Lobstermen of Mull go to Tobermory

With special thanks to Debra Vaughan.

It used to be that whenever I thought about lobsters, which wasn't often, I would think of my thrifty mother on a holiday, who, about to enjoy a rare treat by purchasing one of these crustaceans, was hovering in front of a tub of them, still alive, alive o! heaved onto the Lorne pier by local fishermen. Fixing the fisherman with a firm gaze, she asked him "But are they fresh?" Customer service being what it isn't today, my aunt's eyewitness report was that a second's manful struggle was all it took for the lobsterman to stifle a more pithy retort and reply that "Indeed they are Madam, caught only a few hours ago".

Little did I know that forty years on from this seaside interlude, I would learn that my great great great grandfather Archibald McMillan, and his son John, were listed on the Isle of Mull, Scottish censuses of 1841 and 1851 as lobstermen. So any snippets on lobsters are now hoarded in the Davy Jones’ Locker compartment of my mind linked to our Mull McMillans.

Did you know that lobsters, if they can get a cave or a crevice to sleep in during the day, will attach like bats on any claw holds? Around the entrance like a surrealist’s necklace will range the littlest ones, while their canny and no doubt more forceful elders sleep safer from predators, up the back. Left to their own devices, lobsters may live to be one hundred years old. Our McMillans and their future in-laws the McDonalds, with representatives of their families’ two younger generations, had come into their first Australian port at Portland Bay, on the New Zealander 30 November, 1853. Matriarch Flora McMillan was a McIntyre and their son John’s helpmeet, eleven years later, was to be Margaret McMillan, nee “Peggy” McDonald. We believe “The Disruption of 1843” in Scotland had something to do with the McMillan exodus, for my great aunt Isobel, or Aunty Isie as a tribe of awed nieces and nephews knew her, was still in the Free Church of South Eastern Australia, an offshoot of The Free Church of Scotland. These were Scottish denominations born of the mass migration of over four hundred and forty ministers from the Church of Scotland in a schism which was the largest secession ever from The Church of Scotland, Scotland’s established church - and a massive political statement. In the nineteen seventies I witnessed the fire and brimstone of a service. There was of course no music to accompany the hymns. When she died in 1998, aged one hundred, Aunty Isie’s was a thrilling funeral during a massive rainstorm, which piled raindrops into rivers across the grass and clay. Arms upraised, as he stood atop an adjoining grave, the minister recited the doxology while lightning cracked overhead. Given her long and virtuous life, I hope my marvelling at the rare scene will be forgiven as an exuberant honouring, rather than any frivolity about spirituality, which still is taken seriously by me, and our folks.

The first John McDonald came out on his brother’s and sea captain uncle’s recommendation, speaking only Gaelic to the end of his days and pining for the misty wild shores of Skye. Brother Hector came into Sydney in 1836, and by 1842, was running the Rising Sun Hotel in Hotspur, Victoria. On one occasion he was the helper sought by a young Koori girl when a matrimonial dispute involving Aboriginal leader Koort Kirrup left several dead nearby. In those days by us the place was called Smokey River, for in the right conditions a long white dragon of smokey river mist coils along the valley like ectoplasm of a rainbow serpent. Having seen this awe-inspiring sight one recent twilight, I can vouch that even now the area calls up Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan”:

“A savage place! As holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted…”

Having had built the magnificent bluestone Mac’s Hotel which still stands in Portland today, Hector died not long after. At the time, newspaper articles reassured new patrons that in spite of their height, a building of three stories was perfectly safe, and so it has proved.

The faithful New Zealander is still in Portland Bay, underwater, having burnt to the hull line a few days after they arrived. A magnet for divers, given the right conditions, it can be glimpsed from the cliff tops of the area known as “The Ploughed Field”, due to the Hentys’ people’s industry. Now there curves an installation: walls of bronze plaques, placed by descendants, commemorating the pioneers who arrived to fan out through Australia Felix.

In what was no doubt the media beat up of the time, the cook and the cabin boy, on board at the time, were accused of having set fire to the ship in order to be released for the goldfields. In truth, several crew members were already onshore in irons, having mutinously refused to stay on for South America. Such was the lure of gold fever!

However once the hoopla had died down, it was conceded by authorities the more likely agent of arson was the load of coal in the hold, bound for Valparaiso after the emigrants had been delivered to the Antipodes. Certainly coal may spontaneously ignite, given oxygen and the right amounts of moisture and heat.

Whatever the family's expectations and ideas about immigrating to this new land, the destruction of their home for the previous three months must have given them pause for thought in terms of "burning one's bridges" and the evanescent nature of existence.

The esteemed Archibald lived to be ninety-five, as long as a very lucky lobster. He died in 1871, but only after a bolting horse at the Tahara Races plunged into the crowd and ran him down. His body now now lies at Branxholme Cemetery, together with that of his wife, the faithful Flora McIntyre, at peace after all the drama.

The End