Strangling a cat for Auld Lang Syne

“Where are you going?” asked the taxi driver.

‘I often wonder that,’ I thought to myself as I climbed into his car but replied, “Yallambie. Do you know where that is?”

“I think so,” replied the driver. “It’s a suburb a bit past Heidelberg, isn’t it? There’s an old homestead there. Been converted to a monastery or mental institution, or something.”

I smiled at the driver’s misinformation. This is a true story. It explains a lot that has happened in life. “Take me on to yonder asylum, driver. And don’t stop for the men in white jackets.”

And so, with the cuckoo clock in our kitchen chiming its Laurel and Hardy note as if in commentary, we welcome the New Year at Yallambie.

Having Scottish ancestry on two sides of our family, (Clans MacLachlan, Campbell, MacLean, Ferguson and Murray), the New Year for us is about Hogmanay. Some years it’s a struggle to find a “tall, dark, stranger” to first foot their way through the house and I have been known to pull those boots on myself. I don’t stand nearly tall enough though and the traditional shortbread in my hands is usually in some of danger of being consumed before being brought through to the back door and the whisky is more likely to be found to be a soft drink.

Gaelic toast drunk by members of the Society of True Highlanders, State Library of NSW
Gaelic toast drunk by members of the Society of True Highlanders, State Library of NSW

William Howitt, who visited “Yallambee” in 1852 and who wrote about it in “Land, Labour and Gold” (published in two volumes and quoted in a previous post), didn’t have a high opinion of the Scots. He reserved a particular distaste for the “Highlanders” who he described with some passion walking down colonial high streets, ragged in dress and ill shod but with haughty pride.

“Ten times, however, are all Highlanders that we have hitherto come across. Poor as rats at home, they are rapacious as rats abroad. There is scarcely a year at home that there is not a piteous outcry about the poor, famishing Highlanders; but catch a Highlander out here that has any feeling for an Englishman except that of – fleecing him. There may be some of a different stamp, but I have not yet met them.”

Howitt however seems to have made an exception in this low opinion of “Highlanders” when he came later to describe the Bendigo goldfields Police Magistrate, Lachlan MacLachlan. Under a page heading, “Intelligent Friends” he says:

“We dined at Dr Roche’s {the Coroner} the other day, with this gentleman {Dr Bachhaus the Catholic Priest} and Mr McLachlan, the police magistrate, who by no means belongs to the lack-a-daisical juvenility of the Camp; for he has plenty of sense, however the public may deny him other requisites of a popular magistrate.”

Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA "Bendigo Mac"
Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA “Bendigo Mac”

Lachlan MacLachlan or “Bendigo Mac” as history has elsewhere recorded him, was my Great Grand Uncle. He was appointed Police Magistrate at Castlemaine in 1853 and then at the Bendigo goldfields where he maintained the rule of law through the turbulent gold rush years. His refusal to support Lieutenant Governor Hotham’s impolitic instructions to collect licensing fees at bayonet point are seen today as being directly responsible for sparing Bendigo the riots that enforcement of similar laws at Eureka caused.

You can find his biography here:

Lachlan’s life is extensively described in the late (and colourful) Majorie Petterson’s 1986 book, “The Sovereign of Sandhurst”. Lachlan and his half brothers Don and Moffat, {my great grand father} were instrumental in the formation of Caledonian Societies at both Bendigo and Ballarat respectively. The first day’s meeting of the Caledonian Society’s Games in Bendigo on New Year’s Day, 1860 saw about 6000 persons present and £300 raised. Petterson, quoting from the Bendigo Advertiser and Castlemaine Mail newspapers of January 1860, described the three day event.

“The day was very hot. Mr McLachlan led the March on to the ground, with the swirl of pipes, then after an opening address, seated himself in the grandstand. On the Wednesday, and final day also, he repeated the proceedings, the weather being more clement, and not as hot.

The attendance was not as numerous, but decidedly more select and orderly, with better arrangements than on opening day.

The usual form of marching on to the ground, led by Mr MacLachlan, fitted out in the old MacLachlan Dress Tartan, was complied with. In addressing the gathering, he exhorted them to maintain order during the sports, so that all might enjoy themselves…

“Some dancing followed, the sword dance being very respectfully executed by Mr Robertson, even though he appeared a trifle tipsy. This must have upset the perfectionist Mr MacLachlan, as he seized the pipes from Robertson, in no courteous manner, as he was playing. Robertson left the stage in dugeon, Mr MacLachlan leaving the stage at the same time in hot pursuit; and for a short period, the demon of discord held sway, ’till Mr Rae brought forward his little laddie “Willie”, who danced several lively measures, to his father’s piping, remarkably well, for so young a dancer.

