Niel Black was a successful pastoralist and one of Australia’s early politicians. His name is mentioned in many histories of early settlement in Australia. Black is the epitome of the successful, shrewd, and hard-working Scottish pioneer in the colonial era.
Black was born on 26 August 1804 at Kilbridemore in Argyllshire, Scotland, and was the son of Archibald Black and his wife Janet. Black spoke both Gaelic and English. As a young man he obtained a comprehensive knowledge of farming in Argyll. In his thirties, Black went into business with William Steuart, Alexander Struthers Finlay, and Thomas Steuart Gladstone. Their objective was to invest in Australian pastoral properties. Spurred on by his new business venture, in 1839 Black sailed on the Ariadne to Australia.
Black reached Adelaide in July and began to seek pastoral opportunities there, and later around Melbourne and Sydney. Preferring the Port Phillip District because he thought that it was ‘a Scotch settlement’, in 1840 he purchased a 17,612 hectare run — ‘Glenormiston’ — near Lake Terang in the Western District. He also bought a run nearby called ‘The Sisters’ in 1844, and continued to acquire more properties Western District over the next decade.
In the 1850s Black returned to Scotland, where he spent five years seeking a bride. He returned to Australia only after he had married the young and attractive Grace Greenshields Leadbetter in 1857. Black and his wife eventually had three sons, Archibald John, Steuart Gladstone and Niel Walter.
Black became perhaps the most successful stock breeders in the Port Phillip District in the second half of the nineteenth century. He established pedigree Cotswold and merino flocks, and founded a Shorthorn stud at his Mount Noorat property. Some of his peers observed that the cattle were ‘the finest in the southern hemisphere’.
He was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council in February 1859 as a member for the Western Province, and he held the seat until his death. It has been said that Black was a diligent but quiet parliamentarian, rarely speaking but always in attendance at meetings.
Despite being a Gaelic-speaker, Black held a poor opinion of Highlanders. He once asked his partner, Thomas Gladstone, to hire – at the cheapest rate possible – only ‘sober and trustworthy characters’ from a group of immigrants transported with the assistance of the Highland and Island Emigration Society in the mid-1850s. Gladstone engaged seven men at a rate of £30 a year. Black wrote that the Highlanders were ‘very stupid and ignorant respecting the business at which they are employed … they will be no great acquisition.’
Australian historian Russel Ward wrote that Black was ‘Shrewd, righteous, proud, hard working and thrifty, he was typical of many successful Scottish immigrants of the time.’ Black chastised others for laziness and for being idle. Nevertheless, it is said that he was generous to those he thought were deserving of reward, and he contributed charitably to the local Presbyterian Church and was a benefactor of various welfare programs.
Leaving behind a substantial estate of £179,208, Niel Black died in his home at Mount Noorat on 15 May 1880. He is the perfect example of the hard-working Scottish pioneer, one of many who settled in the new land and found great success.