Alistair Macdonald

Ship name / Flight number: Otranto

Arrival date: 26/04/1955

Alexander and Alistair Macdonald

Interviewed on Sunday 22 October 2023 by Alison Wishart

Alexander Macdonald was born in Reading, outside London, on 12 December 1938, 20 minutes before his twin brother Alistair. While their mother and father are both Scottish, they were living in the south of England at the time because their father moved around the country as a printer. The family moved to Edinburgh the following year.

Alex and Alistair attended Cannon Mill Primary School in the 1940s, which was only 300 metres down the road from where they lived. At school, they were served a hot meal in the winter time and a cold meal in the summer. Even after World War Two ended in 1945, there was still rationing in the United Kingdom. They recall the kindness of a female teacher who saved all her ration coupons to give each student a little chocolate for Christmas.

Being identical twins, the teachers would often get them mixed up. They were asked to wear different coloured ribbons in their hair, so that the teacher could tell them apart, but they’d mischievously swap the ribbons. If Alex started answering a question, Alistair could finish off his thought: they were on the same wavelength.

Part of their summer school holidays was spent at Port Seton, a fishing village on the Firth of Forth, 11 miles to the east of Edinburgh. Being a true Scot, their mother saved money by insisting that they ride their bikes to the caravan park. She came in a taxi with their clothes, food, pets (including a tortoise!), and a bag of coal, as she didn’t want to pay extra money for fuel. They learnt to swim in the Firth and “after that, they couldn’t keep us out of the water”.

After finishing primary school in 1949, the twins went to Bellevue Junior Secondary School, which is now called Drummond Community High School. When they graduated at the age of 15 years, they started looking for work. Alistair got a job as a junior salesman with Thirty Shilling Tailors who custom-made suits for men. Alex wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, who was now working as a projectionist, so he got a job as an apprentice projectionist in the cinema. He was mostly working nights and weekends, which meant that he couldn’t socialise with his mates, so after six months, he got a job with Burton’s Tailors. This led to some good-hearted competition. Alistair recalled telling his customers that Burton’s suits were made from such thin material that it only took “one sneeze and you’re naked!” Though he was only 15 years old, Alex was expected to wear pin-striped trousers, a waistcoat and jacket to work at Burton’s.

Above: Alistair (left) and Alex Macdonald, Edinburgh, 1954.

While they both had good, permanent jobs, they knew that it would take 20 to 30 years to work their way up through the tailoring business. They could see the next 50 years of life stretching out ahead of them in a long, boring line.

Their eldest brother, Arthur, had moved to Australia in 1951 and was working at a property near Ariah Park, in the Riverina region of New South Wales. He was homesick, and returned to Edinburgh in 1953, but then discovered that life wasn’t as rosy as he remembered, and asked the family he had been working for at Ariah Park if they would pay his return passage and he would work with them until he had paid them back. They agreed, Arthur travelled back to NSW in 1953, and this planted the seed for his younger brothers to move to Australia too.

Their mother was keen for them to emigrate as she wanted to move to Australia. She thought her twins could go and make their fortunes and build a house for her to join them. Alex recalls: “We were keen – it was going to be the holiday of a lifetime. We never thought about not seeing our family again. It just felt like a big adventure”.  We wrote to the Big Brother Movement (BBM), travelled to London for an interview, and then left on RMS Otranto on 23 March 1955 from Tilbury Docks.

Left: Alex (right) and Alistair on RMS Ortranto, coming out to Australia with the BBM in 1955.

The ocean liner was built in 1935 and only had one class of passage which Alex describes as: “‘basic’. It felt like we slept 10 people to a bunk. We thought it was grand having all our meals provided in a dining room. The voyage was exciting, especially when we sailed into a storm in the Bay of Biscay. There were white caps on the waves and passengers turning green with sea-sickness.

“Since the Suez Crisis (of 1956) was brewing at the time, we weren’t sure if we could sail through the Suez Canal. While we were waiting at Port Said in Egypt, lots of little boats pulled up alongside ours and tried to sell us trinkets. We would haul their baskets up from the boats below, pick out what we wanted and put in the money. It was a unique shopping experience. We were allowed to sail through the Canal and when we docked in Aden, Yemen, it was the first time we had experienced hot, dry weather. Next it was on to Columbo (Sri Lanka) where we were introduced to the humidity of the tropics. About eight of us ‘Little Brothers’ caught a rickshaw to Mount Lavinia beach. We swam in the ocean, sipped cool drinks under palm trees, and rode elephants. This was an adventure!”

