The first sign that the town had a connection with Scotland was its name: Glencoe. The second sign: a redheaded ‘Weasley’ walking down the main road…
Glencoe is a small country town in south-eastern South Australia, to the north-west of Mount Gambier, an area known for its volcanic landscape and crater lakes. A town so small that it would be called a hamlet or village in Olde England. Its population? About 650 souls. It was named after the birthplace of the property manager of the nineteenth century Leake estate. Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands is derived from the Gaelic for ‘narrow glen’. The original Glen Coe is only half the size of its Australian namesake, but like our Aussie version, it’s also situated in volcanic soil. And in the middle of town is a vast, beautifully crafted shearing shed.
I heard about this unique woolshed at a conference last month, when local academic, Carol Grbich, gave a talk about its history. Having a lovely view of the structure across the paddock, Carol and her partner, John Berger, spent months researching the story of the building and the convoluted tale of the Leake family, eventually producing the book ‘The Accidental Heiress: Journey of a Glencoe squatter’s daughter.’ In 2020, the book won the Keain medal for the best history book about South Australia, and the profits from sales go to the National Trust. The front cover shows a picture of this extraordinary woman with unusually short hair and clutching a boomerang. No one knows why, although an ABC documentary suggests she spent her early years at Glencoe playing with the local Boandik people.
So, in brief…
In 1844, Tasmanian pastoralists Edward and Robert Leake brought 7,000 Saxon Merinos, cattle and horses along the Coorong. They established a sheep station that eventually extended over 53,000 acres, even crossing the Glenelg River into Victoria. They were the first permanent European settlers in the region and wasted no time clearing it of the Boandik people.
Robert died in 1860, and his brother Edward inherited the property. Wishing to make his mark on the district, he employed a well-known architect of the day to design ‘the finest woolshed in the colonies’ and luxury quarters for the shearers. Quality craftsmen were engaged to erect the buildings, using local limestone. A sturdy stone structure, it is not the corrugated iron shearing sheds we are used to seeing in the Outback. (We thought it would have made a beautiful – and enormous – home conversion, if it were not safely in the hands of the National Trust.) When the job was completed, Leake threw a ball to celebrate, and invited two hundred guests. The woolshed was designed to hold 38 shearers at a time, who could sheer 2,000 sheep a day with manual blade shears.
The property was inherited by Edward Leake’s only legitimate child, his seven year old daughter Letitia. This wealthy young lady eventually married a Sydney lawyer. The couple sold the Glencoe Estate and moved to England, where they bought Harefield Park, a country estate near Uxbridge, now on the outer western rim of London. During WWI, they offered the property to the military, to be used as an ANZAC military hospital. It is now part of the Royal Brompton Hospital.
Today, I drove to Glencoe with the One & Only to visit the shearing shed and a beautiful garden…
Armed with a magical key – well, it certainly looked magical – we entered the woolshed, immediately hearing the ghostly bleats of anxious sheep, and the ghostly shouts of sweaty shearers calling for tar. Apparently, there is a real ghost here, but it was obviously shy, or took exception to us, and stayed hidden behind the hefty wool sacks. We wandered through this shadowy old woolshed, empty of sheep for so long that even the cloying scent of lanolin had vanished.
Eventually, when we had explored every nook and cranny, we locked up, returned the key to the friendly lady at the post office. Then we drove up the road to meet Carol Grbich, who was busily preparing for an Open Gardens event this coming weekend. Carol lives a couple of paddocks away from the woolshed, in a homestead built in 1898. Here, she and partner John have designed and planted their magnificent garden in black volcanic soil. It is ridiculously lush when compared to the sparsely growing plants on our sandhill on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Like an old fashioned English cottage garden, it is over-run with colour: blue love-in-the-mist, deep purple irises, wisteria and lilac, and roses and poppies in pink and red, orange and white.
Feeling like Alice in Wonderland, I took the proffered map and we headed off to explore. We found three orchards. One is full of Nashi pear trees. Apparently much loved by the Japanese, their floury texture is unpopular with Australians. Even the sheep will only touch them if there is nothing else to eat! The neighbouring orchard produces organic, old-fashioned favourites like kumquats and loquats, plums and crab apples. The third, nearer the house, provides the local birds – and occasionally the owners, if they are quick enough – with a feast of figs and cherries, grapefruit and lemons, plums, pears and apples. There is a forest of Blue Gums and Redgums, inhabited by aforementioned sheep. The One & Only found a Willow Walk near the back fence, while I favoured a heart-breakingly beautiful golden elm at the centre of a small round garden oh-so-perfectly shaded by the broad, lime-coloured leaves of this glorious tree.
The couple had also created a large walled garden on a defunct tennis court, topped by a stage-like folly, the backdrop decorated in tiles painted with the ubiquitous poppy. Beyond, a firepit huddles beneath an ancient walnut and a weeping willow. White and pink ‘seaside’ daisies proliferate in the sunshine, a variety of succulents multiply in the shade. A kitchen garden, a huge rosemary bush, the Hills hoist tucked behind it for a touch of homely nostalgia, and we have completed a circuit. And as we reluctantly drive away, a nearby paddock is awash with Highland cattle. A third sign of the region’s Scottish heritage!