Niel Black – The Pioneer Pastoralist

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.

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6 comments

  1. There is a quantity of nonsense in this potted biog of Niel Black. The first is that NB wasn’t the second son, but the youngest of 4 surviving brothers. Two other brothers died in infancy. His oldest brother Duncan died in 1815, leaving Niel, Walter and Archibald.There were also several sisters. Black’s primary language was English, as it had been for all sons of tacksmen wince the statutes of Iona. he was extremely fluent in the language, florid even. before he came to Australia he had been in partnership in Argyll with his two brothers and they held 5 tenancies between them. The ADB nonsense about little capital is based on nothing other than speculation. He was a full partner in Niel Black and Company. he settled on Port Phillip because land was cheap. In South Australia land had to be purchased at a pound an acre. Ten pounds in Port Phillip got the squatter as much land as he could hold. I suspect Strathdownie, the right of run that Black purchased from was larger than the 45000 acres, and he lost part of the west to John Thomson at Kielambete, and a bite out of the south to MacKinnon. He did not have a poor opinion of Highlanders, he had a poor opinion of lazy workers. He was very pleased that the servants he brought out soon saved enough to become land holders in their own right. Russell ward wrote the ADB item on Black the only points on which he was totally correct was the man’s name, and date of birth and the amount of probated estate he left. Black’s father died in 1806, not 1808 as all biogs of the man have it. NB was 2. His mother was the daughter of a local hereditary landholder, MacChananich being old gaelic for tax gatherer, a post from Earl Argyll in the 15thC. Because his father was a tacksman NB had access to the old Scottish law system of tutoris, so he had trustees to manage his share of the 3-4000 pounds Archibald left his sons, some of whom weren’t that honest, particularly Campbell of Glendaruel. But another trustee was Harkness who introduced the black faced and Cheviot sheep to the Highlands. Niel Black and company had 101 sq mile Warreanga in South Australia-his cousin Donald had the neighbouring 45sq mile run Kongorong. Black in the 1860s sold the run to WJT Clarke. he, like many in the western districts, had some use out of a flock of Camden merinos, he onsold it to MacKnight, Campbell and Irvine at Dunmore. As far as I know there is no indication he stopped sheep growing on Glenormiston or The Sisters. He, like all squatters, knew they were the means to make money as there was, until the gold rushes, too little a market for beef to justify large numbers. And, finally, there were no hectares in colonial Victoria. I find it totally unhistorical to do those conversions because they give a false idea of the times. When Black took up Glenormiston the area was just a guess, and it fluctuated even as he freeholded it. To give the area that precisely is simply silly. Cheers. Ps
    If you want to wave a Scottish flag, try Catherine Helen Spence, who came out on the Palmyra in 1839, the same ship as other of Black’s initial lot of servants. She was a leading agitator for women’s suffrage in South Australia, she was also the first woman candidate for election-to the federation Convention in 1897. far more interesting than the nonsense we are getting about the Pankhursts at the moment as SA gave women the right to vote in 1894, all adult women including aboriginal women.

  2. Kevin

    This based on material from the ADB and Margaret Kiddle’s Men of Yesterday. I suggest you direct your numerous concerns to the ADB — they are happy to correct their entries if you can provide primary source evidence to support your claims. They can be contacted via adb@anu.edu.au.

    You’ll be thrilled to know there is an entry on Catherine Helen Spence from June, 2010.

    Regard
    Ben

    • My research is based on Scottish parish records, the archives in Edinburgh, and reading the Black files in SLV. I must have been the first Australian historian inside that building. I have mentioned to ADB their entry is crap, but can’t yet see myself being bothered to change it as there are also a hundred other mentions around of Niel Black that are patently of the same quality. I don’t consider a historian should use third hand sources as basic material unless they are engaging in a study of the way stories get away from the history. So I am afraid I have to resent your mishandling of your responsibilities as a historian. Doing the work comes with that responsibility. Kiddle made a good attempt, Ward in his ADB piece made what could be called a Peter Fitzsimmonds or Tim Flannery effort, and I’d hate it for your historical work to be of their standard. Cheers

      Ps: I live at the back gate to the Glenormiston estate. I was talking to Ms Maggie Black, great granddaughter of NB, about the rubbish history not only of the times, but of the people. She said she is sick of correcting them. I feel a bit the same. Around here there a lot of stories about the man that are as wrong as your piece, some are a lot worse. Even the newspapers of the time made it up. Go to SA, where he had 101sq miles, and there are even sillier ideas. The odd thing is there was a fairly accurate report in the papers in 1872 that not even Kiddle referred to.

      • Thank you Kevin but I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the nature of this blog post. It is not an original research article based on primary sources, and is not presented as such; it was written as a general overview for a non-specialist audience (that is, The Scottish Banner, an expat newspaper). I take responsibly for any errors within, but relying on the work of two of 20th-century Australia’s foremost historians is not exactly reckless. If you are looking for something more ‘serious’ to critique, I suggest you start with a work more substantial — such as Kiddle’s book. A journal such as the Victorian Historical Journal will no doubt like to publish a corrected account of Niel Black’s life based on your thorough primary research.

      • I haven’t mistaken anything at all except your apparent willingness to take seriously the nature of your work. Just because it is a blog doesn’t mean you should ignore your responsibilities as a historian. If you do, then you must change your job title to journo. Working for an expat paper gives you the added responsibility to avoid the rah rah aspect of nationalism which has blighted most of the last 200 years. Maybe I will go and bang my head against a brick wall.

      • I have removed the reference to Niel Black being the second son — thank you for that information — but apart from that I can’t actually see anything else in your original post that contradicts the information in this blog.

        The exceptions are his ability to speak Scottish Gaelic, which is not remarkable for his birthplace of Argyll (it would be strange if he didn’t have at least a basic understanding), and his opinion of Highlanders, which, again, is mostly unremarkable for the nineteenth century.

        Thank you again for your comments.

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