Tracing the ‘Butcher of Gippsland’

cover UK

My first book, Thicker Than Water, was published earlier this year by HarperCollins’ non-fiction strand William Collins.

It is part family memoir, part travelogue, part history book in the vein of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes, examining the legacy of colonialism and frontier violence in Australia through the story of a distant relative of mine, Angus McMillan. In his time, McMillan was fêted as a hero, and celebrated with cairns and portraits. But latterly he has been identified as a leader of several gruesome massacres of the Cover AusGunai (sometimes ‘Kurnai’) people of Gippsland, Victoria.

I retraced my forebear’s journey from the snow-tipped Cuillins of the Isle of Skye to the unmapped wilderness of 1830s Australia, stitching together the events of the clandestine ‘Black War’ of the Gippsland frontier and looking for answers: How could a man lauded for his generosity and integrity commit such terrible acts? What have been the long-term consequences for the Gunai people? And, to me, the crucial question: Has today’s generation inherited a responsibility to atone for its ancestors’ sins?

Those based in the UK can hear me discussing the book with Libby Purves on Radio 4’s Midweek, on Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth Show, and on Outlook on BBC World Service. It was also book of the month on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal.

Those based in Australia can listen to me on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters, or read an extract in The Australian.

Praise for Thicker Than Water:

“Stunning. Thicker than Water is a thrilling debut, a true story that reads like classy, compelling fiction. It succeeds above all because of its two striking protagonists: the dishonourable, flawed McMillan… and Flyn herself. Her ballsiness and likeability, as the narrator and the heroine of the travelogue, made her an irresistible companion.”
Melanie Reid, The Times

Flyn deftly captures the looking-glass world of the antipodean landscape, so alien to European eyes… Her account is vivid with a sense of its strangeness; lyrically responsive to the odd local fauna and flora… The urgent question, “How can things be fixed?” infuses every page. To her credit, Flyn is aware of the ugly likelihood that they can’t.”
Elizabeth Lowry, The Guardian

“Full of interest and intelligently and evocatively written. [Flyn] gives a vivid picture of the landscape and way of life, and explores the complexities and silences of Australian history… Her book is not only continuously interesting, and the author’s character as pleasing and sympathetic as her eye for detail and oddity is sharp, it also offers a salutory lesson.”
Allan Massie, The Scotsman

“[An] unflinchingly honest, profoundly moving memoir.”
Jackie McGlone, The Herald

“A meaty read about the tendrils and overhang of British colonialism. Read it if you want to ask big questions about Britain, race and responsibility.”
Reni Eddo-Lodge, Best books of Summer 2016, The Guardian

“A searing tale of adventure and (self) discovery that shows the past is nearer than we think. Flyn is a writer with a gimlet eye and a big heart.”
— Ben Rawlence, author of City of Thorns

It was featured in The EconomistThe Week, the Daily Mail and the Scottish Field, selected as one of The Times’ books of the year, and as one of the Guardian’s best books of the summer.

Thicker Than Water was released on June 2 and can be bought online from Waterstones and Amazon, or Booktopia for those in Australia. It is also widely available in bookshops.

Questions and queries about the rights/publication should be directed to my agent, Sophie Lambert of Conville & Walsh.

 

 

One thought on “Tracing the ‘Butcher of Gippsland’

  1. Viki Sinclair says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thank you for your book – which I have not read, having just heard about via the ABC! I will get it asap.

    I too am a descendant of one of the Highland Brigade. My relative was Colin McLaren, possibly a sailor born near Stirling Castle who was first identified as working for Macalister by accompanying your relative, Angus McMillan on one of his early trips in finding a way to Port Albert for cattle and then later as part of the Highland Brigade. I am sure he was part of the Warrigal Creek, Bony Point and Butchers’ Creek massacres and probably more. He had a deep abiding affection for McMillan until his death aged 82 years.

    You may already know of him, as he was interviewed by “The Bushman” (Rowland Bell) who wrote for the “Maffra Spectator” at the time. Colin McLaren married a poor Irish girl, Elizabeth Medley, bought out in the Bounty Scheme aged14 years and apparently with an 8 year old sister. She was taken from Melbourne by Odell Raymond who established Stratsfieldsaye on Lake Wellngton, to work on one of his outstations on the Lake. My heart goes out to her! She died in childbirth after 5 days labour while having their 5th child. Colin lived alone on Rotamah Island in the Gippsland Lakes his last 30 years, coming to the attention of Bell who spent many times interviewing him about the settlement history of East Gippsland.

    I am so glad someone outside Australia and so closely connected to the “hero” of Gippsland has done this research and written about it. Locals’ views like mine, which support your record of the bloody and dark background of settlement here, often lead to polarisation of views and are easily discounted as “bleeding heart”, using a “black armband view of history” etc. Still many prefer to believe the history we all were taught i.e. that Captain Cook “discovered” Australia as “terra nullius” and that down here in Gippsland, Mc Millan and Co were great explorers and that he was a revered leader of the time.

    Your background of the forced displacement of the poorest and Highlands Scots from the Islands in the 1830’s I had heard of but had never put it all together. How ironic and sad that they perpetuated what they had suffered in their new land. The everlasting story of humankind!

    I wrote last year in NAIDOC Week to all local papers in Gippsland, telling the truth you have written as a descendant of the people who murdered nearly all the East Gippsland indigenous people in the first 20 years of settlement here from 1840 – 1861. I recently sent this letter to my local South Gippsland Shire Council to inform them of our past and to shore up the vote for a name change to our McMillan electorate. One of the councillors thankfully read it out on the day – a unanimous agreement for a name change was achieved finally after much debate. We are a most conservative part of the world here!

    Like you, I felt gutted last year to find the truth of my past – this I had avoided in fact for many years. I knew of McMillan’s real role in the massacres from past reading and always suspected that Colin McLaren must have been also part of it all. I did not want to know, having been active in social rights issues all my adult life. Thus I put off any serious research.

    Again like you, I was not much interested in my past history but learning this truth, I have now become rivetted and cannot stop wanting to know more. I am keen to try and find out who my ancestors really were as people.

    I look forward to reading your book so much, as being one from the same “eye-view” as myself. It was interesting also to hear you say on the ABC Radio National Interview that you found your Angus McMillan ancestor to be a humane person, once you had “travelled” inside his head for a while – I guess these things can be done by us all. I have a long-held belief that we will never know what we too will do when faced with certain circumstances and thus put to the test.

    I have been to Stratford (Nuntin) where my family settled, on many occasions and again last weekend for the “Stratford on Avon” annual Shakespeare Festival. We are more British than the British I suspect in Gippsland!! No doubt you have seen the monument in the main street park of Stratford which outlines the massacres and the role people, including McMillan, played. It is the only such memorial in Gippsland to my knowledge. Quite amazing every time I see it!

    I am part of a Reconciliation Group in Inverloch in Gippsland -it seeks to enable reconciliation with our indigenous first Australians and to acknowledge and redress our terrible history of white settlement and its aftermath. We work closely with members of the indigenous communities around us. We are strongly pushing for the McMillan name change.

    I am keen to establish links between those descendants who have learned and feel as we do – I have at least one relative who does not acknowledge what happened and another friend who also cannot face this truth about her ancestor here. We need to speak out at this time, preferably as a group. I believe our word will hold sway in a way that others cannot achieve, no matter what facts and figures they can recount.

    Thank you again for this research and the book you have written.. I look forward to a long read very soon!

    Kind regards
    Viki Sinclair

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