The history and landscape of Scone on the South Esk River

Dr Bill Gibson addressed Australian Garden History Society Tasmanian Branch members at his farm and garden Scone beside the South Esk River near Perth. The visit was part of a pre-Christmas 2021 tour to historic gardens and landscapes in the north of the state. He has kindly made a transcript available to members.

Welcome to the farm called Scone. You’ve just come from Eskleigh. In a moment I’ll begin by talking a little of the connection between Scone and Eskleigh, but I’d like you to have an idea of where they sit. Introduce the more local aerial photo – the one that does not extend out to Cressy; the one that gives a better view of just around here. You’ve come about 3km from Eskleigh.
See how important the South Esk River is for any consideration of landscape. If you were driving from the South and headed to Longford you would be coming up the Midland Hwy, you would cross the South Esk at Perth. You’d probably notice it. You’d head left from Perth. You’d drive on a bit and come to Longford where you would cross a river again. You might even be aware that this is the same river. I don’t think you’d have any idea that between these two crossings the river has taken a large loop off to the left making room for a couple of thousand acres (800 hectares) of farm. That loop comes close to enclosing Scone.
This property has 14km of river boundary and only a couple of kilometres of land boundary that separate it from Glen Ireh where you’ll be going next.
The farm was granted to a Ritchie in 1819. Another Ritchie built the flour mill at Scone, now Eskleigh, but it was burnt down when Gibsons bought Scone. From about 1870, William Gibson developed a notable Merino stud based on top Merinos including some imported from Saxony. It had much influence on the development of Australian fine-wool Merinos during Queen Victoria’s reign.
William Gibson developed the stud and became a rich man, able to build, then rebuild, the Scone Homestead and to have a great garden and dozens of employees.
He was the grandson of a convict who had arrived in Tasmania in 1804 with the Collins Expedition that made the first permanent settlement on the Derwent. That expedition had been charged with settling on Port Phillip Bay. After a few months they had to move on because of harsh conditions and inadequate water. In Tasmania, the family fortunes turned around. Only two generations lived in the Scone House – my great aunts were the last. They lived there in decaying splendour. After them, my father understood that the house would provide an opportunity as a home for people with serious disabilities who had hitherto been in hospitals. They needed care but not all the high-powered clinical attention that hospitals can provide.

Landscape Geological Inheritance So, what’s this got to do with landscapes? Well, quite a bit, but first I’ll briefly mention what our forebears inherited here – the landforms made over millions of years – which remain our inheritance. It surprised me when we came here from Melbourne that we have under us a deep layer of sediment – a thousand or two thousand metres deep. I had been a physiologist, not a geologist, so it surprised me that This Midlands area was a basin filled with water. A graben. Sunken. Each side of it we have a horst – as you drove here you were pointed at the Western Tiers; behind us now, to the east, you see other highlands including Ben Lomond. Erosion from the highlands over millions of years has accumulated down lower in the water. The water drained. The South Esk subsequently worked the land into a series of terraces that rise from the present position of the river. The slopes from one terrace to the next are rather gradual. You’ve just driven down over a couple likely without noticing. There is another just here where the flood plain begins. Much later, only thousands of years ago, winds have picked up sands and blown the sand to make dunes. This shearing shed is cut into the edge of one. Another is behind you where the big pine trees are. The river has left us with the soils on those terraces. [Fairly good but classified as Class 4. Can grow crops but need careful handling or their structure will be lost, and they may blow away.]

