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Mount Stromlo, act, Australia: the origin of the place-name.

Mount Stromlo is a conspicuous feature of the landscape in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It is at 35[degrees]19' 03" South, 149[degrees]00' 33" East. Its altitude is 751m above sea level though it rises to less than 200m above the neighbouring plain. The site is a few kilometres west of Canberra city centre, between there and the Brindabella range further to the west (Fig. 1.).

At the summit is Mount Stromlo Observatory (MSO). A heritage statement about the observatory buildings (National Capital Development Commission, 1988) was published as part of a series of territory-wide heritage studies. The Observatory is now part of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University, Canberra. Frame and Faulkner (2003) provide a recent and comprehensive history of the MSO.



Despite several attempts during the last one hundred years to find the origin of Stromlo as a placename, until now that discovery process has been unsuccessful. Neither the heritage study nor the history of the MSO offered any solution at all.

Gray (2004) conducted a thorough review of the situation concerning the place-name. He wrote that the catalyst for this review was the destruction in January 2003 of the MSO, that is, the buildings, the telescopes, and other facilities there. The place was burnt to cinders in a catastrophic summer firestorm in January 2003 (Canberra Times, 2003). Gray pointed out that previous reviews, in 1923 and 1980, were unable to offer a solution for the origin of the placename. It was not an indigenous word. Variants, such as 'St. Romlo' used by the Hobart Mercury in 1915 and Launceston Examiner in 1940, were dismissed. A possible connection with Mount Stromboli, the Sicilian volcano which had erupted spectacularly in the 1890s was considered, but Gray concluded that no one knew.


Initially Mount Stromlo was the name of a 764 acre (309 ha) paddock in Frederick Campbell's pastoral station 'Yarralumla'. It consisted of blocks 124, 125, 126, 174 and 175 in the Parish of Yarralumla (sometimes spelt Yarro[w]lumla), in the County of Murray. The summit and subsequent trig station are located in block 174 (Fig. 2.).

Fred Campbell (1846-1928) was no ordinary farmer. A recent history of him and his career, by his descendant R. S. C. Newman (2007), uses Campbell's own letter books, field books, copies of letters, and a privately-held family account of his work.

Campbell bought Yarralumla in 1882. Newman, in great detail and with ample documentary support, points out that Campbell's management strategies and stock breeding program totally changed the way pastoral stations were managed throughout the district. Although it may seem commonplace today, Campbell was the first to introduce post and wire fencing into the district, and he used it throughout his properties. According to Newman, Yarralumla did not even have a boundary fence prior to 1882. As part of his overall strategy, Campbell further divided his station into 27 manageable paddocks, whose names can be seen on an official survey of properties in the area. This map, existing in several versions, provides a very detailed examination of the whole district. It is the Federal Territory Feature Map, sheet 7, drawn ca.1915, in a version with hachures held in the Dickson offices of the ACT Planning and Land Authority.

Campbell's paddocks included Triangle Paddock, Stock Yard Paddock, Red Hill Paddock, Clump of Trees Paddock, Roachford's Paddock, Weston Paddock, Murray's Paddock, Holden's Paddock, Mount Stromlow Paddock (sic) (1), and Shelton Smith Paddock. Furthermore, the Mount Stromlo Paddock name was mentioned in 1899 in a written exchange between Campbell and his manager Vest (Gray, 2004). Campbell had an owner's prerogative to call his paddocks anything he chose, and he did just that. His paddock names appear to derive from their shape, function, location, or from previous holders of the blocks. But he did not ever have to register the names with anyone, and no definitive primary document revealing his private thinking behind the choice of Mount Stromlo as a paddock name is available.

Campbell left Yarralumla during 1913 and only returned to the district once, fleetingly, on 11 October 1913, when he visited Queanbeyan, the local country town, and received an illuminated address 'from the people of the district' which acknowledged his leading role (Queanbeyan Age, 1913; for his obituary see Canberra Times, 1928). With his departure, Campbell terminated his association with Yarralumla and Canberra.


The catalyst for change in Campbell's case, as it was with so many like him in the district, was the selection of his property and much of the surrounding area as the site for Australia's new national capital. As part of the method of founding the capital, every aspect of its preparation was planned. Amongst many things, this necessitated detailed survey work of the entire proposed territory. During the planning period, in March 1910, Messrs McDonald, Hunt, Baracchi, Sellars, Rawlings, and Scrivener, a committee of surveyors, astronomers, and a Federal Government representative, met at the Surveyor's Camp on Kurrajong Hill, which overlooked the proposed site for Canberra.

Their purpose was twofold. One was to re-set the local azimuth by moving it from its previous base to a nearby location. This was a practical change. The other was to choose a site for a proposed national solar observatory (Watson, 1927, 156; Sydney Morning Herald, 1910a&b). Building a national observatory was a small part of the political agenda. The two decisions complemented each other at the time.


Therefore, since the new observatory (and the azimuth) was to be on his property, Fred Campbell leased his Mount Stromlo Paddock to the Commonwealth of Australia. The lease was for two years at 26/15/[pounds sterling]- per annum (Frame and Faulkner, 2003). The first building, which was designed to house the Oddie Telescope, was completed in 1911.

The significance of Mount Stromlo does not come from the fact that it was the name of a paddock that was part of a distant rural property in New South Wales. Its fame and international reputation come from the observatory that was built there, on the site of the new azimuth. However, it is plain that there was a break in the ownership succession of the site. It went from a local family to a distant bureaucracy in Melbourne (where the Commonwealth government was based at the time). No one ever seems to have asked Fred Campbell where he got the name.


