William Cairncross

Boer War veteran
Ballarat School of Mines

Bill Cairncross was a lieutenant in the Scottish Horse during the Boer War. Around 24,000 Australians served in South Africa, with approximately 8,000 of that number joining irregular South African units such as the 2nd Battalion Marquis of Tullabardine's Scottish Horse. This unit had a large component of Australians, and is known for its heroic defence of the guns at Bakenlaagte.

The Ballarat School of Mines (SMB) Students Magazine of 1903 reported: '"Lieutenant Bill" Cairncross, ... left the school a couple of years ago for active service in South Africa, ... . Billyum was always full of anecdote, and his escapades with the hippos, and crocodiles, and "sich" in the backwaters of Zambesi, will, therefore, be great with gusto. We believe that Bill has been raised to the peer - beg pardon, a captaincy. We herewith raise our large right hand and salute thee, O, Captain.'

It appears that Cairncross remained in South Africa after the conclusion of war, possibly engaged in mining pursuits. He travelled to sites such as the Victoria Falls on the Zambesi River, outlining his trips in a letter published in the SMB Students Magazine. He describes arriving at the falls. 'After two treks of five miles each, a distant rumbling can be heard, and we then start to tramp towards it, leaving the spans of oxen and donkeys in charge of the native boys with orders to inspan at dusk, and do the ordinary treks until we again join the wagons. After six hours hard walking from the top of the sand belt we come into the most luxuriant tropical growths. Hundreds of varieties of palms, orchids, and flowering plants and creepers. Partridges, pheasants, and guinea-fowl simply swarm; and in the small backwashes of the Zambesi hippopotami play about in the water, and crocodiles bask in the sun on the grassy banks. We hardly notice them now, so common have they become to our eyes on the long trek from civilisation.

The letter continues, describing experiences of interest to the courses and excursions being undertaken by SMB students. 'We move along through the sodden malarial ground to the west, and come to one of the most beautiful sights in the vicinity, viz., the Devil's Cataract. The river splits into two streams at Loana Island. On (the right-hand stream) flows down over rocks to the rapids, and then comes the cataract. The water rushes down a depth of 417 feet (surveyed). It is not by any means a quiet grade, but is very nearly perpendicular. Here are several permanent (so to speak) rainbows, and the sight of the boiling water almost attracts one over the precipice. Just alongside the cataract the banks are favourable for a descent, and down this we go, assisting one another with ropes, until the bottom of the precipice is reached. Above, the river is several hundred yards wide; down below, at the gorge it narrows to about 140 yards. Looking up one sees nothing but perpendicular walls, and, owing to the mist, the outside world cannot be seen.'

The education Cairncross received at SMB came in handy when the party needed to cross wagons and animals on a steam launch and punt. Cairncross reported: 'they had no engineer to work the launch, so I went over in a native canoe, and had a look at the 'works.' I did not know much about the engine, but offered to do the driving myself. That afternoon I experimented, finally managed to set the launch going, and had many trips in her about the islands, but I must say I preferred the native canoes, as there is no oily smell and hot furnace, not to mention the sparks.'

This biography was researched by Clare Gervasoni, April 2006