Landscape inheritance – from the family of the 1800s You’ve seen the variety of exotic trees that are so attractive around present-day Eskleigh. John Hawkins – a member of your Society – gave a talk a few years ago in which he gave evidence for his view that William Gibson planned a landscape embracing a view much wider than Scone alone. It also included the developing township of Perth and Native Point, which the family also owned. I will confine my attention just to this property Scone where we still have hawthorn hedges, willows, scattered oak trees, gorse – all of which go back to the 1800s. I’d say three cheers for the oaks which provide good shade in the summer, but I’m not so enthusiastic about the others. They have given us our worst invasive woody weeds. Perhaps a couple of cheers for the hawthorns which provide good shelter from wind but escape around the river and can dominate the riparian area at least where willows fail to dominate. But willows do dominate much of the river’s edge. From here you see willows in most directions. Just over to your right, they form a belt 80 metres wide around the river (can be seen on the aerial photo). We do at least have gorse under control.
The area next to the river provides an opportunity for invasive woody plants to do their invading because they are not subject to the normal agricultural practices of cropping and grazing which allow those plants to be controlled easily. We are almost surrounded by river; 14 km of river boundary. A continual challenge just to keep rogue hawthorns, pines, gorse, and briar suppressed. There is a magnificent opportunity to have 14 km of superb riparian area which, to my mind, would be best without the woody weeds and returned to native species.
Now, about pine trees. Scone had 100s of these huge trees remaining from the 1800s. They dominated the landscape. They are a hazard. There is no knowing when they might fall – as has the one to your left. We had a few near misses, and they were a worry. An unlikely event allowed me to have most of them removed. Many here will remember the First Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. American troops kicked the Iraq army out. There was great destruction of Kuwait City. In the years that followed, a Korean (Taiwanese ?) company was involved in the reconstruction. It was to supply timber for scaffolding. Only needed low-quality timber. They contracted to buy up lots of pine from around here. This was a boon to me as they bought most of our old pines, greatly reducing the danger. For me, it was also good for the landscape, for which I wanted to make Australian rather than false Californian.
[I was apprehensive about reactions that I might get from people around. Too much wilful destruction. I had a couple of phone calls. “Are you the person cutting down the pine trees on the edge of Perth?” “Er, yes.” “Can you please tell me the name of the contractor who can do that?” “Phew.”]
My approach to planning So here was an unplanned event which changed the landscape on the farm and the view this way from Perth and the. Highway. I do believe in planning where possible and have taken two courses on Whole Farm Planning.
[Their approach is to pay attention to underlying features like slope, aspect, bodies of water, land capacity, soil types; not so much attention to man-made developments like fences, buildings.]
Chaotic Events I have to admit that, as far as landscape goes, I don’t have much to show for my planning. I’ve been much influenced by events. Events that I couldn’t see coming, I’d say entirely unpredictable – almost chaotic in the mathematical sense of that term. A graphic example is The Butterfly Effect – the notion that a butterfly fluttering its wings in the Amazon might lead to a tornado in Texas. With the American aspiration to control events in their hemisphere, I do expect a Texan to ask, “Why hasn’t somebody caught that durned butterfly?”.
My rustic example of this is the failure of the wool market in the 1980s. Some of you will remember how a wharfie in Gdansk, Poland was an activist about conditions of workers. This led to unrest in other Iron Curtain countries and through various twists and turns to the break-up of the Soviet Union and to bleak poverty in Russia. They had been major buyers of our wool but now couldn’t afford it. Our wool market was failing helped along by our woolgrower bodies who had naive views about price mechanisms. This was about the time I started at Scone. Income from wool was limited and, consequently, I had little enthusiasm for spending towards improving landscape
Another example is how technology moves on. Thirty years ago, we were not much aware of centre pivot irrigators. Now, look at the map. Six small ones on this property. Tasmanian vegetable growers largely sell their spuds, onions, peas etc. to large companies. Those companies began, 25 or so years ago, to make us aware of them and were suggesting that they would push for their use. They might not buy from us if we used the gun irrigators that we were used to. So, we have all these circles and rectangles – areas where we can’t grow trees. We would have to accommodate the circles and rectangles and to drop earlier plans for where trees would go.
I got into this in 2003. For me, it was hastened by another unplannable event. There was a move by government to minimise sewage from rural towns being discharged into rivers. I was happy to cooperate with the Northern Midlands Council in installing a system to deal with Perth’s sewage. Such a system requires a low-pressure irrigator; not a high-pressure gun irrigator that would be launching sewage high into the air. So, there are circles on Scone and tree planting goes on around that.
What do we plant? Trees and shrubs; Australian species. [Have a list available.] I wanted any influence of this property on landscape to look Australian – apart from close to Eskleigh where there is still a great heritage of exotic trees.
I was not very pure about choosing Tasmanian species at the outset but have been influenced to shift increasingly to Tasmanian species. In this year’s plantings were added Tasmanian tussocky plants like Lomandra and Poa. The influence here was from NRM North who have a project to secure the future of bandicoots. Bandicoots became extinct on the mainland but hang on in parts of Tasmania. They used to be common on Scone when I was a kid but are not common now. So, the aim now is to provide harbour for bandicoots in addition to shelter for sheep and cattle.
Fencing off River and Planting in Riparian Area NRM North’s project for Tamar catchment.
Shearing Shed and Nearby Buildings Now, about these buildings: shearing shed, stables, bakery, and house. Some mystery about them. Somebody here may be able to throw some light on them. Look at wall on east side to see that it has been modified. We think also stables.
Built ~ 1830s. Flood-prone area. [Show flood picture.]
Why built here? Coach stage? Grain to Ritchies Mill?
Heritage value? Interesting but not enough to be listed.
Hesbia bars. Holds every size brick in Australia.
Belgian ping-pong table.
High tide mark of 1929 flood.

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