Stromlo did not begin as a local place-name in Canberra. It was unknown before Campbell's time. His well-recognized Scottish ancestry provides a clue to the source. He had spent time visiting Scotland. His father, Charles Campbell, went to Scotland to live. Fred's second wife Christina McPhee (1761-1933) also came from a Scottish family (Newman, 2007). However, there is no mountain or hill by the name of Stromlo in Scotland. Rather, the name comes from a piece of classic Scottish literature. It is a name used in a once-famous and widely available book, the 'Poems of Ossian'. This former classic work was originally published in 1760 as Fragments of ancient poetry collected in the highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Galic [sic] or Erse language, by James Macpherson (1736-1796), a Scot. It was followed by two 'epics': Fingal(1762), and Temora (1763). All three were later collected as The Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal (1765) and then revised as The Poems of Ossian (1773). The placename 'Stromlo' can be found in the section titled 'Sul-Malla of Lumon', where Ossian, 'king of harps', sings to her as follows:

... a beam of light was there, like the ray of the sun, in Stromlo's rolling smoak [i.e. smoke]. (Macpherson, 1790, p.190)

Macpherson's poem suggests that Stromlo was on fire, perhaps as a smoking volcano.

From the time of its publication, The Poems of Ossian were controversial and disputed. Macpherson claimed he recorded the poems in Gaelic during a visit to the Scottish Highlands. It is now quite clear that he dissembled; the book is faked. It is not even a genuine Scottish Highland fairy story: one of his main sources was the Irish epic about Finn McCool. Despite furious contemporary disputation of its supposed origin by Dr Samuel Johnson, it nevertheless became a cherished literary source for the enthusiasts of the Romantic Movement (Trevor-Roper, 1983). Stromlo is not the only placename in Macpherson's work to achieve reality in Australia. The NSW town of Temora, 170 kilometres NW of Canberra, was named for the palace of the kings of Ulster in the eponymous eight-book epic 'Temora'. (2)


Some confusion exists because although the mountain in the ACT is called Mount Stromlo, the trig station at its summit is called 'Strom'. There is easily explained. In 1910, R. B. Sellars, the 'chief computer in the NSW trigonometrical service', and C. R. Scrivener, senior surveyor in charge of laying out the Capital, were at the committee meeting (already mentioned) which chose the new observatory and azimuth site. As professionals working in NSW they were aware that a trig station called 'Stromlo' already existed in New South Wales, and was listed in the Trigonometrical Survey of New South Wales Register of Stations compiled by E. Twynam in 1895. That particular trig is on another Mount Stromlo, 1089 metres high, at 33[degrees] 39' 55" South, 149[degrees]42' 4" East, about 15 kilometres W of Oberon and 30 kilometres SSE of Bathurst, in the Parish of Baring, County of Westmoreland. No two trig stations in NSW then had the same name. In 1910 the Federal Capital Territory (later the ACT) had not been ceded from the State to the Commonwealth, so the trig for the future Territory had to make do with a slightly different version of the name: Strom.


Mount Stromlo was not named by surveyors or land development agents. It was never claimed as an indigenous place name. The name Mount Stromlo was used as a paddock name on Fred Campbell's property 'Yarralumla' at least as early as 1899. Campbell seems likely to have taken the name from Macpherson's epic Poems of Ossian, even if this work is now accepted not to be the traditional epic Macpherson claimed. On looking westward from Campbell's 1891 west wing extension of the Yarralumla homestead, Mount Stromlo easily fills the skyline. Did Campbell ever see smoke rolling over it too?



Canberra Times, 1928, 'Mr. F. Campbell--Canberra Pioneer Dead--Former Owner of Yarralumla', 23 August, p.5, col.1.

Canberra Times, 2003, 'Sunday Times Special Edition', 19 January, pp.1-11.

Examiner (Launceston), 1940, 'Not Going to Africa to See Eclipse', 2 August, p.1, col.8.

Mercury (Hobart), 1915, 'Commonwealth Observatory--The Government's Intentions', 18 August, p.3, col.7.

Queanbeyan Age, 1913, 'Presentation to Mr. F. Campbell--Some early pioneer reminiscences', 14 October, p.2, cols.2-6.

Sydney Morning Herald, 1910a, 'The Federal Capital--Site for Observatory', 21 February, p.8, col.7.

--, 1910b, 'Personal', 1 March, p.6, col.7.

Other publications

Frame, Tom & Faulkner, Don, 2003, Stromlo: an Australian observatory, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Gray, John, 2004, 'The naming of Mt Stromlo', Canberra District Historical Society Newsletter 393: 5-7.

Macpherson, James, 1790, The Poems of Ossian. Translated by James Macpherson, Esq. in two volumes. Vol. I. A new edition, A. Strahan & T. Cadell, London.

Maslin, Ron G., 1992, 'What's in a name' in Ruth S. Fritsch (ed.), Temora Yesterday and Today 1880-1980, Temora Centenary Historical Book Committee, Temora, pp.30-32.

National Capital Development Commission, 1988, Sites of significance in the A.C.T., vol. 6, Stromlo and Uriarra areas, Canberra.

Newman, R.S.C., 2007, 'Frederick Campbell of Yarralumla: a forgotten pioneer pastoralist', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 93(1):94-110.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh, 1983, 'The invention of tradition: the Highland tradition of Scotland' in Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.15-42.

Twynam, E. (comp.), 1895, Trigonometrical Survey of New South Wales, Register of Stations, Department of Lands, Sydney NSW.

Watson, Frederick, 1927, A Brief History of Canberra, the capital city of Australia, Federal Capital Press, Canberra.

Peter Procter [1]

[1] Peter Procter is a Canberra resident
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Author:Procter, Peter
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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