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John Oxley Library

The "Wild Scotchman" : Queensland bushranger James MacPherson Pt.1

By Simon Miller, Library Technician, State Library of Queensland | 25 May 2016

Bushranger James MacPherson, 1866

James Alpin MacPherson was a lad of twelve when he arrived in Queensland from Scotland with his family. His father went to work for the McConnell family at Cressbrook in the Brisbane valley. Young James went to school in Brisbane where he studied diligently and learned French and German as well as becoming a fluent and entertaining speaker, a knack that he retained for the rest of his life.


View across the grass to Cressbrook Homestead, ca. 1887

James MacPherson was an intelligent and energetic young man but found little outlet for his talents in the young colony. He started an apprenticeship with builder John Petrie but in 1863 he disappeared from Brisbane without warning and went to work on various cattle properties where he became a superb horseman and a crack shot and an accomplished bushman.

He first ventured on to the wrong side of the law in 1865 when he held up a publican in Bowen who apparently owed him back wages. He then went into New South Wales in an attempt to link up with Ben Hall and his gang who's exploits were written up in all the papers. He assumed the name of John Bruce and stole a horse at Wowingragong but failed to find Ben Hall. After losing his horse and ammunition he escaped from police inspector Sir Frederick Pottinger on foot but was later surrounded and arrested.

He was charged with shooting at Sir Frederick but the charges were dropped after Pottinger died of an accidental gunshot wound. He was to be sent to Rockhampton to stand trial for holding up the publican but escaped when the steamer anchored at Mackay. According to The life and adventures of the Wild Scotchman by P.W. McNally, the prisoner's leg-irons were found nailed to a tree with a note that read : "Presented to the Queensland Government with the Wild Scotchman's best thanks, that gentleman having no further use for them, the articles being found to be rather cumbersome to transit in this age of enlightenment and progress - the 19th century - Many thanks ; adieu."

McNally published his little book about the Scotchman in 1899, shortly after MacPherson's death and claimed personal acquaintance with the subject. Having know the "Scotchman" personally, and from the fact that I reported his trial for the local paper in Maryborough at the time of his arrest in '65, also having at various times interviewed him during his incarceration at the Island of St. Helena (the convict settlement in Moreton Bay), places the author in a position to place the facts contained in the book before the public with every confidence in their authenticity.

Having made his escape, MacPherson spent the next several months holding up the mails on the roads between Maryborough, Gayndah and Gladstone and evading the police. At that time the mails were transported by men on horseback, coach services having not yet been established. The mail riders faced many difficulties as McNally explains.

The mails from town to town were conveyed on horseback, and the mailmen in charge of them had a most wearisome time of it - not only on account of the distance they had to ride, but also in the many dangers they were exposed to - fording flooded streams, making long and dreary stages over rough and dusty roads, the country being parched up in dry seasons, and portions of the ground being opened by the heat of the sun, like great avalanches in the sandy deserts of Sahara ; which, consequently, required the greatest care to be exercised when one would be riding along.

Patrick McCallum was held up by the Wild Scotchman whilst on his mail runs.

To these difficulties were added, for some months, the prospect of being held up at gunpoint by the Wild Scotchman". These hold ups did not provide MacPherson with large amounts of cash as the vast majority of funds transferred in the mails were in the form of cheques and IOUs. These cheques being of little use to a bushranger on the run, MacPherson sometimes sent them off to the Governor. He was eventually captured, not by the police, but by some sharp eyed locals from a station near Gin Gin. This description of the capture of the Wild Scotchman comes from the Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser.

I suppose that the world will be wondering how the Wild Scotchman has been taken ; the affair is simple enough in itself, and, of course, not by the police. A man answering to his description had been seen on the morning of the 30th ultimo, and had been inquiring for a road which he did not, it seems, intend to travel; he was again seen within a short distance of Manduran by two gentlemen living at Gin Gin, and they instantly proceeded to the Manduran head station, and reported the suspicions as to who it was to the manager (W. Nott, Esq.), who, with praiseworthy promptitude, joined them, together with another person, making in all a party of four, and immediately started in pursuit. They overtook him about five miles from the station, in the direction of Port Curtis. When he saw them in a full gallop, and nearly upon him, he let go his pack-horse, and started at full speed down a very broken range. Being well mounted, they followed, and were fast gaining on him, when he pulled up, and commenced to unstrap a double-barrelled gun which he had with him. Upon his commencing to do this, Mr. Nott covered him with his rifle, and told him that if he did not there and then throw up his arms and surrender, he would fire at him. This threat, fortunately, was sufficient, as Macpherson at once said, ' I give myself up.' He added, ' I knew you were not the police by the pace at which you followed me down that ridge,' and he described, with some humour, the absurd attitudes which he had witnessed in police horsemanship—some holding on by the front, and some by the back of the saddle. The prisoner was very communicative and appeared cheerful.

The town of Gin Gin celebrates their association with the capture of the Wild Scotchman with an annual festival. This poster was issued on the  occasion of the 125th anniversary of the capture.

125th anniversary Wild Scotchman's capture celebrations Gin Gin, Qld., March 20-24

MacPherson was taken to Brisbane to stand trial for holding up the publican in Bowen but was found not guilty to the disgust of the authorities but was then taken back to Maryborough to face trial for the robbery of the mails. State Library holds a memento of MacPherson's stay in Brisbane Gaol. A manuscript in the Hewitt Family Papers 1863-1941 is described as: Lines written by the "Wild Scotchman" bushranger James McPherson while a prisoner in Brisbane gaol, presented to the donor's great great uncle Sam Gilmour, who was the gaol's turnkey. The lines in question are in the form of a poem describing the plight of a young man, Blake, who has been wrongly accused of bushranging.

A twelve month has vanished, with another half year,
Since I was arrested my name for to clear
From a crime that was lawless and cruel and rude,
A robbing with violence upon the high road.
The laws of my country by another outraged,
To pain and condemn me were swiftly engaged,
The minions of justice around me did throng,
Like a lamb to the slaughter I stood there among.
Astounded confounded,
My heart was amazed,
While blaiming defaming,
A crowd on me gazed.

Lines by James Macpherson, Brisbane Gaol, 1869

Part 2 will cover MacPherson's trial and imprisonment on St. Helena and what we know of his subsequent life and untimely death.

Simon Miller - Library Technician, State Library of Queensland


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