After that they travelled across the Indian Ocean, which was so flat and still. Alistair remembers seeing flying fish for the first time. When they docked in Fremantle, they were met by a delegation from the BBM, who took them on a bus tour of Fremantle and Perth. Then they steamed through the Southern Ocean to dock in Sydney’s Circular Quay on 25 April 1955. They were surprised to learn that they couldn’t disembark until the next day, such was the sacredness of Anzac Day in the Australian calendar.

Both Alistair and Alex asked the BBM if they could be sent to ‘The Bush’. They spent two weeks at the BBM training farm in Fairfield, where they milked cows for the first time, and lived with other ‘Little Brothers’ in dormitories. There was a noticeboard in the dormitory and that was how LBs learnt where they were being sent. Alistair convinced a LB who was going to Inverell that there were lots of poisonous snakes there, and that he should buy some leather gaiters that he had found on the training farm from him for five bob to protect himself from snakes.

There were probably no more snakes in Inverell than Deniliquin, where the twins were sent. Alistair recalls that getting there “felt like crossing the country to Perth!” First, they caught a train to Junee, then changed to a ‘red rattler’, which ran on the line to Finley. Here they waited at the small railway station for the mailman to pick them up and take them to a pub in Blighty where they would meet their new employer.

They were hungry and remembered seeing paddocks full of fruit that looked like oranges from the train’s windows. Luckily, they didn’t try to eat any as they later learned they were paddy melons – a poisonous, invasive weed with a prickly fruit.

The mailman wanted to charge them ten bob (half a pound) to travel in the back of his ute to take them on the next leg of their journey. They both thought this was extortion, and didn’t want to part with so much cash, but didn’t have another way of getting there. Once they got to Blighty, the publican phoned the farm owner several times but there was no answer. In the end, he took pity on the two young Scottish lads and drove them to the farm, known as ‘Willow Park’. Alex recalls: “The foreman was there but he had no idea that we were coming. The family were all gone, but he let us sleep on the verandah for the night”.

“Our permanent accommodation wasn’t much better. It was a tin shed with two iron beds about two inches apart. At one end of the shed there was a big pile of grain bags, which we spread across the floor to stop the draft coming through the wooden boards. In was nearly June, and with winter coming and no insulation, we bought ourselves a kerosene heater to keep warm. In the summer, we removed some of the grain bags as the only ‘air-conditioning’ came through the floor boards! We just accepted these primitive living conditions. We tried to make our tin shed look less barren and more like home by planting a few flowers. We planted ‘Riverina blue bell’. We soon learnt that it’s an invasive weed, also known as Patterson’s curse, that grows everywhere!”

Left: The tin shed at Mayrung. Alex and Alistair’s first accommodation on a farm as ‘Little Brothers’, 1955.

Alex and Alistair soon discovered that the work they were expected to do was more labouring than farming. “It was just dig, dig, dig,” says Alex. The owner, Mr Davis, wanted our help to build a big shed for grading the seed that he collected from harvesting clover. The shed would house Boddington seed cleaning equipment and needed to be ready for the summer harvest of 1955/56. The twins worked the harvest too, driving the tractors that pulled the sheepskin rollers that collected the burr (containing the clover seeds). The burr was placed in a windrow and the header harvested the seed, which was then taken to the shed they had helped to build for cleaning, grading, packing, and selling. They earned £6/week plus food and board.

They harvested clover seeds on ‘Willow Park’ and other farms too. It was hard to get a tractor with six sheepskin trailers through a farm gate. Neither of the twins had a driver’s license, but no one cared about that. After the first summer harvest, Mr Davis decided to take his seed cleaning unit to Wagga Wagga and the twins were told that they were no longer needed at ‘Willow Park’.

Left: Alistair on left, Alex driving the tractor to collecting grain from the burr harvest with a tractor dragging sheepskin covered rollers, 1956.

They heard along the grapevine where there was more work. In 1956, Alistair went to work on a dairy and piggery called ‘Geralwa’ that was run by a former Little Brother, David Denley, at Mayrung, about four kilometres away. Alex went to milk cows at a neighbouring property called ‘Lackembie’ owned by the Whitlocks. He says: “it was like jumping from the frypan into the fire”.  Mr Allen ran the property for the Whitlock Family.  “Perhaps it was his traumatic experiences as a desert rat in Tobruk during World War Two that made him a hard taskmaster”. Alex remembers that: “it was all very nice at first – but there was no time off. It’s a seven day a week job. Milking cows in the early morning at 4am and then again in the afternoon. Separating the cream from the milk, getting it ready for the milk truck. There was no time for yourself.”

