Family Story to the Sound of Bagpipes in a Red Wine and Beer Cocktail

In 1895 they discovered gold in the Australian desert, and up sprang Kalgoorlie, the town with a pub on every corner. Once the “place of silky pears”, koolgooluh, this was home to the Wangkatja people, but their ancestral ceremonial and hunting grounds soon vanished in a mine, a city, alien people, and thousands of liters of beer. The smell of hops was everywhere, and everything was the toasty color of beer, the streets, the dusty air, the miners’ faces, and even the pubs where, in about 1910, my grandfather Alexander was sent to convince the miners that the red wine made by his company, Penfolds, was better than beer.

He was young, strong, and recently married, after escaping from his curmudgeonly mother Harriet, and putting between them all the miles that lay between Aberdeen, Scotland, and Kalgoorlie in the great Australian desert. His father Simon had also put many miles between himself and Harriet when Alexander was only twelve, but nobody knew how many because Simon had vanished into thin air. One day he went to work as usual in the family lawyers’ office, with a book of poems in his pocket, and he never came home. Money from the family bank account also vanished.

Alexander stayed to help out until his three younger siblings could fend for themselves and then headed for Australia where he became wealthy selling wine, starting in Kalgoorlie. One day, early in his career, he was going from pub to pub, corner to corner, trying in vain to find one that would buy his red wine. It had been a long day and he was about to give up when he heard, on the brown, hop-laden desert air, the strains of bagpipes. His ears pulled him to the music of his childhood, into the last pub.

The pub owner mocked him. “Red wine? Here, mate? You got to be joking, eh?” Toughened by his mother, Alexander wasn’t going to throw in the towel that easily. So, he wrote down his name and address, just in case.

“Bathgate? Strange name that, but … yeah, there’s a fella comes here … same name. That’s him, over in the corner.”

And there was Simon. Drinking beer. His son took him back to his new house in Perth and supplied him with good wine till the end of his days. My grandmother said he was a “sweetheart”. I saw a photo. He looked like a sweetheart.

Plenty of women have made their husbands run away, but I don’t know how Harriet made both her husband and her firstborn go to Kalgoorlie. Of all the places in the world.