John McDouall Stuart: The Fifer who was first to walk coast to coast across Australia

He is one of Fife’s greatest pioneers - the man who became the first to go coast to coast across Australia, and back again!

By Allan Crow
Thursday, 11th February 2021, 1:07 pm
John McDouall Stuart
John McDouall Stuart

The remarkable achievements of John McDouall Stuart make him a legend on both sides of the globe.

Born in Dysart, he made his name leading the first ever expedition to traverse north to south across the continent Down Under.

His reward was £2500, a gold medal and a place in history, but the effort also destroyed his health.

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John McDouall Stuart birthplace in Rectory Lane, Dysart, Fife

Little is known of McDouall Stuart’s early years in Dysart.

It is believed he attended Kirkcaldy Burgh School before emigrating to Australia where he got a job as a draughtsman to a surveyor - Captain Charles Stuart, a famous explorer in the service of the government of South Australia.

It was a time of exploration fever, wrote Albert Kidd, secretary of the Dysart Trust in the 1971 centenary edition of the Fife Free Press.

Much of that excitement was sparked by the reward of £2000 - a huge sum in those days.

John McDouall Stuart Statue, Adelaide (Pic: Stuart Society)

Captain Stuart tried in 1844-45 but set out during a terrible drought, contracted scurvy, his eyesight failed and he lost the use of one arm.

McDouall Stuart’s own first attempt in 1860 and made good progress until he encountered Aborigines who attacked his team with clubs and boomerangs. They responded with rifles.

They opted to return home and try again as a £2500 pot allowed him to muster a bigger, better equipped team, but it was not successful.

This time he encountered a new type of scrub - Stuart’s Desert Hedgewood - which proved impossible to hack through.

His third try proved successful, but it too was dogged by ill fortune.

Mr Kidd recalled how McDouall Stuart was nearly knocked down and killed by one of his own horses on day one.

Several days later there was a mutiny, and two men fled, while a third vanished with a horse and some equipment.

McDouall Stuart set out across the Tropic of Capricorn at the hottest part of the year. The sun blazed relentlessly overhead and several horses succumbed.

They were also twice attacked by natives, but the thorny scrub was the biggest enemy - strong, vicious spikes tore at the legs of the men and the horses

The Press noted that McDouall Stuart’s “dourness and determination” saw him press on for some seven months.

By May, he had pushed northward, finding water here and there before crossing the River Roper.

He then sighted another river which he named the Adelaide River, and followed its course for days. After 8.5 miles he came across a broad valley, Van Dieman’s Gulf

Finally, on July 24 1862 he was able to spot the sea

Noted Mr Kidd: “A triumphant and exultant call acknowledging a great achievement, he now possessed something no man could take from him - the credit for cutting a trail through the centre of the world’s oldest continent by way of hostile desert and scrub “from desert to shining sea.”

McDouall Stuart got his bounty and a Royal Geographical Society gold medal, but at a price. He found himself weaker than ever at the finish before turning immediately to make the long journey home.

His health never fully recovered and he died four years later.

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