Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Neil MacKellar (1769–1802)

by M. Austin

This article was published:

Neil MacKellar (d.1802), military officer, was possibly a nephew of Colonel Patrick MacKellar of the Royal Engineers. He was commissioned an ensign in the New South Wales Corps on 21 April 1791 and arrived in the colony with the main body of his regiment in February 1792. He was a member of the court appointed by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose to investigate Philip Gidley King's actions during the disturbances at Norfolk Island in 1794. In June 1795 he accompanied Edward Abbott and a detachment of troops to protect the settlers against the Aboriginals at the Hawkesbury. In November he was promoted lieutenant. In October 1796 he joined Thomas Laycock and others as a defendant in an action brought by John Boston relating to the shooting of the latter's sow, but was acquitted. In 1797-99 he was in command at the Hawkesbury. On his return to Sydney he acted as adjutant until November 1800. As a member of the court which tried Isaac Nichols in March 1799 he took objection to Governor John Hunter's request to make his vote public. In October he was a member of a court wherein five men were charged with the murder of two native boys. Under questioning he stated that orders issued for the destruction of Aboriginals whenever encountered, after they had committed outrages, had not been countermanded during his command at the Hawkesbury nor to his knowledge since.

In September 1800 he became secretary and aide-de-camp to Governor King, and was appointed an acting magistrate and a member of a committee to investigate an alleged conspiracy among the Irish convicts. On the grounds of internal security and the shortage of captains in Sydney, King appointed him to the local rank of captain in October. In April 1801 he was replaced by William Chapman as secretary. In July Lieutenant Marshall, R.N., when on trial for assault, objected to MacKellar's membership of the court on the grounds that he had already prejudged the case. MacKellar took an active part in the later events leading up to the rencontre between Lieutenant-Colonel William Paterson and John Macarthur, in which he acted as the former's second, so earning Macarthur's animosity. In March 1802 he prosecuted Nicholas Bayly on behalf of King for disobedience of orders relating to the trade in spirits. Soon afterwards he sailed for England in the Caroline with Macarthur's sword and King's dispatches concerning the duel, but the schooner was never sighted again.

A convict woman, Sarah Cooley, bore him three daughters and two sons in New South Wales, and his will in 1799 divided his property equally between Sarah and the four children who had then been born. His elder son was Lieutenant Duncan MacKellar, R.N. (b. 4 December 1796).

MacKellar's actions in his last years can be ascribed to motives arising from expediency and patronage. His desire to take leave in England at that particular time, in spite of his apparent intention to return to the colony, can be attributed to a desire to avoid Macarthur's enmity. Although some of his actions may have indicated immaturity, they were consistent with certain principles: for example, his moral courage and loyalty in supporting Paterson and King, in spite of their obvious weaknesses in the face of strong hostility. MacKellar's display of independent character was in contrast to many other military officers. He did not trade in spirits, and was not unduly interested in obtaining landholdings or amassing a large fortune. Had he reached England he could well have profoundly altered Macarthur's career, and through this the course of Australia's history.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-5
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-5
  • Piper papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

M. Austin, 'MacKellar, Neil (1769–1802)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 April, 1769
Glassary, Argyll, Scotland


1802 (aged ~ 32)
at sea

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