In the meantime, Mr Warden Anderson had succeeded in conciliation the irate Mr Robertson, who reappeared, on the stage, promptly followed by Mr MacLachlan, in a more docile mood, bringing up the rear.

These Caledonian Games, apparently aroused much interest in the surrounding districts, there being a preponderance of Scots, with their hearts still tuned to their homeland, for, from the Castlemaine Mail of 6/1/1860 comes this item: At the Caledonian Games, held in Sandhurst, and attended by many Castlemaine-ites, we saw, among the novelties, was the performance of Mr L MacLachlan, P. M., of the ‘Reel of Tullock’, which he piped, and Mr Warden Anderson, and Mr Kellar danced, much to the enjoyment of the spectators. At the conclusion of the dance, he screwed his pipes and ‘Gait them Skirl’, till the grandstand benches, ‘a did dirl’.

Another Scots Air ‘The Land of the Mountain and Flood’ was also played, and Mr MacLachlan was applauded for his amazing condescension in getting up and dancing with Mr Anderson and Mr Kellar.”

The Bendigo Games for a while became an annual New Year’s event. Don Watson in “Caledonia Australis”, (Collins 1984) wrote that:

“It was common in the colonies for Scots to seem larger than life, as it was in Edinburgh and London. The Caledonian societies of which many of the Gippsland settlers were members, were ideal vehicles for parading a brand of Scottishness which owed more to homesickness and Walter Scott than the realities of life in Scotland.”

Ballarat Caledonian Society New Year's Day, 1895
Ballarat Caledonian Society New Year’s Day, 1895. The writer’s great grandfather is believed to be second from the right.

Watson quotes the nephew of Richard Howitt, the explorer and natural scientist Alfred William Howitt, describing a visit to an expatriate Scottish family in Gippsland in about 1856.

“My friends are devoted to ‘horses’ and are great racing people, very kind, nice people and very rich so that it is a pleasant idle house where people come and go as they like and the gentlemen congregate in a house called the ‘barracks’, and talk of such subjects as interest us here – the American war – the weather – the floods – pleuro pneumonia – fat cattle – sheep – horses – and I am sorry to say, very rarely of books. It may not be a very intellectual life but it is without trouble or care. It is a fearful place for ‘nobblerizing’ – it goes on morning, noon and night … they dance to a harp, a melaphone and an accordian every night.”

The Caledonian Games were held again at Bendigo in 1863 and were described by Petterson thus:

“The President of the Society, Mr L MacLachlan, Messrs. Farquarson, the MacLachlan brothers visiting from Ballarat especially for the event, Donald from Sebastopol, Moffat from Bunninyong and a number of other gentlemen, arrayed in the ‘Garb of the Gaul’ all attended…

“The ‘Reel of Tullock’, danced to the piping of Mr MacLachlan’s brother, Moffat, was wildly cheered, with Mr. L MacLachlan given applause for his dancing, he being 52 years old then.

“The MacLachlan brothers continued to visit and obviously enjoyed these Games, and I am told by Donald’s descendant, Arthur Wattis, that when farewelling or greeting one another at the rail stations of Ballarat or Bendigo, the three brothers all dressed up in their Highland Dress. The air was electric, with the broad Gaelic flowing, enthusiastic greetings and the blare of the pipes. Happy days in a new land!”

Moffat McLachlan photographed with his bagpipes, c1920
The writer’s great grandfather, Moffat McLachlan, photographed late in life with his bagpipes

My great grandfather, Moffat McLachlan, the piper who played for his 52 year old half brother Lachlan’s dancing, came to the Victorian goldfields in 1854, just a few years after Yallambie’s Thomas Wragge himself first set foot in the colony. The son of a captain of the Napoleonic wars and great grandson of an adjutant in the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Moffat arrived in Australia as a younger son with little more than his pipes and a forlorn hope of finding a fortune on the Ballarat goldfields. Petterson described him as “six foot four and a half inches tall with a flowing yellow beard, and not surprisingly was generally known in Ballarat as ‘The Viking’.”

It was said of Moffat that “in his day as a piper he was classified in the first flight,” and at the time of his death in 1923 he was reputed to be Australia’s oldest piper.

Moffat’s bagpipes were a family heirloom and were probably already antique when he arrived in Australia in the mid 19th century. My late father remembered seeing them in his youth and thought the bag had been repaired with a kangaroo skin. To my father’s lasting regret Moffat’s pipes, which had previously been promised to him, went missing some time during World War 2. My father had been incarcerated on the Burma/Thailand railway, a prisoner of war of the Japanese. That’s another story and maybe one that I’ll look at in another post. He said, “I would have played those pipes but I guess the family thought I wasn’t coming back.”

If nothing else, you might say it probably saved a few ears after the war.

