Compiled by Mark Seeliger
The history of the “Struan” lands is synonymous with the Robertson family who migrated from Scotland early in the nineteenth century to take up land in the western districts of Victoria and the south east of South Australia.
John Robertson was born in Dunachton, Invernesshire, Scotland in 1809. The family owned ‘Struan’ and a photograph of that property ‘Struan’, together with the Robertson Tartan, (courtesy Mark Seeliger) is in Struan House. John Robertson landed in Hobart in 1831 sailed for Sydney in the Saint George in 1838 with high hopes and 30 cents – a half crown and sixpence. For 9 years he worked as an overseer and increased his wealth to $6000. Obviously he was a true son of Scotland.
John Robertson was soon to take up land, initially Struan Station at Wando Vale on the Wannon River in western Victoria. This became a substantial settlement and can still be visited today. John Roberston took up further land leases with his brother William to the west. He earned the nickname “Poor man Robertson” in a confrontation with the Hentys of Portland. Both were interested in acquiring the same property, Mosquito Plains of 17612 hectares, to be disposed of by the Land Board of Portland in 1845. John arrived at the Land Board Office in his work clothes just before Henty, a prosperous looking gentleman in his horse-drawn carriage. The contrast between the two persons must have been extreme because the Magistrate handed down his judgement saying to Henty, “We have decided to let the poor man have it”. ‘Poorman Robertson’ stuck, perhaps because of the inappropriateness, for in years ahead, John further increased his holdings, acquiring land at Wrattonbully and Elderslie, giving him 505,587 Hectares (505 square kilometers). It is said that he carried 60,000 sheep and 2,000 head of cattle and 500 pedigreed thoroughbreds.
John Robertson met Susan Frazer at Portland. She was also from Inverness Scotland, much younger than John, and socially outranked him being the daughter of the factor (or administrator) to Lord Lovat. Being attracted to her common sense and spirit, John proposed to her. Provoked by his assurance of success, she refused, but next morning, like many a girl before, changed her mind when seeing him ready to depart, she leaned from her window and called, “John, I’ll have you”. They had a large family and lived to create a pastoral empire that was well known for its grandeur.
John Robertson was one of the earliest to make up a claim near Naracoorte (note Naracoorte was spelt Narracoorte in its early years) which allowed him the advantage of the dry dunes running back to the Caves Range and the Mosquito Creek, being one of the few watercourses to flow through the region and the green, swampy treeless Mosquito Plains.
John Robertson chose a site for his first home near the creek with the rising land behind. The home is no longer visible, but was located about 100 metres south of number two house which is still standing. The home was a simple cottage, built with timber and a shingle roof. It was the symbol of the first farming of the wet, bird-thronged wilderness, and of the Robertson’s claim to a new life-style. As the little town of Naracoorte 13 km to the north was growing, hopeful settlers brought sheep and cattle to begin new industries to sustain the economy. A feeling of community evolved as social events, competitions and so on began. The little home opened its doors to traveling missionaries, among whom was almost certainly Father Julian Tenison Wood and saw the sad remnants of the aboriginal tribes fade out. His family continued to prosper producing first class sheep, wool and beef.
As the family grew in numbers the hut was too small. A second house was built on the slope with a magnificent view across the plains. This was built with limestone mined from the range to the east. This represented colonial Australia with its wide verandah surrounding it under a subtly pitched roof and its arched doorways with their graceful fan lights. With large rooms underneath, this must have been luxury for the growing children after the restrictions of the hut.
Friends included Dugald McCallum, the Presbyterian minister from Robertson’s own highlands and Park Laurie with whom he played many card games. John and Susan Robertson lived most of their married life in this house. In later years it became crowded and so at the age of 64 John Robertson planned for a new retirement house.
The town had grown and could supply many of the needs of life, services and labour required for the prospering station. Stores were still transported by bullock dray from the coast, and records show that many a man, employed to plough or dig or build took home a large part of wages in tea, flour and tobacco.
By now John had become entirely independent of his brother William, with whom he had shared his first business ventures and had bought or leased a number of properties both in South Australia and adjoining Victoria. Times were good and his careful husbandry had built up on Mosquito Plains fine breeds of sheep and cattle. Always interested in horses and dogs, he took justifiable pride in their quality. No longer recognizable as that “Poor man Robertson” of the Victorian days, he set about building a house which would express his pride of achievements, his nostalgia for Scotland. Of the clans which could provide the hospitality that he delighted in giving to friend and stranger alike.
