Walter Scott and place names in Aotearoa and Australia (part 2)

Abbotsford: Walter Scott’s home near Melrose in the Scottish Borders, and the inspiration for other Abbotsfords around the world

Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish writer Walter Scott, and I mark the occasion by publishing the second part of this post, based on a lecture I gave in 2017.

Why did British settlers and their descendants give places in Australia and New Zealand names associated with Walter Scott? I’ve already suggested some reasons: Scott’s worldwide fame, his status as a symbol of British culture, and the desire of immigrants for reminders of home. It’s notable that many, though not all, of those giving Scott-related names to places were Scottish. I think there’s another reason, however: for at least some colonists, Scott’s stories provided a template through which to imagine the experience of settlement in romantic but ultimately reassuring terms.

In his book Writing the Colonial Adventure, Australian academic Robert Dixon describes how the Waverley novels allow the hero to pursue dreams of adventure, but ultimately end with the reassertion of social stability rooted in possession of property. White settlers in New Zealand and Australia could experience directly or, if they lived further from the frontier, vicariously through newspaper accounts, the dangers of conflict with indigenous peoples, raids by bushrangers, and natural disasters such as bushfires, floods or earthquakes. If they were of a romantic bent, they could imagine themselves as embarked on their own heroic adventure, while always aware that the ultimate aim of colonisation was the pacification of the wild country, the subjugation of its indigenous inhabitants, and the creation of secure property rights for settlers under a British-derived legal system.

Dixon’s discussion of the Waverley novels is a prelude to his consideration of the writing of Thomas Browne or, to give him his nom de plume, Rolf Boldrewood. Browne, a prolific Australian novelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose most famous book is the bushranging tale Robbery Under Arms, was openly influenced by Scott and took the name Boldrewood from Scott’s Marmion.

Before he became a writer, Browne ran a succession of cattle and sheep stations, starting in 1844 with a station in the southwest of what is now the state of Victoria. He called the property Squattlesea Mere, a name that, as a self-described ‘devout worshipper of Walter Scott’, he borrowed from Scott’s novel Woodstock. He later recalled Squattlesea Mere in terms that self-consciously drew on the tropes of adventure stories:

There were wild beasts (kangaroos and dingoes), Indians (blacks, whose fires in ‘The Rocks’ we could see), a pathless waste, and absolute freedom and independence. These last were the most precious possessions of all. … I felt as if this splendid Robinson Crusoe kind of life was too good to be true. Who was I that I should have had this grand inheritance of happiness immeasurable made over to me?

But the land had not, in fact, been ‘made over’ to Browne, but rather taken from its Aboriginal inhabitants, and he goes on in his memoir to spend several chapters recounting what he calls the ‘Eumerella War’ with local Aboriginal people. The settlers won the war and, as Browne puts it: ‘Our border ruffians being settled for good and all, we pioneers were enabled to devote ourselves to our legitimate business – the breeding and fattening of cattle.’

Another settler who gave his property a name with Walter Scott associations was Robert Christison of Lammermoor station in Queensland. Born at Foulden, Berwickshire, son of a Church of Scotland minister, Christison emigrated to Australia with his brother in 1852, at the age of only 15. Christison’s life story was told by his daughter Mary Bennett in the book Christison of Lammermoor, published in 1927. Bennett recounts the following story from Christison’s childhood:

One day, long remembered, Bob was sent with a message to a neighbouring minister. The kindhearted man asked him if he had read Ivanhoe, and lent him the book. Bob devoured it almost at a reading, while day and its concerns faded unheeded, and new worlds opened to his vision. He was another knight without inheritance, and the earth a Holy Land for service and adventure.

This is the only mention of Scott’s writing in Christison of Lammermoor. But Bennett emphasises the importance of this incident by calling it ‘long remembered’ and by placing it just before Christison’s departure for Australia is recounted. Christison, we are given to believe, was inspired by his reading of Scott to seek a life of adventure in a new country.

