From Banavie to Brisbane: A tale of fortunes won and lost

Australian visitors Ross and Susie McKinnon were back in Scotland over the festive season in search of past Caledonian Canal connections at Neptune’s Staircase. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F02 CANAL HERITAGE 02
Australian visitors Ross and Susie McKinnon were back in Scotland over the festive season in search of past Caledonian Canal connections at Neptune’s Staircase. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F02 CANAL HERITAGE 02

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Standing looking at the lock keeper’s house at Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie just before Christmas was clearly a poignant and emotional moment for Ross McKinnon.

Originally from South Australia, Mr McKinnon has called Brisbane home since 1972.

The former curator of Brisbane Botanical Gardens, he has also been a popular gardening presenter on ABC radio and television in Australia, as well as a regular newspaper columnist.

He and his wife, Susie, were back in the Highlands for the first time since 1976 and stopped off in Fort William on their way to spend the festive season at Kinloch Lodge, the Skye home of Godfrey, Lord Macdonald of Macdonald, and his wife, the famous cookery author, Lady Claire.

The link with the Macdonalds comes through the fact that Mr McKinnon and Lady Claire have been pen pals since they were children.

That connection started after his late uncle, his father’s elder brother Allan, who was serving with Bomber Command during the Second World War, stayed with the then very young Lady Claire’s family in Yorkshire.

Mr McKinnon's late uncle, Allan McKinnon, was a Lancaster bomber pilot killed during the Second World War. NO F02 Allan Frances McKinnon
Mr McKinnon’s late uncle, Allan McKinnon, was a Lancaster bomber pilot killed during the Second World War.

Lancaster pilot Allan flew 35 bombing sorties over Europe with No.460 Squadron RAAF, before eventually being shot down south of Berlin in March, 1944. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI.

Mr McKinnon’s father, David, died in June last year and in his  eulogy for his father, Mr McKinnon had  traced his great-grandfather [Alexander McKinnon, 1832 – 1902 ] to the house at Banavie  where he left with older brothers Angus, Dugald and wife, Ann (nee Cameron), for Australia in 1851.

The family’s new life in Australia saw them achieve considerable success, at one time being the second largest land owners in the country, running a rural empire in South Australia almost the size of Wales.

‘My grandfather, who was killed on one of his properties in 1934, was head of the family, the brains of our family,’ Mr McKinnon explained.

‘During his lifetime he had built up a property portfolio to be the second largest of any family in Australia at the that time.

‘After his death my grandmother was left in the middle of the Depression to slowly sell off all the properties – although she still had some when I was a child. We’ve all gone our separate ways since.

‘My family were peasant people who came from Scotland with nothing, yet this lady – my grandmother – ended up a multi-multi millionnaire. The family had so much money, then they virtually lost the lot with the death of my grandfather.’

Mr McKinnon's late grandmother, Elizabeth McKinnon, who inherited the family's vast property empire in Australia. NO F02 Elizabeth McKinnon
Mr McKinnon’s late grandmother, Elizabeth McKinnon, who inherited the family’s vast property empire in Australia.

On their current trip to Scotland, Mr McKinnon told us: ‘It is quite exciting to see where they lived at Banavie. It’s another piece of the puzzle put into place.

‘We were very much looking forward to this trip and then going on to Skye.’