“One time, the whole family cleared out for a week without telling me. I was looking around for something to eat! I kept myself going on rice. I’d been there for about a month when this happened the first time”. Alex felt resentful, and knew he was being used.

This was also the first time in their lives that the boys had been separated. Fortunately, the properties were only about 4km apart and they could walk down Marsh’s Lane to a halfway point and catch up about three times a week.

Alex only stayed on the dairy farm for seven months before moving to another property in Mayrung in November 1956. This farm had sheep and crops and Alex had to clean out the irrigation channels by leaning off a kind of furrow plow, called a Delver, that was hauled behind a tractor. He had to lean over the cleaning blades at a precarious angle and remembers that there were no safety precautions.

The farm was run by Maurie Hay, whom Alex thought “was a good boss”. He’d get time off and could meet Alistair at the picture theatre in Deniliquin on a Saturday night. “Alistair and I bought a motor car between us. It was an Austin but with a Morris engine, so we called in ‘the mongrel’. It was a tourer, no roof.”

Alistair remembers: “We were driving home late one night in the fog from Deniliquin and we didn’t see this big pile of sand on the side of the road. When we drove through it, we bent the tyre rods and damaged the engine and had to drive home in a snaky manner since the wheel alignment was all out. More adventure!”

Most Saturday nights there were dances in country town halls. One night Alistair caught the eye of Fay Gilmour, which led to their marriage in Blighty on 29 May 1959. Alex was the best man, and their older brother Arthur, who was working in Wagga Wagga, was able to attend the wedding. Alistair moved to the Gilmour property, ‘Strathlea’, and started share farming with Fay’s father, running sheep and growing crops with the aid of irrigation. Fay’s father was suffering with cancer in his back and Fay’s mother had died in 1956, which meant that Alistair and Fay were mostly managing the farm. Alistair says: “It didn’t phase me as a stock and station fellow was there to help me out. We went through a few droughts. Over the next 11 years we had five children – there was no telly in those days!”

Alex was quite affected by his brother’s marriage and settled situation on ‘Strathlea’. He missed their close companionship. At about this time, Arthur offered Alex a job in the orchard section of the agricultural college in Wagga Wagga. Even thought this was more than three hours’ drive from his brother, Alex accepted, as he needed a change and was ready to leave the dairy farm.

Alex recalls: “It was totally different – I had so much time – I had an 8am start and a 5pm finish. An hour for lunch, 10 minutes for morning and afternoon tea. I lived on the college grounds. There was no weekend work. The work was totally different – pruning trees, picking and processing fruit.”

Left: Alex and Laurel’s wedding, 10 March 1962.

Alex met his wife, Laurel (nee Brill), at a kitchen tea and she invited him to the Scottish Ball in Wagga Wagga. They were married on 10 March 1962. Alistair was his best man and their parents, Arthur and Sarah, were able to be at the wedding as they immigrated under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme in 1961. They lived in Melbourne for the first year but then moved to Blighty and stayed with Alistair until they found work in Wagga Wagga. They bought a house there and stayed in Wagga Wagga until they passed away: Arthur in 1977 at the age of 72 years and Sarah in 1984 aged 80 years.

Below: Alex and Alistair’s parents, Arthur and Sarah Macdonald, 1961.

Alistair sponsored their youngest brother, Archibald, to come to Australia in 1960 and the twins travelled to Melbourne to meet his ship. After working for a few months in Mayrung, he realised that he wasn’t suited to rural work and found a job in Wagga Wagga. This just left their older sister, Margaret, in Scotland. She was a child of their father’s first marriage and was uncertain about coming to Australia, but eventually immigrated in July 1962.

After they were married, Laurel and Alex moved into shared accommodation in Wagga Wagga. Then they were lucky enough to get some financial assistance to buy a block of land in Wagga Wagga and build a house in 1962-63. They still live there today (2023). The house has been extended three times to accommodate their two children: Fraser James, who was born on 9 May 1965 and Sandra Jane, born on 13 September 1968.