When Christison reaches the land that is to become Lammermoor station, the book provides an ecstatic description of his first view of ‘the high land of trees and watercourses’:

All at once he seemed to see the Lammermoor Hills standing above the Merse, as the table-land stood above the rolling downs. He had thought of many romantic names for the homestead that he would build. Now he set them all aside for Lammermoor.

There’s no mention here of Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor, only of Christison’s childhood memories of the Lammermoor Hills, but a man who read Scott as a child and had been thinking of ‘romantic names’ for his property can hardly have been unaware of the name’s literary associations. It’s interesting that, as with Thomas Browne (who refers to christening his property Squattlesea Mere ‘in my mind instantly’ because the name was ‘so exceedingly appropriate’), Christison’s naming of the station is depicted as a spur-of-the-moment decision, and yet one that is so right that it is almost predestined.

Christison’s station was located on the land of Yirandali Aboriginal people (also known as the Dalleburra). There’s been some historical debate about Christison’s relationship with the Yirandali. Unlike other owners of sheep and cattle stations in Queensland, Christison encouraged the Yirandali to continue living on their ancestral land, and it was only after he sold Lammermoor in 1910 that many of the Aboriginal people were moved off to government reserves far from their home. Christison’s daughter Mary Bennett later became a prominent advocate for Aboriginal rights, and her biography of her father is not only a work of filial piety but also a polemic about mistreatment of Aboriginal people, using her father as a model for how things should have been. Yet Christison’s treatment of the Yirandali was not always as benign as Bennett makes out, and he profited from the use of their labour on the station at minimal cost.

Christison did make the effort to learn some of the language and, importantly, the place names of the Yirandali. A map in Bennett’s book shows some of the wealth of indigenous names that continued to blanket the landscape, even as Christison added new ones – Lammermoor, Merse, Foulden – from the landscape of his childhood. In her book, Bennett has Christison recall, before he leaves Lammermoor for the last time, ‘the aboriginal names of the noble chain of waterholes that form the head of Tower Hill Creek’: ‘Kooroorinya, like the roar of its waters in flood’; ‘Pilmunny, … a favourite cattle camp, where once the Dalleburra had used to hold their bora ceremonies’; and so on.

A section of ‘Map of the Lammermoor Tableland and Surrounding Country’, in Mary Bennett, Christison of Lammermoor

Writing about the disastrous expedition of the explorers Burke and Wills in the 1860s, the historian David Denholm has commented that ‘We shall have to blame William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and other Romantics for giving Colonial Australians the means to shape their dreams with such splendid foolishness.’ In a sense, place names associated with Walter Scott bear witness to the dreams (whether foolish or otherwise) that settler Australians and New Zealanders brought with them or inherited from Britain, dreams of adventure but also of property and stability.

Yet these dreams were shadowed by anxieties, even nightmares: by fears of degeneration of the British ‘racial stock’ in the colonies, of threats from without from Chinese or other non-white peoples and from within from class conflict. And underlying all, though rarely spoken of, an anxiety about their right to possess land that had so recently been taken from Aboriginal and Māori peoples. Perhaps names such as Abbotsford, Waverley, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Ravenswood, Deloraine, Lochinvar, Lammermoor – names redolent of leather-bound volumes, centuries-old tradition and middle-class respectability – provided a reassuring reminder that they were part of a great and powerful empire; an empire that ruled not only the waves, but also the Waverleys.

Further reading

Robert Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875-1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Stuart Kelly, Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation (Edinburgh, Polygon, 2010)

Joyce Miles, ‘Oh Young Lochinvar is Come Out of the West…’, Placenames Australia, September 2008, pp. 1, 3

Malcolm Prentis, The Scots in Australia (Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2008)

A.W. Reed, The Story of New Zealand Place Names (Wellington, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1952)

Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012)

Graham Tulloch, ‘Two Hundred Years of Waverley in Australia’, The Bottle Imp (online journal), issue 16, 2014,

Benjamin Wilkie, ‘Space, Commemoration, and Iconography: Scottish Monuments and Memorials in Australia’, in Fred Cahir, Anne Beggs Sunter and Alison Inglis (eds), Scots under the Southern Cross (Ballarat, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2015), pp. 157-165

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