The men in my family seem to have all been late breeders. I can remember being taken along to an ANZAC Parade at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance as a boy, my father introducing me to an old comrade, a piper apparently. They were discussing in front of me the process of educating a child in the art of the bagpipes.

“Get him started young,” the piper said.

I went away that day thinking excitedly that I would soon be taken somewhere to be taught the skills of the Highland bagpipes.

I’m still waiting.

Members of the Clan Lachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1999
Members of the Clan MacLachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1999

At Yallambie today the pipes can be heard now and then all the same. One of our neighbours is a piper and I’ve heard him sometimes ‘strangling a cat’ on those frosty winter’s morning in Yallambie Park.

Glen Dudley, piper of the Clan Lachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1998
Glen Dudley, piper of the Clan MacLachlan Society of Victoria at Yallambie, 1998

The Clan MacLachlan Society of Victoria were for a short time meeting at the Homestead on an irregular basis and brought their own piper on those occasions. Last year our son had an opportunity to pick up a set of pipes and was playing it like a pro before we knew what was going on. He plays clarinet in the school band so no doubt that training helped him pick it up but who knows, it could be down to family history.

Yallambie wedding with bagpiper, 1994
Yallambie wedding with bagpiper, 1994

I’ll probably have to sort out an old record if I want bagpipes on New Year’s Eve but Old Lang Syne is a Hogmanay staple. Most people know the chorus but if you don’t know the verses, here’s a translation of Robbie Burns original lyrics written in 1788, the year of Australia’s first settlement.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.


We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie-waught,
For auld lang syne


We will be singing this at Yallambie on New Year’s Eve and washing it down with just a dash of my Hogmanay Punch, perhaps. I’ve mixed this up many times over the years for when we’ve needed a tipple for our family of virtual teetotallers and other entertainments. On a few occasions I served it as a warming drink at City Council sponsored “Winter in Banyule” events at Yallambie.

But if there’s one thing it is guaranteed to bring, even if it be but once a year, it is a Happy New Year!

12 oz sugar
3/4 pint lemon juice
1/2 pint pineapple juice
1 quart white wine
orange rind
1 pint tea
1 tablespoon Angostura bitters
sliced orange, cherries, and apple for garnish

Heat together sugar, lemon juice and curls of orange rind. Stir in wine and pineapple juice. Just before serving, add freshly brewed strained tea and the bitters. Pour into warmed punch bowl or jug. Garnish with cherries, sliced orange and rosy apple. Serve in punch cups or heavy glasses.

Beware the punch
Beware the punch

7 thoughts on “Strangling a cat for Auld Lang Syne”

  1. Great Article, Moffatt McLachlan was also my Great Great Grandfather, from his son Coll McLachlan who went to W.A. and then his son William Moffatt McLachlan and then his daughter (my mother Joan Valma Poland (nee McLachlan)


    Wayne Poland


  2. Close by in Greensborough we often heard a piper on the night air. Everyone thought it was my brother, for he too was inclined to get out the bagpipes and play a tune or two in the evenings. It was to my chagrin that I would have tell our friends:”That wasn’t him. There’s another Piper somewhere!” I now realise that it must have been the Piper at Yallambie.


    1. Hi Jan, I haven’t heard the eerie sounds of the bagpiper of Yallambie (or maybe it was your brother at Greensborough) for some years now but I believe the Yallambie piper lived at a house in Taree Place, Yallambie. If you like stories of ghostly bagpipers, you may appreciate this tale from the family of Moffat’s 17th century great grandmother, Anna Campbell of Duntrune Castle in Scotland. In that century, an Irish adventurer named Coll Macdonnel was raiding his way through Argyllshire and sent his piper to spy out the land ahead and to determine the relative strength of Duntrune. The piper was admitted to the castle but soon aroused the suspicions of his Campbell hosts who locked him up inside their castle turrets.
      Macdonnel, tired of waiting, brought his ships up the loch but the piper, seeing the sails from his turret prison, realized the ships were heading into a trap and played a tune on his pipes, a pibroch known to this day as “The Piper’s Warning to his Master”. As a result Macdonnel turned his ships away from the strongly defended castle and escaped. The Campbells, realizing they had been tricked by the piper, hacked off his hands and buried him in the castle grounds. For years afterward the spirit of the dead piper was said to haunt Duntrune with phantom pipes being heard on occasion wailing from the turrets.
      A great legend, don’t you think? It might have ended there but at the end of the 19th century during renovations of Duntrune Castle which was by then owned by the Laird of Clan Malcolm, workmen uncovered a skeleton with its hands severed. After the skeleton was given a proper Christian burial and a ceremony conducted to “lay the spirit” with the ancient rite of Bell, Book and Candle, the ghostly piper was heard at Duntrune no more.
      I hope this wasn’t the fate of our Yallambie piper.


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