From 1958-1963, Alex worked in the orchard section at the agricultural college. Then he applied for a job as a field assistant in the research section working under agronomist Albert Pugsley, who was trialling different breeds of wheat. It became Alex’s job to nurture Pugsley’s experimental varieties in the glasshouses. Alex also worked for Jim Simes who was researching how different types of wheat responded to irrigation. Alex recalls that “one year we sowed 15,000 plots of trial grains. I travelled to districts such as Leeton, Yanco and Corowa with the research team. Then we had to harvest all the trial plots and finish the process by cleaning and grading the grain”.

When Albert Pugsley retired, Alex started working with Dr Barbara Read, and helped her to breed a new strain of barley in 1981. They had already successfully bred a strain called ‘Malebo’, which was a six-row barley for feeding sheep and cattle. The stock could graze on it, but then it would keep growing and provide a grain harvest as well. However, the ‘Malebo’ variety grew too high, and once the stems fell over with the weight of the grain, it was difficult to harvest. Alex helped to introduce a barley strain called ‘Yerong’, which was a dwarf variety that only grew about two feet high, making it easier to harvest and not prone to lodging (falling over).

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, Alistair and Fay’s farm was prospering, and they were able to buy up neighbouring properties, including those belonging to the Whitlocks and Maurie Hay, where Alex and Alistair had first worked in 1955/56. While farming work is physically demanding, they had four sons to help. Now Alistair has his own family company – Macdonald Ag – and owns about 16 farms totalling 12,000 acres. Today, most of their crops –  such as rice, canola, barley, and hemp – are spray irrigated. Alistair and Fay’s three youngest sons, Graeme (born 14 September 1964), Angus (born 28 August 1968) and Bruce (born 11 July 1971); are part of the business. Their eldest son, Robert (born 6 January 1962), chose to live a different life and moved to Sydney. Their first-born and only daughter, Heather (born 20 September 1960), is a registered nurse and worked in and around Deniliquin. Tragically, Fay died suddenly after a massive blood clot in 2003.

In 2000, Alex and Alistair went back to Scotland for the first time in 45 years. They went to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and did a 21-day bus tour of Europe with their wives. Alistair comments: “we didn’t ever think about going back to live there; why would you leave the Lucky Country? I remember flying in over sunny Sydney after our European holiday and thinking: ‘this is it’.”

When Alex and Alistair immigrated in 1955, if you were a British citizen, you were also considered an Australian citizen. When Alex came back to Sydney in 2000 after his holiday, he decided he wanted to make it official and applied for Australian citizenship. He convinced his older brother, Arthur, to do the same. On Australia Day in 2002, Arthur travelled to Wagga Wagga to obtain his Australian citizenship with Alex at the Civic Theatre. Alistair followed suit and became an Australian Citizen in 2004 at Pretty Pines in Deniliquin.

Below: A happy Alex (centre) receiving his Australian Citizenship on 26 January 2002 with Arthur, his older brother, on the left.

Though they were now living at least three hours’ drive apart, they still pursued similar interests. Alex and Alistair both joined their local amateur theatre societies. Alex says: “we have always been interested in singing, even when we were kids. Some people play football, I loved the stage.”

Alex joined a group in Wagga Wagga and performed in musicals from 1959-1988. His wife Laurel joined in for two shows: “Paint Your Wagon” and “South Pacific”. After this, Alex joined the Sing Australia Choir in 2001.

Alistair performed with the Finley Musical Society for 10 to 15 years. When they disbanded, he joined the group in Deniliquin. Now he’s part of the Sing Australia Choir, too. He met Helen through the choir and they married on 16 May 2019 – the night Scott Morrison won the federal election unexpectedly. Their first night as a married couple was spent watching the election results.

Alistair says: “I’m the luckiest fellow out. Apart from the tin shed at ‘Willow Park’ – that was a blot but we got through it”.

Alex reflects: “looking back, coming out to Australia with the BBM was the best thing in our lives – it opened up a new sphere of our lives. If we’d been back in Edinburgh, we’d be selling suits and catching a tram back and forth to work”. A grey life under grey skies.

Alistair and Alex both turned 85 years old in December 2023. They both passed their annual driving test so they can keep driving between Deniliquin and Wagga Wagga to see each other. They concluded their interview by singing together a song from 1954, “The gang that sang ‘Heart of my heart’”, a song written by Ben Ryan and performed by the Four Acres.

Below: Still the best of friends. Alex (left) and Alistair Macdonald, Wagga Wagga, 2023. ***********



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