Hawker is one of those towns people describe as ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Although it calls itself the Hub of the Flinders, most do not stop on their way onwards to attractions like Wilpena Pound. Those who do might grab a humble lunch from the ‘servo’ or perhaps wander the wide, almost mirage-like main street – but few stay any longer.

Just 250 people live in the town of Hawker; a figure that is, admittedly, down from its heyday when it was a significant stop along the railway line. 

Surely one of the reasons for its declining population is the inhospitable landscape. Rainfall in the area can be as low as 175 mm a year, while soaring temperatures often reach 45°C and continue climbing upwards unabated. Dust barrels down the streets more often than cars do, and the eerie Kanyaka ruins feature a memorial to one young Hawker lad lost to its harsh environment.

Hawker is – geographically and in character – a world away from the lush green peaks and vast lochs of Kintail. If Hawker is the key to the Flinders, then Kintail is the key to the Isle of Skye, the last stop before you cross over the grand bridge that connects it to the Scottish mainland.

So what connects these two little towns, tiny blips hundreds of kilometres from the largest city, and over 16,000 kilometres apart?

John McRae

The answer is a story that, although pulled from my own family history, reflects that of thousands of Scottish Highlanders. Stripped of their lands and banned from practising their culture, they took a gamble – sometimes the final roll of the dice – and fled the Highlands in droves.

Some went to Canada, especially around the drizzly Nova Scotia region. Others ended up in America, while a few found themselves amongst the rolling green hills of New Zealand. A few more ended up in Australia, in towns like Hawker, that must have felt a world away from their birthplace.

One of those Highlanders was my great-great-great grandfather, John McRae. He was born in Kintail, sometime around 1822. The location of his birth was no surprise; at one time, only two of Kintail’s residents were anyone other than McRaes.

The Jacobite Uprisings

In 1822, John McRae was born into a family that’s fortune had turned for the worse. 

The McRae family was never particularly wealthy, but by the 17th century they had found respect throughout the Highlands due to their prowess as warriors. 

In particular, they were known to guard the Eilean Donan Castle, the stronghold of the wealthier McKenzie clan. The McRaes became known as ‘the McKenzie’s shirt of mail’, and in return were given land to farm and tender.

Years of relative stability came to an end with the Jacobite Uprisings which commenced in the late 17th century. These uprisings, in brief, saw the Catholic, French-backed Charles Stuart attempt to take back the crown from the Protestant, British King. With the McKenzies – as well as many other Highlanders – swearing allegiance to Stuart, the McRaes went into battle.

The result was disastrous. One of the most significant battles of the uprisings was the 1715 Battle of Sherriffmuir, when more than a quarter of the Jacobite casualties were McRaes. 

Painting of the Battle of Culloden
The Battle of Culloden by David Morier (1705–1770) – Royal Collection Trust, Public Domain

Already battle-weary and divided, the final death knell came in 1745 when the Jacobites were conclusively crushed in the Battle of Culloden. It is said that the streets ran with Highlander blood for days following the battle, and a visit to the site of it continues to stir emotion in Highlanders today.

The Highland Clearances

Retaliation for the failed uprisings was harsh and unflinching. 

The Eilean Donan Castle, once a stronghold of the McRaes and McKenzies, was blown to smithereens. It would be centuries before it was restored to its former glory. 

Far worse than the symbolic destruction of the castle was the systematic destruction of Highlanders’ culture and livelihood.  The playing of bagpipes, wearing of tartan and teaching of Gaelic were all banned in a deliberate attempt to suppress the Highland culture that had flourished for centuries. 

For hundreds of years, families like the McRaes had tended to small plots of farmland leased from wealthy landlords. Many had lived on the same plots for generations, but with no paperwork or legal status entitling them to their tenancy. This was a fact that was exploited during the Clearances as land was reclaimed and people displaced.

It is worth noting that not all of the Clearances were as punishment for Highlander support for the Jacobite uprising. Indeed, some of the wealthy landowners had themselves supported Charles Stuart, but saw the opportunity to clear debts they had incurred during the uprisings by reclaiming farmland.

