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Walter Batchelor MacDougall (1907–1976)

by W. H. Edwards

This article was published:

Walter Batchelor MacDougall (1907-1976), missionary and patrol officer, was born on 6 April 1907 at Mornington, Victoria, fifth child of Rev. Daniel Allan MacDougall, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, and his second wife Rachel Buist, née Gibson, who was born in Tasmania. Walter was educated at Scotch College, Launceston (1914-17), and Scotch College, Melbourne (1918-22). A shy 'lanky fellow with fiery red hair', he worked on farms at Rosebery and Brim, and learned to drive a team of nine horses. In 1931-39 he served the Presbyterian Church as assistant-missionary at Port George IV (Kunmunya) in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Second-in-charge to the superintendent J. R. B. Love, MacDougall managed cattle, assisted in running the garden and store, and helped with maintenance, building, church services and adult education. At the Kunmunya mission church on 10 November 1932 he married Gladys May Giles, a 31-year-old teacher. They spent their honeymoon camping in the bush and were to adopt a daughter.

In August 1938 a rifle that Walter was carrying slipped and discharged, destroying his right thumb and forefinger; he was flown to Wyndham for treatment. Next year the MacDougalls left Kunmunya. The joint endeavours of the Loves and MacDougalls have been remembered with gratitude by the Worora people. On 26 May 1940 MacDougall was appointed acting-superintendent of Ernabella mission in the north-west of South Australia. There, work with sheep provided employment opportunities for the Pitjantjatjara people. MacDougall learned some basic Pitjantjatjara language. His responsibilities included conducting services, managing a store, supervising the use of stock, and maintaining buildings, trucks, windmills and tanks. In October he led a patrol into the Aboriginal reserve to the west. When Love took over as superintendent in 1941, MacDougall continued to oversee the sheep industry.

His attempts to join the Australian Military Forces were initially rejected because of his damaged hand. In March 1942 he left Ernabella for Melbourne, determined to enlist. The mission diary recorded his faithful service and reported that the Aborigines wailed after he departed. Mobilized as a driver on 20 March, MacDougall was posted to No.1 General Transport Company and drove trucks in convoys through the Northern Territory from Alice Springs to Darwin. He was discharged on 28 March 1944 in Victoria. He and his wife returned to Ernabella and remained there until November 1946.

MacDougall's long and varied experience with Aborigines prepared him for employment on the Woomera Range in South Australia in 1947-72. Some people were alarmed that guided weapons would pass over Aboriginal reserves and have detrimental effects on the inhabitants. MacDougall was appointed temporary (later native) patrol officer. He lived at Woomera and acted as one of the State's protectors of Aborigines. In 1951, however, he expressed his frustration that his area of patrol was limited to Woomera itself: he had made little contact with Aborigines and was working as a driver.

Ooldea mission, near Maralinga, closed in 1952. MacDougall helped to transport Aborigines from there to the new mission at Yalata to remove them from the place where atomic bombs would be tested. In 1955 he was also appointed a protector of Aborigines in Western Australia. His area of responsibility had been extended following additions of land to the Woomera firing range, the opening of the Emu and Maralinga atomic-testing grounds in 1953, and the establishment of the Giles Meteorological Station in Western Australia in 1956. MacDougall had strenuously opposed the proposal to locate the G.M.S. on an Aboriginal reserve, arguing that the presence of its staff would adversely affect the Aborigines' traditional life. His pleas proved unavailing. In 1956 another patrol officer Robert Macaulay was based at Giles; after he moved to Woomera, the two men alternately patrolled a region of some 400,000 sq. miles (1,035,995 km²).

MacDougall spent weeks alone on patrols, trying to ensure that there were no Aborigines in areas likely to be subjected to rocket or atomic tests. He also supervised contact between Aborigines and range staff. His tall, thin figure and his vehicle became familiar sights throughout the Western Desert. Aboriginal guides, among them Tommy Dodd, escorted him on some patrols. He, in turn, assisted anthropologists and other researchers in the district. In the early years MacDougall made contact with nomadic tribes, took people for medical treatment and carried messages. At first, his vehicles were painted yellow so that they could be seen from the air in the event of breakdowns in the red sandhill country. His bushcraft enabled him to cope with difficult situations. Mechanical repairs were made in isolated camps and punctures were mended around his camp-fire at the end of a day's travel. The Aborigines used a system of hand gestures as one means of communication: by curling up thumb and forefinger and extending the other three fingers, they formed a symbol for the man known as Mitjamakanya (Mr Mac). In 1970 he was awarded the British Empire medal. An outcrop in Western Australia was named MacDougall's Bluff in his honour.

The MacDougalls were founding members of the Woomera United Protestant Church. Gladys taught at the local public school and held office in the Woomera branch of the Country Women's Association. Walter served as a justice of the peace and was a founding member of the Woomera Natural History Society. In the later years of his employment, there was less rocket-testing, and most Aborigines had moved to missions and settlements. MacDougall was increasingly involved in recording Aboriginal sites. On his retirement in 1972, the couple moved to Kilsyth, Melbourne. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died of pneumonia and pericarditis on 5 May 1976 at Heidelberg and was cremated; his ashes were buried at Ernabella.

MacDougall's task at Woomera had been a difficult one. Prickly and pertinacious, he dealt with Aboriginal welfare departments from two States and the Northern Territory, as well as with superiors whose priorities were scientific and military. His concern for the welfare of Aboriginal people often led to conflict. One chief scientist wrote that, while MacDougall was sincere in protecting the interests of Aborigines, he lacked balance and placed 'the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations'. No epitaph could be more fitting.

Select Bibliography

  • M. McKenzie, The Road to Mowanjum (Syd, 1969)
  • Report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, vol 1 (Canb, 1985)
  • M. Morey, The Manse Folk of Kirklands, Tasmania (Syd, 1986)
  • P. Morton, Fire Across the Desert (Canb, 1989)
  • Ernabella Mission diary, 1941-48 (photocopy of original) and G. MacDougall, personal diary—Kunmunya, 1936-38 (held by author)
  • private information.

Citation details

W. H. Edwards, 'MacDougall, Walter Batchelor (1907–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 April, 1907
Mornington, Victoria, Australia


5 May, 1976 (aged 69)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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