The author of Australia's literary icon My Country was inspired by the harsh beauty of the New South Wales properties on which she spent much of her youth.
Story By John Dunn
Dorothea Mackellar became a national figure after she wrote My Country, six verses of superb description, which became Australia’s best-loved and most-quoted poem because it so well portrays Australia’s inland. From the very beginning it was heralded as a literary icon and is still, a century later its popularity has not diminished In recent years just the opposite has happened, helped along by dedicated efforts to ensure that Dorothea and her words remain an integral part of Australia’s heritage.
In Anzac Park in the rural town of Gunnedah in the central west of New South Wales stands an impressive sculpture of Dorothea, sitting sidesaddle as was her habit, and looking intently in the direction of “Kurrumbede”, the property where she had holidayed as a young lady. And in the stately old Italianate-style courthouse, which is now a museum, in the tiny town of Paterson in NSW’s Hunter Valley, an entire wall display has been devoted to a range of Mackellar memorabilia including a recording of Dorothea reciting the poem. Part of the display refers to another property, “Torryburn”, where she also spent considerable time in her youth.
Gunnedah and Paterson are rivals in a sense because there are people in both places who believe that their own district provided the inspiration for Dorothea to write My Country. Her father, Sir Charles Mackellar, an eminent physician and parliamentarian, owned both Kurrumbede and Torryburn and Dorothea visited both on many occasions.
Mikie Maas, a former deputy mayor of Gunnedah, believes that Kurrumbede was the setting because its location on the Namoi River plains with the Nandewar range in the distance was a background that identifies almost exactly with the words of the poem. She says that Alice Broun who lived next door, at Coulston, spoke in local interviews of her recollections of Dorothea’s visits and adds, “Alice vividly remembered how she often found Dorothea sitting on the woolshed roof “dreaming away and pencilling some lines”.
Mikie maintains that “here are the sweeping plains with the ragged ranges and the wide brown land refers to the paddocks after they have been ploughed”. She adds, “droughts and flooding rains are typical in this area whereas Torryburn is a coastal, dairy cattle property without sweeping plains and nary a drought”. Convinced that the connection with Gunnedah was valid, Mikie instigated the erection of the sculpture and also inaugurated an annual poetry competition for schools as a memorial to Dorothea. (See accompanying story).
However, the weight of evidence, from the one person still alive who discussed the matter with Dorothea, suggests that it was the undulating fields and the low, rolling hills of the Paterson River valley surrounding Torryburn that provided the scene for her words. Or maybe it was a combination of both. Certainly the people of Paterson feel as strongly about their case as Mikie Maas does about Gunnedah’s, and to support it one of them, Val Anderson, who is the honorary curator of the museum there, has written a book – The Dorothea Mackellar My Country Paterson Valley Connection – together with the Cameron Archer, principal of the C. B. Alexander Agricultural College, at nearby Tocal, and Cynthia Hunter, a local author and historian.
This story excerpt is from Issue #55
Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2007