A story of an Australian pioneer might not sound like the most riveting read, but rest assured, Thicker Than Water is surprising and compelling on so many levels.
When Cal Flyn, a British journalist from the remote Scottish Highlands, discovered that one of her ancestors was the eminent Australian explorer, Angus McMillan, she felt a burst of pride at the discovery and wanted to find out more.
But excitement quickly dissolved into distaste when she unearthed more details about her celebrated ancestor. Was McMillan really a heroic pioneer or was he in fact responsible for terrible atrocities committed against the local indigenous population?
Flyn was working in London for major national newspapers when, disillusioned with life in the capital, she headed back home to the Highlands. While there she made the discovery of her great-great-great uncle, the Gippsland pioneer McMillan – or was he more correctly, the ‘butcher of Gippsland’? Intrigued, she went on to read a 2005 news report stating:
“A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.”
Flyn wasn’t sure what to think: “From my reading I had been presented with two characters: McMillan the hero – the hardworking generous Scot honoured with plaques, portraits and cairns – and McMillan the villain – a bloodthirsty tyrant who rampaged through the bush, cutting down women and children. But what was the truth?”
Either way, Flyn, a keen traveller with the mind of an investigative journalist, was determined to find out. This highly original narrative is Cal Flyn’s own personal story of discovery, as well as a story of one Scottish emigrant to Australia and an intriguing look at a significant chapter in Australia’s colonial history.
At the same age McMillan was when he ventured from his home on the remote Scottish Isle of Barra, 27-year-old Flyn set off to Australia to dig deeper. Once there, Flyn travelled through outback New South Wales and into the highlands of Victoria through to Gippsland in search of the truth. But the ‘truth’ regarding something that happened two centuries ago isn’t always easy to muster.
On the one hand, Flyn enountered the local Gippsland historical societies that would prefer to hang on to the ideal of Angus Macmillan as hero, hardy pioneer and all-round good egg. On the other, she talked to historians such as Peter Gardner who have been at pains to out McMillan as perpetrator of brutal crimes against hundreds of innocent Indigenous people.
Flyn isn’t stranger to this victim/perpetrator speak and she writes with lucidity of her own feelings of intergenerational guilt and the complexities surrounding it. As a Scottish woman, she’s always felt the ‘victim’ part to the English conqueror/conquered paradigm. Now, when talking with Indigenous people in Australia she’s on the other side of that coin and it’s not, she finds, a comfortable place to be.
She’s aware of the ‘history wars’ that have raged in the Australian media between various academics and politicians and the bitter clashes about how recent Australian history should be interpreted. “Is it the daring tale of pioneers and plucky underdogs? Or is the truth to be found in the hidden lining, the dark recesses, that secret history that for the most part went unrecorded?”
In many ways the story of McMillan and Gippsland represent the wider story of Australia and its colonial history. By researching and travelling through the region, Flyn attempts to understand the mindsets of both the settlers and the original Australians. She is clearly well-read on the subject and she talks extensively to people in Gippsland – including local indigenous elders, and local landowners. She travels with Steve Paton, an artist of Gunai descent, and visits many of the sites where many brutal battles and massacres are thought to have taken place.
It would have been easy for Flyn, as an outsider, to make rash simplistic judgements about Australian history. To her great credit, she doesn’t. Being an outsider, in this case, is not a weakness but a strength as she tackles this difficult topic without preconceived ideas or assumptions. Thicker than Water is thoroughly researched, beautifully written and a highly significant addition to the subject. And yes – it’s riveting.
Author photographs: Cam Cope