James Alpin McPherson, otherwise known as ‘The Wild Scotchman’, was one of Queensland’s most infamous bushrangers.
Born in Inverness-shire, Scotland, in 1842, McPherson came to Australia aboard the William Miles, arriving in January 1855 with his family. As a boy, he was a diligent student, learning French and German, and was an engaging public speaker. In 1863, McPherson ran away to work on a station, where he became a proficient horse rider and excellent shot. Seemingly, he could turn his hand to anything.
By early 1864, McPherson had turned to crime, holding up a publican who owed him wages. Fleeing to New South Wales, stealing a horse, and assuming the pseudonym John Bruce, McPherson sought out his hero, bushranger Ben Hall, without success.
McPherson was reportedly quietly reading by the banks of the Lachlan River when he was captured by police in February 1865. Reports vary but it’s believed when he was sent to Rockhampton to stand trial for holding up the publican, he managed to escape the ship at Mackay. This was either by slipping out of the handcuffs that were too big for his small hands or by using a makeshift key.
On 27 November 1865, the Wild Scotchman went on a spree, stealing a gun and robbing six mail coaches and four individuals on the Gayndah Road. He gained a reputation for being well-mannered and polite: during mail robberies he would considerately fold up letters that contained no money and return them to their envelopes. He exhibited a daring sense of humour when he posted ‘useless’ cheques amounting to £1,700 to Governor Sir George Bowen.
After eluding the police for months, he was eventually apprehended in March 1866 by locals from a station near Gin Gin. He was tried in Maryborough, found guilty and sentenced to 25 years; the judge admitted the penalty was intended as a deterrent to others. McPherson spent three years in Brisbane Gaol before his transfer to St Helena Island.
He arrived at St Helena Penal Establishment in February 1870 and within seven weeks had made a hasty attempt at escape with five other prisoners. All but one of the escapees were recaptured within 20 minutes, and the sixth was found later that evening. McPherson was locked in solitary confinement for a month as punishment.
In prison, the intelligent McPherson also learned to speak Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and Latin and spent time writing poetry in an exercise book. McPherson penned 19 poems while at St Helena, at the end of his first poem he reflected on his time so far on the island;
“How wretched are they who are shut up in prison;
lying unhappy in the dark night and reflecting on the past life?
This is life; alas, unhappy me!
What the future has in store, I do not know.
But this time to me is an eternity.
I would rather be tortured than live such a life for twenty years.”
He was released on 22 December 1874 from a 25 year-sentence after just eight years. This was influenced by a petition supported by members of parliament, clergy, justices of the peace and other members of the public.
Following his release, McPherson found work as a stockman at Cressbrook, though stories of his treasure (about a thousand soverigens) persisted. It’s said they were placed in a kettle and buried somewhere around Aramara. In 1878 he eloped with 17 year old Elizabeth Hasfeldt and they had seven children. He died, aged 53, on 23 July 1895 after falling from his horse at Burketown where he is now buried.