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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McPherson, James Alpin (1842–1895)

by Basil Shaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

James Alpin McPherson (1842-1895), bushranger best known as the 'Wild Scotchman', was born in Inverness-shire, Scotland, eldest of the eight children of John McPherson, farmer, and his wife Elspeth, née Bruce. The family migrated in the William Miles and arrived at Moreton Bay on 19 January 1855. The father worked as a farm labourer for D. C. McConnel of Cressbrook. Alpin went to a Brisbane school where his diligence pleased the teachers; he learnt some French and German, and became a fluent and entertaining speaker. Apprenticed to the builder, John Petrie, he attended the Brisbane Mechanics' School at night and achieved prominence in its debating class.

In 1863 McPherson ran away and worked on various stations, becoming an excellent horseman and an accurate shot. His first recorded law-breaking activity was early in 1865 near Bowen, where at gunpoint he held up a publican who owed him back wages. The government offered a £50 reward for his apprehension. He went to New South Wales and is alleged to have stuck up several parties on the Northern Road. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, 23-24 February, he assumed the name of John Bruce, stole a horse from Wowingragong but failed to find his hero, Ben Hall. The Scotchman lost his horse and ammunition and, in his only clash with the police, was shot in the arm by Sir Frederick Pottinger; in return he had only blank cartridges to fire. He took to the scrub and was reading quietly by the Lachlan River when the police surrounded him. He was taken to Forbes and remanded from week to week until he was sent to Sydney to be tried for shooting at Pottinger. The charge was dropped when that officer died in April.

McPherson was remanded for holding up the publican near Bowen, where he was committed to the October Assizes at Rockhampton. He escaped from the ship at Mackay, stole a horse and began to rob mail coaches on the roads between Maryborough, Gayndah and Gladstone, sometimes sending the stolen cheques to Governor Sir George Bowen. The government raised the price on McPherson's head to £250 and the police commissioner, David Thompson Seymour, lamented the appearance of bushranging in Queensland while the parliament debated the felons apprehension bill. On 31 March 1866 the Scotchman was waiting for the mailman near Gin Gin station when he was recognized by John Walsh who quickly organized an armed party of four. McPherson's horse was too fatigued to outpace his pursuers and when they fired he surrendered. He was taken to Maryborough and remanded to the criminal sittings in Brisbane for holding up the publican but was found not guilty, much to the disgust of officialdom. He was then taken to Maryborough to face charges of robbing the mails, found guilty and sentenced by Chief Justice Cockle to twenty-five years in the penal settlement on St Helena Island, Moreton Bay.

McPherson entered St Helena on 13 September 1866 and remained there until his sentence was remitted on 22 December 1874, following a petition presented by Brisbane citizens at the instigation of Rev. B. G. Wilson. While on St Helena he again aroused public imagination with a spectacular though unsuccessful escape attempt. On his release he worked on McConnel's property at Cressbrook as a stockman and later overseer of an outstation. The manager of another outstation was Sylvester Browne, brother of the novelist, T. A. Browne, author of Robbery Under Arms. Legend has some of McPherson's exploits adapted for use in the novel by Browne who was familiar with the Scotchman's story through correspondence with his brother. In his last years he was known for his anecdotes and ready wit, regaling listeners with stories of the bushranging days. Aged 53 he died on 23 August 1895 at Burketown, North Queensland, survived by his wife Elizabeth Annie, née Hasfeldt, whom he had married in 1878 at Blackall, and by four sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • P. W. McNally, The Life and Adventures of the Wild Scotchman (Brisb, 1899)
  • G. E. Boxall, The Story of the Australian Bushrangers (Lond, 1902)
  • J. T. S. Bird, The Early History of Rockhampton (Rockhampton, 1904)
  • D. Dignan, The Story of Kolan (Brisb, 1964)
  • Maryborough Chronicle, Apr-Sept 1866
  • Morning Bulletin, Apr-Sept 1866
  • Weekly Herald (Brisbane), 14 Apr 1866
  • N. W. Broun, Memoirs of a Queensland Pioneer (State Library of Queensland)
  • N. M. Mullett, The History of the Wild Scotchman (State Library of Queensland)
  • Monduran station records (Gin Gin, Queensland).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Basil Shaw, 'McPherson, James Alpin (1842–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wild Scotchman
  • Bruce, John
  • Scotchman
  • McPherson, Alpin

Inverness-shire, Scotland


23 August 1895
Burketown, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage