I always knew we were getting close to my grandparents’ house in Maclean in northern New South Wales by the changing vegetation outside our car window.
Long stretches of the Pacific Highway would whizz past before we finally caught sight of rows of banana plantations, sweeping up the hillsides of Coffs Harbour.
Several hours up the road, bananas gave way to the purple of jacarandas which embraced the streets of Grafton and were, in turn, replaced by swaying fields of sugar cane. Cane fields were the most exotic because it meant we had travelled the furthest north we ever went from Sydney. It also meant we were nearly there.
Trundling alongside the Clarence River, we finally reached Maclean, known as the ‘Scottish Town in Australia’. That’s due to the large number of Scottish immigrants who settled there in the late 19th century, building the Free Presbyterian Church in 1867.
These days there is a large cairn of rocks gathered from around Scotland and Australia in the local park, street signs with Gaelic translations, power poles in the tartan of local clans and Scottish cuisine, such as haggis, available at the local pub.
As a child in the 1970s, I didn’t question all the Scottish-ness in this sleepy Australian riverside town. One of our visits coincided with the Easter Highland Gathering, held for over a century. When we heard the bagpipes start up in the main street, we ran down the hill from my grandparents’ house to watch the parade go by. The band led the way, the pipers in their bearskin and Glengarry hats, followed by the drum corps, then tartan-clad dancers executing highland flings on top of floats. All the townsfolk of Maclean turned out to watch, most of whom my grandparents knew by name.
After the parade, we gathered for the Highland Games which featured intriguingly-named contests such as Putting the Stone, Caber Toss, Hammers and Log Wrestle.
Maclean is also the southern gateway of Australia’s sugar industry and one time our grandfather took us on a tour of Harwood Island Sugar Mill, the oldest continuous working mill in Australia, crushing cane since 1874. I remember being fascinated by the towering hills of white, brown and raw sugar and by the bamboo-like sticks of cane the workers gave us which we gnawed at like pandas.
Some nights, spot fires of burning cane would light up the countryside’s quiet darkness. The stench would make us fear an approaching bushfire…but these were benevolent fires, delivering a bounty to local cane farmers. These days, pre-harvest burning in the area has been almost completely phased out and replaced by green harvesting.
My grandmother’s house was busy with craft and baking. Tea cosies, dolls clothes, crocheted handkerchiefs and Lady Flo’s pumpkin scones – made for us or the local fete. At the Rotary Fair, I would watch my grandfather run the chocolate wheel, dishing out whole chooks to the winners.
By day, we would climb over the back fence to play with the older children who lived there, running out some of our energy on their tennis court or we would pop in to explore the church next door which was always left unlocked. Often our parents would drive us to the beaches of Yamba and Brooms Head or take our car over on the punt across the Clarence River to visit the little township of Lawrence.
Leisurely childhood country holidays, spent fishing from a boat with my grandfather who taught me the beauty of sitting quietly or amid the swirl of kaftans, frocks and cocktails of large country parties, with my grandparents entertaining guests all day and into the night.