the little-known Scot who opened up Australia
Not a name which instantly comes to mind when someone asks about famous Scots John McDouall Stuart was a major force in the early exploration of Australia. From 1844 to 1862 he first took part in one expedition and then organised and led six further major expeditions into the interior of Australia. His final expedition (1861-1862) culminated in the party he led making an epic journey across the dry heart of the country from south to north - from Adelaide to a point near Darwin now called Point Stuart.
|PD Image from State Library of South Australia|
(John McDouall Stuart [B 501])
Born in 1815 in the small Scottish fishing village of Dysart, in Fife, where his father was a customs officer, John McDouall Stuart (commonly known simply as McDouall Stuart) trained as a civil engineer before emigrating to Australia in 1839 where he found employment as a surveyor.
His colleague and immediate superior was South Australia's Surveyor-General, Captain Charles Sturt, himself a famous Australian explorer, and it was Sturt who started McDouall Stuart on the road to becoming an explorer by taking him on an 1844 expedition which discovered (amongst other things) the Simpson Desert. Despite suffering terrible hardships from thirst and scurvy McDouall Stuart had caught the exploration bug and over the coming years he organised six expeditions into Australia's fierce interior using horses as the mode of transport - an innovation which was largely responsible for the success of his expeditions.
His expeditions were not simply for the sake of pure exploration but were also searches for new farming lands and mineral deposits and for a route across Australia for the newly-introduced telegraph which would eventually connect Australia with the rest of the world - particularly Great Britain which most Australians of that era still regarded as ''home''.
The above map shows the route of McDouall Stuart's final 1862 expedition in which his 10-strong party succeeded in crossing Australia from south to north - a long-held dream of his. In doing so he opened up Australia to further exploration and development by discovering practical routes through difficult terrain and finding reliable water sources. John McDouall Stuart was not the only Australian explorer of the time but he is, quite rightly, regarded as one of the most important.
Hardly surprisingly, his health was ruined by his time spent in harsh and unforgiving environments and he was lucky to survive the return journey from Darwin to Adelaide - a trip of some 3400 kilometers - but his time as an explorer was at an end. In 1864 he left Australia and sailed for England where he died on 5th June 1866 at the age of 50. He is buried in London and, apparently, only seven people attended his funeral.
McDouall Stuart's grave in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
Photograph by Deeday-UK/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported.
Although famous and well remembered in Australia John McDouall Stuart is virtually unknown in his native Scotland. Mention his name to the average Scot and you will be greeted with a blank look. His birthplace, the east coast village of Dysart, used to have a museum dedicated to his memory. Situated in part of the building in which he was born it was a small, part-time facility and was only open for half the week. It was finally closed in 2009 (due to lack of visitors) by the Regional Council and the building is now owned by Fife Historic Buildings Trust and has been converted into a holiday apartment with the aim of encouraging visitors to the area.
This extraordinary and tenacious explorer was awarded the Patron's Medal and Gold Watch by the Royal Geographical Society - the highest distinction an explorer can get.
Photograph by the author.
Sources: Wikipedia; John McDouall Stuart Society
Author's note: The above plaque on the wall of McDouall Stuart's childhood home is slightly misleading. He was not the first to traverse Australia from south to north. That honour goes to the 1860 expedition of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills who travelled from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria but did not pass through the centre of the continent - John McDouall Stuart's 6th expedition was the first to achieve that distinction.