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'Mount Cairncross
a remarkable round-topped hill'

Little bit of history

On 12 May 1819, while conducting a survey of the Hastings River, Lieutenant Phillip Parker King and Surveyor General John Oxley landed on Little Rawdon Island where, from the edge of the bank, Mount Cairncross, a remarkable round-topped hill which is conspicuously seen from the coast over the entrance of the port, appeared over the next reach, and formed a rich picturesque back-ground for the view.

This seems to be the first written record of Mount Cairncross and appears in King’s Narrative of a Survey of the Inter tropical and Western Coasts of Australia – Performed Between the Years 1818 and 1822. 

Mount Cairncross lies some twenty four kilometers inland and reaches a height of 536 meters. Although lower than the ranges beyond, it forms the dominant feature on the western skyline and its distinctive shape explains why it is known locally as the ‘Sleeping Elephant’.

Unfortunately, King did not say how the hill acquired its name. Few Europeans had come to the area prior to his visit, and although Oxley’s party undoubtedly saw the hill as they made their way down the Hastings River in 1818 Oxley did not mention it, nor did it appear on his original map of the area. Before then only James Cook and Matthew Flinders are known to have come close to that part of the coast but neither records the hill in his log. Cook sailed past during the night and could not have seen it, while Flinders wrote only that:

The coast from Tacking Point to Smoky Cape is generally low and sandy; but its uniformity is broken at intervals by rocky points, which first appear like islands. Behind them the land is low, but quickly rises to hills of a moderate height; and these being well covered with wood, the country had a pleasant appearance.
However, a difficulty arising from King’s Narrative is that it was not published until 1827 and included references to events that took place at Port Macquarie subsequent to his visit. In a similar vein, Mount Cairncross was not shown on the 1822 edition of Oxley’s Chart of Part of the Interior of New South Wales, appearing only in a later edition of the map containing additions to 1825. It is, therefore, conceivable that the name arose after the establishment of the penal settlement in 1821 when the hill would have become familiar to more people. Nevertheless, in looking for the source of the name the focus must be on King and Oxley.

The only ‘Cairncross’ with whom King has been found to have had a connection is Jane Cairncross, the wife of Barron Field, a judge of the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature in New South Wales. The Fields arrived in Sydney in February 18174 and when King, who was born at Norfolk Island but had spent most of his life in Europe, returned to Australia in September the same year, a friendship developed. King’s regard for Barron Field became apparent when, during a voyage along the northern coast of Australia in May 1818, King named the Barron and Field Islands ‘after my friend.’ 

Yet, if King did not name Mount Cairncross, who did? Oxley can almost certainly be ruled out because the first and only connection between his name and the hill was when it appeared, without comment, on the 1825 edition of his plan of New South Wales.

King’s account of his subsequent voyage mentions two places called Cairncross—Mount Cairncross and Captain Francis Allman, the first commandant at Port Macquarie, can also be tentatively ruled out since no connection can be found between him and the name ‘Cairncross’ other than that he might have known, or known of, Jane Field.
A possible link could be made to Allman’s successor, Captain John Rolland, who assumed command in April 1824 but died unexpectedly in November the same year. He was a member of the Rollands of Auchmithie in Forfarshire13 but nothing has been found to associate his family with the Cairncross-Glenesk district of Forfarshire. Even so, Rolland was responsible for the discovery of rich agricultural land immediately to the north of Mount Cairncross. This was later named Rolands Plains and land at its upper end became Glenesk. Yet it still seems unlikely that Rolland was responsible for naming Mount Cairncross because unless he recorded the name very soon after his arrival at Port Macquarie—and there is no evidence of this—there would have been insufficient time for it to have been incorporated into either King’s Narrative or the edition of Oxley’s map on which it first appeared.
Hence, in the absence of contradictory evidence, Hordern’s assertion that Mount Cairncross was named by Mount Cairncross...
Phillip Parker King for Barron Field’s wife, Jane Cairncross, is the most acceptable explanation.


Sleeping Elephant Photo1.jpg

Looking at Mount Cairncross from the Hastings River 

[Photo taken by Available Light Images}

Aboriginal name
It is interesting to observe that while Mount Cairncross is the officially registered name of the hill, it has a far more long-standing Aboriginal name, the phonetic form of what is usually written as ‘Coolapatamba’, though spellings vary. This first came to light in a letter from Draughtsman Frederick D’Arcy to Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell dated 31 August 1830. D’Arcy was assisting Surveyor James Ralfe at the Hastings and was being faithful to Mitchell’s instruction to record native names wherever possible. In his letter D’Arcy wrote:

As soon as the articles of Field equipment were repaired, I proceeded [sic] to trace one of Rawdon Island Creeks (by the Natives called ‘Buandingan’) which takes its rise from the ranges in the neighbourhood of Cowhoolapatamba.

