accessed 8 June 2016). Copy held on ADB file
  • Carr, Julie. The Captive White Woman of Gippsland: in Pursuit of a Legend. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001
  • Daley, Charles. ‘Angus McMillan.’ Victorian Historical Magazine 11, no. 43 (1927): 143–56
  • Flyn, Cal. Thicker than Water: a Memoir of Family, Secrets, Guilt and History. Sydney: Harper Collins, 2016
  • Gardner, Peter D. Our Founding Murdering Father: Angus McMillan and the Kurnai Tribe of Gippsland 1839-1865. Ensay (Vic.): Ngarak Press, 1990
  • Watson, Don. Caledonia Australis: Scottish Highlanders on the Frontier of Australia. Sydney: William Collins, 1984

Additional Resources

Other ADB articles for Angus McMillan

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cheryl Glowrey, 'McMillan, Angus (1810–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcmillan-angus-2416/text34996, published online 2017, accessed online 14 December 2017.

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