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Forth yachtsmen need no introduction to Dysart harbour. Much less well known in Scotland is son of the town John McDouall Stuart, the first expedition leader to cross Australia from south to north and survive. In the antipodes Stuart is legendary and when visiting the small seasonal museum in the house in Dysart where he was born one is as likely to meet Australians as Scots. Put his name into your favourite search engine and you will see just how famous he is and find fascinating accounts of his expeditions, epics of endurance. Adventure apart, navigating desert wastes, especially in the vastness of central Australia, has much of interest and relevance to the navigator afloat.

From the harbour, the museum is only a five minute walk. Follow Shore Road and take the first left into Rectory Lane.

Museum opening hours

1 June – 31 August

Thursday – Sunday 1pm – 5pm

Special opening by arrangement with Fife Council

Admission free


John McDouall Stuart was born on 7 th September 1815, the son of a retired army captain serving as a customs officer, a man of some standing in the town as can be seen from the substantial three storey house the family occupied. The JMS museum has a fine collection of maps, pictures, wall displays and contemporary artefacts but the building is all that has a direct connection with Stuart himself. Contemporary artefacts on display include navigational and surveying instruments.

The house has probably been re-tiled several times during its life; part has traditional red pan tiles. The west gable has crow steps and it is whitewashed, all features of Scottish vernacular architecture.

I don’t propose to rehash the excellent biographical websites including those of Wikipedia and the John McDouall Stuart Society. Stuart’s achievements are so amazing these sources make inspiring reading. The following few remarks come from a BBC radio programme not on the internet. One hopes it will be repeated and put on the web.

Stuart arrived in South Australia in 1839 and worked as a public surveyor, in 1842 setting up on his own. In 1844 he joined Captain Charles Sturt, South Australia’s Surveyor-General, as a draughtsman, travelling further north than any previous European. Extreme privations from heat, lack of water and fresh provisions caused debilitation and scurvy from which the second in command James Poole died. Stuart was appointed his successor. While they both managed to return to Adelaide, Sturt never fully recovered and Stuart took a year to recover.

Sturt’s expedition confirmed Stuart’s conviction that to cross Australian bush one had to travel light and fast. Stuart’s own six subsequent expeditions progressively forced a route through very arid and hostile country to the north coast. At dawn, before heat haze had obscured the view, he would scan the horizon with a powerful telescope on a tripod, looking for any green that might betray the presence of water. He travelled from sun up to sun down, from water source to water source. Life depended on pack horses and their needs came first. He cut his second expedition short because he hadn’t taken enough spare sets of horse shoes, the stony ground wearing them out.

Stuart discovered a line of mound springs, now known to be freshwater welling up from Australia’s Great Artesian Basin. They are called mound springs as solutes left behind by evaporation cause the build up of a mound. The springs are rather alkaline but drinkable. Whilst Stuart ‘discovered’ these springs they had long sustained scanty migrant populations of aboriginal people.

To add to Stuart’s privations he suffered from ‘sandy blight’, eye inflammation known to us as trachoma, a painful torment as nagging as tooth ache. He was hard and determined, a giant of exploration. His explorations found much new pasture and opened up Australia. His route north became the highway named after him and the approximate line of an overland telegraph that connected Australia with Asia and eventually the UK. Many settlements and geographical features perpetuate his name. The story of his achievements will grab most yachtsmen.

Stuart retired to his sister’s home in North West London and died in 1866 at the age of 51, only four years after crossing the continent of Australia. His explorations took a toll of his health which prior to his early death was apparent as failing eyesight and memory. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery plot number 19834, section 9, row 15, path side next to the main gate. For this information I am indebted to the JMS Society. Please see their website for a photograph of the memorial.

To the west of the museum is a memorial garden with a wall plaque commemorating linen manufacturer James Normand, son of James Normand of Blairhill. The garden replaces the Normand Hall, given to the town by is wife, which stood on this site 1885-1995.

Dysart and Fife’s first coastal centre

The refurbished Harbourmasters House, now Fife’s first coastal centre is an excellent place to begin an exploration of the area. Here one can eat in a highly recommended café in pleasing surroundings with views of the harbour and find well produced information leaflets. Local art work for sale is another attraction. Open April – September 10am – 4pm every day and October – March 10am – 4pm, closed during Christmas and New Year.

Further information

1. The Harbour Master’s House – leaflet produced by Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, Hot Pot Wynd, Dysart, Fife, KY1 2TQ Tel: 01529 656080

2. The Fife Coastal Path – leaflet from Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, The Harbourmaster’s House, as above.

3. Royal Burgh of Dysart – leaflet produced by Fife Council and Fife Kingdom Tourist Board. Further information from the Harbourmaster’s House or Kirkcaldy Tourist Information Centre, 19 Whytescauseway Tel: 01592 267775

4. Dysart Town Trail leaflet, out of print in July 2008.

5. John McDouall Stuart – leaflet produced by Fife Museums, out of print in July 2008.

6. For further information on the Dysart area contact Kirkcaldy Tourist Information Centre, The Merchant’s House, 339 High Street, Kirkcaldy, KY1 1JL. Telephone 01592 267775, open all year.


Many thanks to Fife Museums for the photograph of JMS from the cover of their leaflet.

Paul Shave

Blue Spindrift

27 October 2008