The way this is written conveys the impression that the name was already known and used, particularly by Ralfe who had first come to Port Macquarie in 1828. Indeed, the hill was shown as ‘Mt Cairn Cross or Coulahpatamba’ on Ralfe’s and D’Arcy’s map of the Hastings produced about 1830.
The native designation was accorded recognition in The New South Wales Calendar and General Post Office Directory 1832. Describing the road to Rollands Plains, the directory remarked that ‘On the left is a very high mountain, called Mount Cairncross or Coulahpatamboh.’ The name, spelt variously, also appeared on early maps of grants in the region as well as on Surveyor General Mitchell’s famous 3-sheet map of the colony published in 1834.

Clement Hodgkinson, proceeding up the Wilson River valley in 1845, wrote of ‘Mount Caoulapatamba being ...A remarkable round-topped hill’
sufficiently near to enable one to distinguish every tree on its grassy declivities’, while Godfrey Mundy, ten years later, reflecting on the Aboriginal tongue, observed that:

The language appeared to me soft and full of vowels and liquids ; and is spoken with extreme volubility, especially by the women. Some of the native names of places are grandly sonorous and polysyllabic. It is weal when they are retained by the English possessors of the lands, instead of substituting vulgar and unmeaning European titles. Here are a string of names—taken at hazard (that sort of hazard that suits a purpose)—almost as round-sounding as old Homer’s muster roll of heroes: Wollondilly, Gelong, Bendendera, Coolapatamba, Tangabalanga, Pejar, Paramatta, Rhyana. Menangle, Gobberalong, Nandowra, Memendere, Ponkeparinga, Yass, Canadalga, Molong, Karajong, Naradandera, Bong Bong! 

It was not only travelers who liked the name. In 1857, in an article on the marketable value of Australian wines, The Sydney Morning Herald deplored the fact that the ‘euphonical native names of our districts, their rivers and mountains, have in too many cases been changed by vulgar caprice. A magnificent hill at the head of the Wilson River, called Coolapatamba by the natives, was named Mount Cairncross by the Government surveyors, and the Cockney corruption of Mount Charing Cross, soon drove the original name out of memory.’ The reference to Charing Cross is intriguing but misleading as there is no evidence for it having any bearing on the matter.
Some twenty-five years later, when Mount Cairncross was ‘reluctantly given up’ as an observation post for the Transit of Venus in 1882 because it was ‘some 15 miles from the coast and in summer often surrounded by bush fires’, the native name was not mentioned. However, it reappeared the following year, this time with an explanation of its meaning:

MOUNT CAIRN CROSS.-This eminence, known also by its native name, ‘Koolabatamba,’ literally, the place where the eagle drinks, is, says the Manning River Times, a steep peak to the south of the plains, rising to the height of 1,700 feet, from the summit of which a view may be obtained, on a clear day, of Port Macquarie, the Hastings, and the Macleay. At the very top a tiny spring supplies a perpetual fountain with the purest water, and it is from this circumstance that the native name, Koolabatamba is derived.

Philip Cohen added to the romanticism in a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald in 1890:

About 170 miles north of Sydney, and about 12 miles inland, is a large romantic looking round mountain known as ‘Mount Cairncross.’ At evening time numbers of eagles and great eagle hawks are to be seen wending their way towards the mountain, which is doubtless their night refuge. The native name for it is ‘Coulapatamba,’ the literal translation of which is ‘the eagle’s dwelling.’ 

That same year a paper on Aboriginal placenames by surveyor Francis Bensen William Woolrych was communicated to the Royal Society of NSW by fellow surveyor John Frederick Mann. In his commentary Mann related the f
ollowing story:

A small party of blacks were, many years ago, encamped in one of the beautiful valleys of the upper M’Leay, the men were away hunting, the camp being in charge of a few women who were attending upon a young mother and her newly born babe; the infant was exposed to the sun upon an opossum cloak, when an eagle swooped down and carried the helpless child away to the summit of some neighbouring cliffs. Some of the men soon returning, at once scaled the precipice, they discovered the remains of the infant, and the eagle, satiated, drinking from a pool of water in the rocks. The remains were collected and buried amidst great lamentation especially on the part of the women. The name given to this water hole on the clif in consequence of this event was ‘Kau-oola-patamba, the place where the eagle drank.’
In 1898 Mann repeated the story in a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald, adding that it was ‘almost a verbatim account as given many years ago to Mr. Surveyor Ralph [sic], who spoke the language of the blacks fluently, and was otherwise conversant with their manners and customs.’