Robertson’s third house was years in the planning. It was built by local builder Henry Smith from local limestone mined in the nearby Cave Range and sandstone facing. It was built in the fashionable style of the day, inspired by the Italians for about $20000. The architect was W T Gore of Naracoorte. All the workmen employed in its erection were local hands. The elaborate cornices, centre pieces and plaster ornaments were all made on site. The elaborate painting was undertaken by Mr. Robbie of Penola. Marble and craftsmen for the elaborate fireplaces were brought from Italy. The rooms are spacious with elaborate decorations. Beautiful ceiling mouldings drew inspiration from his deep-rooted Scots loyalties and the Robertson badge, a frond of bracken, recurs in their design. The coat of arms adorned the drawing room and the crest appeared in the entrance hall. The loveliest feature of all, and best known, is the beautiful fireplace in the drawing room of white Italian marble. The extensive servants’ wing seemed cramped by comparison. Precise details of the building and contents are reported at length in an article of the Border Watch on 8 September 1875.
The greatest social occasion of all was the opening ball – the housewarming on Thursday 27th January 1876. The event was reported in the Advertiser 1st February 1876. The house was crowded with folk from the properties of the district, the town itself, and those who came from Scotland and worked with the Robertson’s for the past thirty years. Dugald McCallum, John’s old friend and minister christened the mansion “Struan House” to recall distant Scottish Struan, seat of the Robertson clan chief. Unfortunately after only 4 years in his new house, John Robertson died in 1880 at the age of 71 and is buried with others of his family and his household in the cemetery overlooking the creek and his home beyond it. Susan Robertson died in 1906, 26 years after her husband’s death.
The various properties John bought were handed on to the children. Struan House was inherited by Alexander. He continued his father’s traditional support for the community in which he lived, particularly his passion for dogs and horses and maintained the family tradition of improving the land and pastures, and producing high quality wool.
The place saw many notable guests – two governors, judges, ministers and travelers of all kinds. Its most notable guests came in the year after John’s death. The Royal Princes George and Albert, on their Australian visit in 1881 as midshipmen, were driven there by Tom Cawker. George begged a turn at the reins on the journey out from Naracoorte, but when he failed to obey Cawker’s instructions, was firmly deprived of this privilege. Arriving at Struan, high spirits took over and legend has it that Albert raced George about in a wheel barrow before tipping him out unceremoniously on a pile of rubbish.
Times were changing in the 1880s and 1890s with the financial crash and the depression. The large properties were being bought or resumed by the government for closer settlement and the so-called ‘squatting age’ was passing. Alexander lived at Struan until his death in 1938 at the age of 78. Being a bachelor there were no descendants. By this time closer settlement had become widespread and Struan, like others in the district, had sold land for subdivision. Subsequently much of the property was sold, with the family selling the homestead in 1948. All furniture and farm goods were sold by auction. Details of the goods for sale are contained in a substantial catalogue on file. Only one item of the original furniture remains in the house, the large sideboard located in the library.
Source: Struan House Centenary 1876-1976. Published by Naracoorte Branch, National Trust of SA 1976. Printed by Hansen Printing House, Naracoorte
The South Australian Government purchased the residual Struan House and land in 1948.
The Struan House and part of the farm (about 465 hectares) was managed by the Department of Social Welfare as a corrective farm school for boys. A dairy herd and sheep were run until this ceased in October 1969. The remainder of the property was managed by the Department of Agriculture for agricultural research. Initially this was run as an outstation by the Kybybolite Research Centre. In the mid 1950s, this area became an independent research centre for beef cattle. When the corrective school was closed in 1969, Struan House and land was transferred to the Department of Agriculture.
An external review of the Department of Agriculture undertaken by Sir Allan Callaghan in the early 1970s was to result in the recommendation for the regionalization of its structure, operation and services. This was championed by the Director of Agriculture, Marshall Irving. Struan House was to become the South East Regional Headquarters for the South East Region and to house the Naracoorte District Office services. The remaining land was transferred to Struan Research Centre.
It took some years for the run down condition of Struan House to be renovated. When the ground floor upgrade was completed in late 1973, the Naracoorte office relocated to Struan House. The formal opening of Struan House for the Department of Agriculture took place with the unveiling of a plaque by the Hon. Tom Casey, Minister of Agriculture. This opening was attended by state and regional agricultural industry and civic dignitaries present in the afternoon. It was followed by a formal black tie Ball co-hosted by the Director of Agriculture, Marshall Irving, and the Officer in Charge, Mark Seeliger for 350 people in the evening.
Struan House became the South East Regional Headquarters of the Department of Agriculture for management and administrative staff and facilities, and for service units for the various specialists groups including pest control, seed production, animal health regulations, disease diagnosis and control, livestock husbandry, soil science and management and farm financial management. Several section conducted regional research programs in livestock, soils, crops and pastures. The South East Region became full operational in June 1977 with the appointment of the Chief Regional Officer and senior management staff. As well as Kybybolite and Struan Research Centres, District Offices were maintained at Keith, Naracoorte and Mt Gambier, and some staff were located at Millicent and Kingston.