A grazier or a grandmother?

Mt Ainslie, a striking peak located in Australia’s Capital, existed long before Canberra was dreamed of.

As years passed and the city arose, it was only fitting this mountain would be honoured in some way. It was given its new name by NSW merchant and politician Robert Campbell to honour James Ainslie – one of the most colourful figures in the city’s history.

In 1825, travelling on Campbell’s instruction to find a good place for a sheep station, James Ainslie met an Aboriginal woman near the Limestone Plains who led him to a place called Pialligo. It was there where he established Campbell’s sheep station – later called Duntroon. According to historian Paul Daley, in his 2012 book Canberra, the woman was offered to him as a sacrifice by a frightened group of Aboriginal people.

After played a significant role developing Campbell’s Duntroon, Ainslie was tasked with transporting a flock of more than 700 sheep onto the Limestone Plains of NSW. As a tribute to Ainslie and his work, a suburb nearby was named Ainslie, along with two streets, ‘Ainslie Place and Ainslie Avenue’, and further commemorating his work two metal sheep can now be found relaxing in the heart of Civic.

A stop sign at the corner of a street

Ainslie Avenue Street sign. Photo: Andrew Du.

The allure of the mountain’s natural wonder is undeniable, but the man behind its name remains a mystery to many. Who was he, and what other legacy did he leave behind?


In 1824, Ainslie left Scotland and embarked on a voyage across the sea, arriving at the distant and unfamiliar land we call New South Wales.

During the latter half of the 19th century, local historians enthusiastically published tales of Ainslie’s adventures, endowing him with a larger-than-life personality.

But pioneer tales are strange things and in 2012 historian Rowan Henderson suggested that, given the lack of solid information available, his story may have been amplified through retelling, “adding a touch of the romantic to the history of the Limestone Plains”.


After 10 years spent in the land down under, Ainslie returned to Scotland in 1837. In official versions of the story, the departure was linked to his retirement, but the last few years different versions have emerged.

In 1835, Campbell ran a series of advertisements in the colonial newspaper where he warned a store set up at his establishment was selling spirituous and other fermented liquors. It is unknown the extent Ainslie played in all this, but Campbell, at least, believed he was involved.

Ngambri elder Shane Mortimer, a direct descendant of James Ainslie, says Ainslie was making money out of the grog.

“Most of the people in the colony at that point were. … The military were making money out of the bootlegging grog, and that’s why we had the Rum Corps in Sydney. But, you see, it’s alright for the military to do it, but it’s not alright for somebody like Ainslie to do it.”

Mortimer says Ainslie was a definite character, and a bit of a nutjob: “He had enormous scar on his skull, which means at some point, he had endured a brain insult.”

Mortimer has a theory about the result of that injury: “What happens with a brain insult like that is people incur a spike of tumor necrosis factor in the brain, which is a protein. And in contemporary times, we know about this, but they didn’t know about it then.”

Mortimer’s theory is backed by science, with many studies following a seminal 2013 paper by Luca Longhi and his team from Milan on the link between brain injury and tumor necrosis factor.

Mortimer’s story continues: From 1837, Ainslie was tied up in numerous troubles with the law. A few notable incidents include threatening locals with a gun, throwing stones at them, and damaging their property.

The sad end of the story is that, on April 11, 1844, while Ainslie, then aged 60, was awaiting a hearing on some new charges, he committed suicide in his cell in the grim Scottish Jedburgh Castle Jail.


The question about changing the name is now dividing Canberra locals. Some argue that changing the name of Mount Ainslie would erase history.

Lara O, who grew up in Canberra says a name change isn’t necessary, as it’s what forms Canberra’s rich history. She would rather raise awareness of his story, and the older history “as you can’t go changing everything”.

She believes a better alternative would be installing signs at each end of the mountain path to raise awareness.

A sign on the side of a dirt field

Signs could be placed on the mountain. Image supplied.

On the other side is Julian Sykes-Rose, who was born and raised in Canberra and has deep roots in the city, with a family-line spanning generations.

Julian says he wasn’t aware of the history behind the name Ainslie, but he supports the idea of a change: “I support changing the name. I think keeping the name because of its history is a preposterous argument.

“We want change, progression is good.”

Also supporting the idea is Teagan Louise, another born and bred Canberran, who didn’t know the history of the man behind Mt Ainslie’s name.

“I would 100 per cent change it. I wouldn’t want to have something named after someone who has done terrible things. Why would we?” she asks.

“I get its part of history, but maybe have a name change and then have signs or something with the history. Like it used to be called ‘this’, things often have their names changed.”


The mountain blessed by the symphony of nature holds great significance to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people as a site for women’s business.

So much so, Mortimer has proposed that the mountain be renamed.

“I have nine generations in a consecutive line of women connecting me to that mountain and I have every right to do it because Ainsley is an ancestor,” he says.

“It’s really ludicrous, I think, to celebrate somebody who really doesn’t deserve it. All he did … was get paid to drive a few sheep.

“It is a women’s business site. It shouldn’t be named after a man for a start. It should be given the name Nadya meaning mother in the Nyamudy language of Canberra.

“Nadya is a very appropriate term to use because we call my great, great, great, great, great grandmother Nadya, simply because she’s only otherwise known as Ainsley’s Lumber, which is very disparaging.”

But how easy is it to rename an iconic landmark? In the ACT, the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate is responsible for the naming of suburbs and public places.

The Territory Government state if a geographical feature has an existing name, consideration will be given to restore traditional Aboriginal language to the feature by giving it dual names.

Mortimer made his submission to the ACT Legislative Assembly in February 2022, calling for the official name to be changed to Nadya Ngambri-Mt. Ainslie.

This article is part of a larger project called Where What Why. You can find the whole collection of stories about places and their names here.