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The Early Canterbury Runs: Containing the First, Second and Third (new) Series

An Interesting Letter

An Interesting Letter

The following interesting extracts are from a letter about the old days at Stronechrubie and Mesopotamia which Murdoch McDonald, who was McRae's nephew and cadet, has sent me:

'I sometimes see in the papers that Dr Sinclair's grave is lost, then that it has been discovered again by some intrepid explorer or another. As you are aware, this grave was never lost, but is well known to everyone who has worked on Mesopotamia, and has a good tombstone on top suitably inscribed. What is not generally known, however, is that alongside it is another grave which has no tombstone—that of a man named McKay, who met his death at Ross's Cutting in a tragic manner. McKay worked on Anama Station, and one Sunday—I do not know the date—rode up to Ross's Hut to see his sweetheart, who was a daughter of the boundary-keeper there. He tethered his horse at some distance from the house and on leaving for home, while saying good-bye to the girl, he pulled the tether up and the horse, taking fright at something, wheeled round and got the rope round McKay's body. McKay was dragged down the cutting and his brains dashed out at the roadside.

'A man called Searle who was building the iron stable at Mesopotamia for the Campbells, chopped his foot half off with the adze and bled to death.

'Jason's Creek is called after Jason Davis, who got page 303frost-bitten in the feet when cutting firewood there, and when they got him down country his legs had to be amputated at the knees. He walked on the stumps for many years, however, and on one occasion he was taken for the Devil by a nervous woman who met him in the dark on a lonely road near Darfield.

'Another shepherd called Gilman, whom I knew well, was killed at Growling Camp (on Mesopotamia) by a rock falling on his head from a precipice under which he was walking. Hugh Urquhart was killed on the Forks by going over a precipice, shortly afterwards.

'Although Stronechrubie is probably the roughest country in Canterbury, no one has ever met his death there.

'The Lands Department apparently never worried about McRae not paying his rent at the start of his career, as he was rather handy for the surveyors who used to go up there. They were always sure of a camp at his place, and plenty of mutton.

'In the big snow of 1889, McRae lost all his sheep. In the previous year he lost all his wool by his agents going bankrupt—one of the partners committing suicide and the other getting imprisonment.

'There were 60 head of cattle up near the glaciers, which McRae didn't bother to go and see about, but McClure, the surveyor, would come down each night with an account of the number of dead cattle he saw. McRae must have been keeping a mental note of the number, and one day McClure must have given him the full tally. McRae exclaimed with great satisfaction, 'Thank God, that is the last of them, I will now be able to make a fresh start.' The surveyor never forgot McRae's philosophy and used to amuse McMillan by telling him of it. Personally, I have never met a man of unmovable philosophy who was much of a manager—McRae certainly was not.

'McMillan always said that the person who really managed Stronechrubie for 20 years was Mrs McRae. Born and reared in the lonely glens of Ross-shire, she was probably more in her element than were most page 304women on the back stations here. She seldom went down country, while McRae spent half his time away from home—the Lord only knows on what business. He usually had a boy or two on the place whom he trained to work the station and who afterwards became capable high-country shepherds. Among these were W. Turton, Jack Turton, E. R. Turton, W. Carney, N. Carney, C. Carney, etc. Working boys and dogs were McRae's main specialities, and while he trained the boys in their earthly duties, Mrs McRae concerned herself with their spiritual welfare.

'Every night the Bible was brought out and family worship gone through just as you described the scene in George Patterson's hut on the Waimakariri. I may say that McRae's youthful cadets did not relish these religious devotions very much, but they had to stand up to it—Catholic or Protestant. Thirty years afterwards one of them spoke to me about it in a different spirit, however, and referred to his religious instructor in terms of the deepest respect.

'McRae left his old homestead in 1890 and went to live at the Jumped-up Downs, six miles further down. Before doing so Mrs McRae broke down mentally and was taken away, never to return.

'Thus McRae lost his wool one year, his sheep and cattle the next, and lastly his wife, but never lost his philosophy, geniality, or hospitality—the last-named a quality (notwithstanding the disparagement of a certain school) possessed by all the station-owners of those days, and which, I trust, shall spread its influence beyond those to whom it was given, when all of that generation have passed away. McRae finished up 20 years afterwards a fairly wealthy man, and with his wife is buried alongside his friend and schoolmate, George McMillan, in the Cracroft Cemetery.'