Ach! A Family History of the McLeans, from the Ark to the Athlone

David McLean is a poet, teacher and broadcaster from Melbourne, whose poem The Inland Sea appeared in Great Ocean Quarterly Volume 1:4.

This is a story of clichéd  familiarity that it almost doesn’€™t bear repeating; of parental expectation, of a child running away, of adventure, luck and good fortune. Most of all, it’€™s a story of the sea.

Strangely enough, it begins in a nook of an office behind the garage attached to the dwelling my parents occupy in their retirement village in land-locked Lilydale. The estate of houses is known as “Tudor Village”€“ English nomenclature with echoes of dynasties, marriages and roses. It was in that humble little office that my father decided to write the family history tracing our line back to Scotland and the Clan MacLean. And it was here that my father metaphorically ran away to sea finding echoes of a past that smelt of salt waves on a cresting sea.

Boats figure prominently in this story as one would expect but our association is one of biblical proportions. This must have appealed to my clergyman father who had long since retired from the pulpit. A dispute between the Campbells and the McLeans was reported in the Bristol Times of 1883. Both were extolling the virtues and antiquity of their respective clans. McLean would not allow Campbell dominance in the debate insisting that the Clan McLean had existed from the beginning of the world. Campbell, lettered in the Bible – chapter and verse, queried if Clan McLean had lived before the Flood.

“€œFlood! What Flood?”€ McLean replied.

“The Flood that drowned all the world but Noah, his family and flock.”

“Pooh! You and your Flood,” said McLean. “My family was before the Flood.”

Amazed, Campbell brought his learning to bear. “€œI have not read in my Bible of the name McLean going onto Noah’€™s Ark.€”

“Noah’€™s Ark,”€ retorted McLean in contempt. “Whoever heard of a McLean that had not a boat of his own!”


The lineage as far back as Noah is a little hard to establish. The documentary proof must have been lost in that self same flood. But my father found his other self in Peter MacLean who did venture to sea. Peter was born on April 20th in 1811 in a croft on the Grandtully estate. As the eldest son, he would have been aware of the duties and responsibilities of an arduous life tied to the farm. A succession of Liferent Tack Agreements stipulated the yearly rent owed by the family to the Grandtully Laird, John Stewart.

“Two boils good& sufficient oatmeal by weight according to the law of Parliament. Eleven pounds three shillings & fourpence Scots money. One goose of twelve shillings Scots. A Pultrie or three shillings four pence. Twenty loads of peat or eight pounds for each load, & a reek hen, or four shillings . ..’€

And, as the eldest son, Peter benefited from a sound schooling but was burdened with an expectation that he train for the Christian Ministry. His response was to run away to sea.


The chapter of Peter’€™s life that followed is apocryphal with the proof being in the outcome and not the actual events. Trained as a ship’€™s carpenter, Peter was sailing from London to Bombay when pirates attacked the ship. The Master and First Mate were murdered. Peter’€™s urgency and initiative in connecting hoses to the ship’€™s steam engine saw the pirates repelled without further loss of life. Peter and the crew brought the cargo safely home to England. As a reward, Peter was trained as a Ship’€™s Master. His name appears in the Lloyds of London Insurance Register in 1848 and he served as a Young Master on the “China”€ and ‘€œRamilies’€ in the years that followed. How else could a farm lad become a ship’€™s Master if the story wasn’€™t true?

Rewards of this kind were also matched with opportunities. Peter and his wife Eliza sailed as unassisted passengers on the ship, “Athlone”€ from Liverpool, England, on November 3rd, 1852 and arrived in a Port Phillip enthralled by gold rush fever on Match 7th, 1853. It is not unlikely that the prospect of a fortune was on his mind. More tickets were sold in 1852 for passage from England to Melbourne than to any other destination in the world. But it was also a considered step. Peter and Eliza brought with them a prefabricated home of corrugated iron and duly erected it in Marriner Street, Williamstown. The cost of such a voyage, the preparations taken to bring a home with them and the choice of location all speak of method rather than madness. One of the first shipyards ever built on Port Phillip Bay was in Williamstown. It was operated by Peter’€™s cousin, James Kilgour who was Peter’€s neighbour once the iron home was erected.

At the same time, migrants from England would have had difficulty conceiving of what living in a corrugated iron home would have been like in the soaring summer sun or in the depths of a Melbourne winter. The internal frame of the house was of cast iron, the interior was lined with the packing crate timber used when preparing the corrugated sheets for transport. Canvas was attached to the walls as a backing for wallpaper, a luxury that some postponed until more financially secure. Some 6,369 dwellings of this kind were imported into Melbourne in 1853. They generally consisted of six small rooms with two attic spaces used as bedrooms.

Many, however, were prepared to endure discomfort. There was a fortune to be made in the marvelous Melbourne of the gold rush era but not all of it was on the fields of Ballarat or Bendigo. It has been said that there was a proliferation of ships in the bay deserted by crews who had absconded to the gold fields. You could almost walk from Williamstown to Melbourne over the wooden decks of the vessels tethered in close proximity to one another. These vessels would have been waiting for both cargo and crew but they would also be in need of maintenance. And that’€™s where the real money was to be made.


Image: “Railway Pier Williamstown” by Charles Nettleton (1826-1902). Full attribution below.

The cost of docking a large vessel at Williamstown’€™s floating dock was 750 pounds for a ten day period to carry out repairs and maintenance. It was this dock that Peter MacLean and James Kilgour purchased in 1866. Tethered alongside the dock was the hulk of the Sir W. Molesworth that carried supplies of coal for the steam ships along with a blacksmith’€™s workshop for any immediate and necessary repairs. It was an operation on an industrial scale.

Peter’€™s mortal end came some two years after the acquisition of the floating dock and some fifteen years after he and Eliza arrived and settled at Williamstown. He died of paralysis as a result of sunstroke according to his death certificate. Today we’€™d call it a stroke or heart attack, a family legacy that my father has avoided because of the wonders of modern medicine. Peter lingered between life and death for some fifty days before he finally passed away early in the February of 1868. Special provisions were made for him to draft a will to ensure he wouldn’€™t leave his family bereft. Affidavits were declared and signed by those present to acknowledge that Peter’€™s will was his own despite the fact that he could not speak and his right arm was immobile.

Peter MacLean’€™s legacy endured beyond his passing. He and Eliza had six children. The family also sponsored other relatives in coming to the new, pioneering world of Australia. Whilst the generations since have moved further inland, the McLean (the spelling has changed but not the heritage) story is a story of the sea. It’€™s not just of someone taking passage across the waves but of a life built amongst chandlery and decking. Peter’€™s tale lingers on the wisp of a breeze that inspired my father to trace his past and venture to the ports and harbours visited by Peter. The trepidation of gambling on an unknown future, the establishment of a new life and the raising of a family in a strange land are all experiences vicariously shared with each new addition to the Australian chapter of the Clan MacLean.

David McLean

The great great-grandson of Peter MacLean

If you’€™ve got a sea-going family history that you’€™d like to share, drop us a line here at Great Ocean Quarterly:


Image: “Railway Pier Williamstown” by Charles Nettleton (1826-1902) – State Library of Victoria, Imaging 19th Century Victoria Digitising Project. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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