How I dis­cov­ered my revered rel­a­tive was a geno­ci­dal killer

Scot­tish au­thor Cal Flyn tells Jackie McGlone about the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind her dark and painful mem­oir

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

SKELE­TONS of­ten lie in the cob­webby dust of fam­ily clos­ets for cen­turies un­til some­one rat­tles them – as any­one who has watched the com­pelling TV se­ries Who Do You Think You Are? knows af­ter see­ing one lachry­mose celebrity af­ter an­other un­earth a shock­ing se­cret.

High­land-born, London-based jour­nal­ist Cal Flyn never un­der­stood the ap­peal of fam­ily his­tory, “... the draw for all those anoraks por­ing over their blood­lines in the back rooms of li­braries,” the 29-year-old writes in her un­flinch­ingly hon­est, pro­foundly mov­ing mem­oir, Thicker Than Wa­ter.

Then, four years ago, on a break from her London life where she had be­gun “to wob­ble” on her per­sonal and pro­fes­sional perch, she re­turned to her par­ents’ Black Isle home. Jaunt­ing around the haunts of her mother Fiona’s youth, they went to Skye – “cen­tral to my fam­ily’s his­tory” – and vis­ited a Portree ex­hi­bi­tion on the di­as­pora.

Flyn was en­chanted by an old, hand­drawn map of Gipp­s­land, in the south­east­ern corner of Aus­tralia, show­ing a river, “named by ex­plorer An­gus McMil­lan,” along­side a mono­chrome por­trait of this tweedy chap – “sober, se­vere-look­ing with strong fea­tures...”

“He’s a rel­a­tive of ours,” her mother re­marked, adding that she re­mem­bered her fa­ther proudly speak­ing about him and that whole ar­eas of Aus­tralia were named af­ter him.

Flyn be­gan re­search­ing McMil­lan’s life, dis­cov­er­ing that in the Aus­tralian Dic­tio­nary of Bi­og­ra­phy, the man from Glenbrit­tle, Skye, was de­scribed as “coura­geous, strong and gen­er­ous, with a great love of his adopted coun­try.” Flyn, who grew up in Beauly, near In­ver­ness, read this with “a thrill of pride.” But then she dis­cov­ered a news re­port from 2005: “A Scot­tish pi­o­neer revered as one of Aus­tralia’s fore­most ex­plor­ers faces be­ing erased from maps amid ac­cu­sa­tions he was re­spon­si­ble for the cold-blooded murder of hun­dreds of abo­rig­ines.”

The re­port went on to say that the abo­rig­ines were call­ing for the elec­toral dis­trict of McMil­lan in the south­ern state of Vic­to­ria to be re­named out of re­spect for the men, women and chil­dren they said were slaugh­tered by An­gus McMil­lan and his “High­land Brigade” in the mas­sacre of War­ri­gal Creek. “The mas­sacre was one of sev­eral at­trib­uted to McMil­lan and his band of Scot­tish set­tlers, who... are ac­cused of car­ry­ing out a geno­ci­dal cam­paign against the abo­rig­ines for a decade.”

Un­bid­den, a list of search sug­ges­tions popped up on on Google: An­gus McMil­lan Gipp­s­land, An­gus McMil­lan ex­plorer, An­gus McMil­lan mas­sacres. Soon, Flyn had a list of chill­ing place names – Boney Point, Butch­ers Creek, Skull Creek, Slaugh­ter­house Gully... and the in­fa­mous 1843 War­ri­gal Creek mas­sacre, “the most sig­nif­i­cant vi­o­lent clash be­tween white set­tlers and in­dige­nous peo­ple in the his­tory of Gipp­s­land – and one of the worst recorded in Aus­tralian his­tory”.

She had stum­bled on a dark, shame­ful se­cret. On a quest to re­trace her great­great-great un­cle’s jour­ney she set off for Aus­tralia, think­ing that it might make an in­ter­est­ing travel fea­ture, and has now made three trips over two years. She’s done count­less in­ter­views and in­ten­sive re­search, de­ter­mined to dis­cover all she could about McMil­lan the hero – the swash­buck­ling, hard-work­ing, gen­er­ous Scot hon­oured with plaques, por­traits and cairns – and McMil­lan the vil­lain, a blood­thirsty tyrant mas­sacring un­armed women and chil­dren.

OF course she wanted this tough, pi­ous, lonely man she en­coun­tered in his jour­nals to be a hero, Flyn ac­knowl­edges when we meet in Ed­in­burgh, where she now lives. “I think we all wish to be re­lated to he­roes, so some­one like an ex­plorer and a pi­o­neer is such a ro­man­tic idea. The longer you in­vest time in get­ting to know some­one, which I did, you come to like them. Af­ter read­ing McMil­lan’s di­aries, which are held in the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria and which he kept dur­ing three cru­cial phases in his life, I felt I got to know him in­side out.

“I found him, in many ways, very ap­peal­ing. He was funny and crabby, and he had a very Scot­tish sense of hu­mour, very sturdy, which I shared. So I was root­ing for him in a way, even though I knew it was go­ing to end in tragedy. So to be­gin with, he was this hero to me then he be­came this ter­ri­ble per­son; I wanted it to be ei­ther black or white. If he was go­ing to do these things, I wanted him to be a bad per­son. It was very un­com­fort­able.”

She pauses then says: “He had seemed to be rather an ad­mirable per­son un­til I re­alised that he must have al­ways had the ca­pa­bil­ity to com­mit such bru­tal acts. The whole ques­tion for me is how a man, who I could re­late to, had been turned into this mass mur­derer, but also to dis­cover what hap­pened to turn him back again into an ap­par­ently gen­er­ous man in his later years.”

Nonethe­less, she opens her book with a graphic, drama­tised ac­count of events at War­ri­gal Creek and spares no de­tail in her scru­tiny of the car­nage. Be­tween 80 and 200 Gu­nai peo­ple were slaugh­tered that July day, wip­ing out in a sin­gle as­sault a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the south­ern Brata­wooloong clan.

The aw­ful irony, says Flyn, who has an MA in Ex­per­i­men­tal Psy­chol­ogy from Lady Mar­garet Hall, Ox­ford, is that the com­plex man who be­came “the Butcher of Gipp­s­land” had fled the hor­ror of the High­land Clear­ances dur­ing which thou­sands of his coun­try­men were

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