After Canberra, it was all downhill for James Ainslie

After Canberra, it was all downhill for James Ainslie

What became of James Ainslie (after whom the Canberra mountain so crucial to Walter Burley Griffin's vision of this city is named) after the Scot, a Limestone Plains folklore-magnet, went home to bonnie Scotland in 1835?

In yesterday's naive column I repeated the conventional wisdom that having gone home to Scotland, the Canberra-important man ''disappears into history's gloaming''. But it emerges that in recent times Rowan Henderson, of the Canberra Museum and Gallery, using new online resources that have assisted her detective work, has gone roaming in that gloaming in search of Ainslie and has found him.

What she's found about the remainder of his life (not published anywhere before today but probably destined for a scholarly journal) is illuminating but shocking too. She has found that the unhappy Ainslie committed suicide in 1844 in a grim Scottish castle and prison.

Henderson's researches first found Ainslie in 1841, 54-years-old and living in the vicinity of Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders. By then he had been in much trouble with the law, for assaults and for being generally a very dangerous public nuisance, since his return to Scotland.

Henderson catalogues the newspaper reports of Ainslie's many newsworthy offences. In 1839 a doctor examining Ainslie's sanity reported ''[I have] examined Ainslie's head and find he has sustained several injuries upon his skull and no doubt the brain must also have suffered … it is very probable that a small quantity of liquor may have the effect of throwing him into a state of derangement.''

Then in April 1844, being held in Jedburgh Castle awaiting a hearing on some new charges, Ainslie took his own life. Reporting this, theCaledonian Mercury said that he had hung himself. It went into graphic detail about the poor man's ''preparations'' for the desperate deed and then recorded poetically that ''having completed these preparations, he stepped from a slight elevation into the eternal world''.

From today a fuller account of Henderson's excellent researchings of Ainslie's twilight years is on CMAG's website at