On this occasion Mann was writing in response to an article by ‘R.R.G.’ entitled ‘Christmas on Kosciusko’ which had appeared in the Herald a few days earlier and which spoke of a great snowdrift overhanging ‘the beautiful Cootapatamba Lake—the “drinking-pool of the eagles,” and the highest water in Australia.’ Mann was concerned that the name, with the change to only one letter, had been lifted from its original place to be used ‘at a far distant point’, even though the meaning had not been changed. As he observed, ‘Native names are always descriptive, and their retention should be strictly adhered to in preference to the adoption of English names, but in all cases they should be localised, as when made use of at widely separate points their meaning and orthography run the risk of being distorted.’
Mann’s letter stirred memories for another correspondent, F. G. Nield, who noted that Coola-patamba, the ‘place where the eagles drink’ formed ‘a prominent feature in the picturesque view to be obtained from the heights of Port Macquarie...’
Later, in 1921, Archibald Meston offered his explanation27 of the etymology of the name:

Coola-patamba, first mentioned by Stutchbury, the geologist, about 1856, and said to be the name of a hill, comes from ‘coolah,’ in the Wailwoon dialect, a name of the black eagle (aquila audax), ‘patamm,’ to drink, and the afix ‘ba,’ nearly always, as an affix, equivalent to our adverb of place, ‘there.’ The whole word actually meaning ‘the eagle drinks there,’ or ‘the place where the eagles drink.’

Meston was, of course, mistaken in claiming that Samuel Stutchbury, who arrived in Australia in 1850 in order to make a geological and mineralogical survey of New South Wales, was the first to mention Coolapatamba, and whether or not his etymology is correct may also be open to question, though it seems to be the only one on offer.
Today, sadly, fewer eagles soar over Coolapatamba. Their drinking pool has gone and their wild cries have been drowned out by the continuous electric hum of communication towers. Perhaps, after all, this was what our early European colonists foresaw when they dispensed with Aboriginal names in favour of ‘vulgar and unmeaning European titles’ which, lacking the romantic allure, often accord more closely with the march of human progress.

Tony Dawson Endnotes
1 Phillip Parker King. Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western
Coasts of Australia – Performed Between the Years 1818 and 1822. Vol. 1 p.168. London: John Murray, 1847.
2 Matthew Flinders. A Voyage to Terra Australis. Vol. 2 p.3. London: G and W Nicol, 1814.
3 Arthur Fawthrop Cairncross. History of a Forfarshire Family. Dundee: J. Durham & Son Ltd, 1920.
4 The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. 1 March 1817 p.1.
5 Phillip Parker King. Narrative, op. cit.
6 The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. 2 January 1819.
7 Marsden Hordern. King of the Australian Coast: The Work of Philip Parker King in the Mermaid and Bathurst 1817-1822. Melbourne University Press at the Miegunyah Press, 1997.
8 Marnie Bassett. Realms and Islands: The World Voyage of Rose de Freycinet in the Corvette Uranie, 1817-1820, from Her Journal and Letters and the Reports of Louis de Saulces de Freycinet, Capitaine de Corvette. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.
9 The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 2 January 1819 and 20 February 1819; The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter. 2 January 1819 and 13 February 1819.
10 John Septimus Roe letters – first major surveys of the Australian coast: the three voyages of the Mermaid 6 August 1818 – 26 February 1821. Letters dated 7 December 1818 and 16 February 1819 (State Library of New South Wales MLMSS 7964/vol. 4; album online at
11 Philip Parker King letter book relating to survey voyages around New South Wales, 1817-1823. Letter dated 26 April 1819 (State Library of NSW MLMSS 4429; transcription online at au/_transcript/2011/D13569/a4585.htm).
12 Personal communication from Ms Heather Johnson, Library Assistant, National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth, UK.
13 John Burke. A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 3 p.612. London: Henry Colburn, 1836.
14 Surveyor General: Letters received 1822 – 1855 (State Records NSW ref: 2/1526.2).
15 Surveyor General: Select list of maps and plans, 1792-1886. Plan of Macquarie District, Map 3813 [State Records NSW NRS13870].
16 Clement Hodgkinson. Australia, from Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay. p.72. London: T. & W. Boone, 1845.
17 Godfrey Charles Mundy. Our Antipodes: or, Residence and Rambles the Australasian Colonies with a Glimpse of the Gold Fields. Vol. 1 p.211. London: Richard Bentley, 1855.
18 The Sydney Morning Herald. 26 January 1857 p.4.
19 Thomas Jones of Charing Cross was a Mathematical Instrument Maker to the Board of Longitude, and some his instruments were used by the NSW Surveyor General’s department. This might explain the allusion.
20 The Sydney Morning Herald 10 November 1882 p.3.
21 Ilustrated Sydney News 12 May 1883 p.7.
22 The Sydney Morning Herald 13 May 1890 p.3.
23 F B W Woolrych. ‘Native names of some of the runs &c in the Lachlan District.’ Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales,
24 (1890), 63-70.
24 The Sydney Morning Herald. 19 January 1898 p.5.
25 The Sydney Morning Herald. 15 January 1898 p.4.
26 The Sydney Morning Herald. 25 January 1898 p.3.
27 The Sydney Morning Herald. 9 November 1921 p.16

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