Life on the Clarence River: Maclean, NSW

Maclean, NSW
McFarlane Bridge – spanning the Clarence River to connect Maclean and Woodford Island

The mighty Clarence River has been showing me a side to NSW’s Northern Rivers region I never knew existed. People and places – on islands, boats and in small towns – that had been all but invisible. This big, bewitching body of water, it seems, is trying to tell me something. Continuing from last week’s post, I followed the Clarence again, this time into the heart of Scottish Australia, to the southern tip of sugar cane country into a curious little town called Maclean.

A wee bit Scottish

Located about an hour and a half’s drive south of Byron Bay, Maclean is touted as ‘Australia’s first Scottish town’, as it was settled predominantly by Scots. The town seems to have capitalised upon this relatively recent history, as its telegraph posts are painted with Scottish tartans, some of its street signs are written in both English and Gaelic, and Scottish banners flap aside knotted trees that stretch above the esplanade.

Maclean, NSW

I found this to be a bit of a novelty, as Scottish history, at least glaring Scottish history, is not a commonality in Australia. Furthermore, as much as I’m fascinated by and admire Australia’s Aboriginal culture, it’s something I often feel disconnected from, as I’m not Aboriginal and wasn’t brought up living in the bush. I’m also one of the many Australians with Scottish/English heritage, so I was that extra bit keen to have a gawk.

Maclean, NSW
One of the numerous Scottish tartans on telegraph posts around town

Town Attractions

Heading towards the top of town, to the Bicentennial Scottish Cairn – a pile of rocks sourced from both Scotland and Australia – I was impressed at how pretty Maclean was. In fact, I wondered how I’d managed to avoid this town for so long given it lies just across from its illustrious neighbour, Yamba. Whilst it’s a smashing spot to take in the town, the cairn is also a handsome commemoration to Maclean’s Scottish settlers. It has a plaque inscribed in both English and Gaelic.

Maclean, NSW
The Bicentennial Scottish Cairn

From the cairn I continued to the top of town, to The Lookout, which boasts fine views of the Clarence River’s journey to Yamba, as well as the surrounding cane fields. Just before the lookout is The Pinnacle – a pile of hulking rocks stacked on top of each other that juts above forest. I didn’t venture into the forest below, although apparently there’s a cave network down in there, somewhere.

Maclean, NSW
The top of The Pinnacle

Back down the hill I visited the Bicentennial Museum, which luckily was open, as it only opens its doors on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 1pm until 4pm. Out front is a sandstone cottage built in 1879 that contains household items from the same period. Adjacent to the stone cottage lies the museum, which is a $3 entry fee for adults (free for kids).

Maclean, NSW
Inside the Bicentennial Museum

Inside the museum I found photos and clippings of Maclean’s involvement in WWI and II, along with memorabilia such as clothes, bicycles, sulkies and carriages belonging to Scottish settlers. It’s worth a visit.

Maclean, NSW
View over town and the Clarence from near the Bicentennial Scottish Cairn

If you’re in the area during Easter, it might well be worth popping your head in for the Highland Gathering – a celebration of Scottish culture involving events such as drumming, bagpipes, dancing, hammer tossing, stone putting and even a haggis hurl. I’m already planning to return for next year’s festivities.

Maclean, NSW

Heritage buildings

Wandering around Maclean’s green, leafy backstreets, I discovered a number of heritage buildings worth peeking at. St Mary’s Catholic Church is a beautiful Gothic stone building dating to 1894, while just around the corner in Stanley Street is the town’s old brewery, dating to 1870. The brewery has been converted into two houses but still retains the archway leading to its courtyard and is well preserved.

Maclean, NSW
St Mary’s Catholic Church

Back in town, near the Clarence River, lie buildings such as the post office, police station and courthouse, all which date to the late 19th Century. Strolling down Maclean’s main street, I was happy to see that one of its pubs, the Argyle, retains much of its external façade from 1894. Heading inside, I bought a beer and sat on the verandah, taking in life as it shuffled back and forth along the river’s edge.

Maclean, NSW
View of town from the Argyle

Indigenous culture

Of course the Gumbaingirr or Yaygir Aboriginal clans hit Maclean’s shores well before the Scots, and there are a number of Aboriginal sites in the area. The town’s information centre can steer you towards the Lower Clarence Aboriginal Tourist Site Drive, which takes you to 13 significant Aboriginal sites. Nearby Bundjalung National Park contains a large amount of Aboriginal middens, which indicates it was a popular food source for indigenous clans.

The Clarence

However, perhaps the real, immovable star of Maclean is the Clarence River, which has ravaged the town from time to time, reminding folk of who’s boss. A riverbank levee is now in place to mitigate any flood damage. And if you’re into your seafood and fishing, the Clarence is a major source of Australia’s seafood supply. Here the prawns are allegedly whopping and succulent.

Something else I need to return for…

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