The Isle of Skye
View from the Old Man of Storr, on the Isle of Skye

In many instances, people were literally dragged from their homes; amongst these included numerous McRaes. One story retold by generations of McRaes was that when the land owning MacDonalds swooped on the family home when the sons were away, dragging the eighty-year old matriarch out on her blanket into the freezing night after she refused to leave the home she was born in. 

Many, such as the elderly matriarch, were turfed out literally into the wilderness. Those who have been to the Highlands of Scotland will attest that just a few hours – perhaps minutes for an elderly woman – would be a death sentence. It was only for the renowned ‘Highlander Hospitality’ (a promise that no-one would be turned away in the cold) that many survived, although plenty didn’t.

Many families suffered through, but slowly many turned their sights on the ships leaving for the “New World”. Sometimes scraping together enough money for fares, sometimes ‘gifted’ it by landowners wanting to ease their moral burden, and occasionally literally tricked or forced into emigrating, tens of thousands of Highlanders set sail.

Emigration to the New World

Amongst those was John McRae in 1836. With few records from the time – passenger lists were not required until 1839 – it’s hard to know which of the aforementioned categories he fell into. But we do know he landed in Australia, and eventually found his way to Hawker, the tiny blip of a town some 378 kilometres from Adelaide, South Australia.

(At this point, I must pause for a very important acknowledgment. While emigration may have presented a new opportunity for some Scots, it also passed on the pain of dispossession of land and culture to many more people. Australia was not ‘terra nullius’ as the British argued, but home to a plethora of First Nations groups, each with their own lands and culture. Like the Highlanders, they too were stripped of their land and culture, a practise that continues to this day and has not been righted. The land around Hawker was, and is, the land of the Banggarla people.)

It is hard to understate the immense difference between Hawker and Kintail. Where lochs carve their way through the green hills and peaks of the Highlands, Hawker is surrounded by swathes of flat, red dirt. I can only guess that John McRae must have felt despair and longed for his homeland; a place that receives ten times the rainfall of his newly adopted township.

The family homestead in Hawker
The family homestead in Hawker

By this time John and his wife Eliza had numerous children, and a modest homestead down a dusty lane. The house was soon filled with children and great-grandchildren, one of whom was my great grandfather, Archie.

It is easy to romanticise emigration and dream that the roll of the dice would have landed on a jackpot, healing the pain of the past. However, sadly it was not so for John McRae; all we know is that he died an old man, alone, en route to a destitute asylum. Alas, the New World was not the ticket to prosperity that he’d perhaps hoped.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. The town of Hawker became the new, pseudo clan seat for the McRaes. My own father remembers a home that, although humble, was full of music and poetry; the legendary Aunt Sis was known as a fearsome woman often spotted with a ‘fiddle in one hand and a gun in the other.’ 

Poetry, in particular, is something that’s been handed down the ages. Not the kind of high brow stuff found in libraries, but the kind that’s scribbled down to express your sorrows, joys and, all too frequently, a political rant or two.

I couldn’t stop thinking of this as I found myself holed up in a cosy little pub down a laneway in Edinburgh, fresh from my trip to the Highlands. An old man, who looked frail yet determined, made his way to a slightly raised platform and began to sing a longing song for home. The whole room was captivated, holding his gaze and swaying slightly to the acapella verse. 

I’m told it was reminiscent of a Scottish “ceilidh”, a traditional gathering of people sharing music, poetry and conversation.

A dusty, brown road in Hawker, South Australia
The road in Hawker, South Australia

I imagined my relations, sheltered in the Highlands and sharing song despite the uncertainty facing them. Then I thought of my father’s childhood, where the music continued, some 16,000 kilometres and several generations away from Kintail. 

Ceilidh was a word that, as far as I know, was not used by my grandparents as they gathered in the humble Hawker shack while Aunt Sis played the fiddle with vigour. But it was surely what it was.

Amongst the abundance of sorrowful poetry and music written by Highlanders yearning for home, common wishes were often expressed. That the traditions would continue, and that perhaps one day those scattered far and wide would return to their homeland. 

Looking up at the Five Sisters of Kintail and thinking of the music-filled home in Hawker, two hundred years after John McRae departed, I felt sure that he’d be pleased.




Additional research from Ancestry.com, in particular thanks to John F McRae and user “duwili”.

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