If you have ever driven along the majestic Panorama Route, on the edge of the Drakensberg Escarpment, in Mpuma- langa, you will have noticed that the natural wonders that line the route bear the most curious of names. Indeed, tourist hot spots such as MacMac Falls, Bourke’s Luck and Lisbon Falls cannot fail to pique the interest of the more historically minded traveller.
Perhaps the most fascinating among these natural wonders, at least from the perspective of those with a penchant for mining history, is the distinctively Scottish-sounding MacMac Falls. That dramatic 65-m-high twin waterfall, situated on the R532, between Sabie and Graskop, is the province’s second-highest water feature and, no doubt, one of the most popular attractions along the route.
While many historically astute visitors are vaguely aware that the name MacMac has some association with Scottish miners who worked in the area during the nineteenth century, the history of the MacMac gold diggings and, more importantly, the reason why so many Scotsmen happened to be in the area at the time of that gold rush, have long been forgotten.
The roots of the Scottish presence in what was then the Eastern Transvaal dates back to 1864, when a Scotsman by the name of Alexander McCorkindale approached the Transvaal Volksraad (government) with a scheme to settle 300 of his countrymen in the republic with the purpose of establishing commercial farming operations. In addition, he offered to establish a bank, lend money to the republic, import urgently needed stores of ammunition and develop a much-desired route to the sea.
McCorkindale could not have pitched such a scheme at a more opportune moment, for the Transvaal was in severe financial dire straits, largely owing to its burghers’ aversion to paying tax of any description. Thus, the Volksraad was only too happy to grant the Scotsman 200 farms equal to 1.2-million acres of land on the eastern Transvaal highveld, near Lake Chrissie, for £8 000. While the Transvaal boers were well known for their strong resentment of English-speaking foreigners and abhorred their settlement in the republic, such feelings did no extend to the Scottish. In fact, the Dutch settlers and the Scots had always had a strong affinity, bearing the same religious and moral beliefs and sharing a strong disinclination towards the English imperialists.
Having secured approval for the scheme, McCorkindale returned to Britain to float the Glasgow & South Africa Company, through which the money to buy the farms could be raised, and to find countrymen from that bonnie land willing to emigrate to that far-flung boer republic.
Unfortunately, to expect people to invest money in, let alone emigrate to, a country of which very little was known was asking too much, and McCorkindale struggled to stimulate any considerable interest in the scheme. However, he managed to raise enough capital to charter a brig and buy a small number of farms. In 1866, together with 105 industrious countrymen, he sailed for the southern tip of Africa.
The little colony, which was dubbed New Scotland, started well enough, with the settlers busying themselves with the arduous task of driving sheep and livestock up from Natal and erecting new homesteads on farms, some of which were christened Bonniebrae, Lochiel and Waverley. However, life was difficult in that new land and, owing to the scarcity of food and materials, it became necessary for McCorkindale to make periodical trips to Europe to replenish supplies and to raise capital for his schemes for New Scotland.
Unfortunately, on one such trip, while travelling through the malaria-infested lowveld, McCorkindale was struck down with the dreaded fever and died in May 1871 on Inyack Island, in the bay of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). Following his death, all schemes for New Scotland were crushed and most of the emigrants abandoned the little colony in search of more favourable prospects elsewhere in South Africa.
As fate would have it, McCorkindale’s death coincided with the discovery of gold on the farm Eersteling, near what is today Polokwane, and a subsequent surge in prospecting activity across the eastern region of the republic. Many of the New Scotland residents joined in that hunt for gold and were, therefore, close at hand when a more significant auriferous discovery was made in a stream on the farm Geelhoutboom in the early months of 1873.
The new alluvial gold diggings proved rich enough to sustain a population of well over 200 diggers. When, a few months after the initial discovery, the considerable supply of gold from those workings nor the flood of new fortune hunters did not appear to be subsiding, the Volksraad sent the President, Thomas Francois Burgers, to investigate the situation and to determine whether this new uitlander community was amenable to the authority of the Transvaal Republic.
Burger’s visit to the Geelhoutboom diggings in August 1873 made a lasting impression on the area. After meeting with the leading figures of the mining community and examining the roll of licensed diggers, Burgers is said to have exclaimed: “Why it’s all Macs. I am going to call this place MacMac.” Indeed, many a McLeod, McLachlan, MacDonald, MacPherson and MacTavish graced the pages of the diggers roll. The diggers loved it and, although the area was officially proclaimed the New Caledonia Goldfield, the name stuck and no one ever called it anything but the MacMac Diggings.
However, the alluvial gold was soon worked out and, within a few years, the MacMac camp had largely been abandoned, with most of the diggers migrating north-west to the richer golden valley of Pilgrim’s Rest. Today, nothing remains of that mining camp, although the spirit of those pioneering Scottish diggers lingers on in the rushing waters of the MacMac river and falls.