From Magersfontein to Matjiesfontein

From the battlefield of Magersfontein south of Kimberley, it is roughly 700 kilometres to the village of Matjiesfontein in the Karoo.

The sign to the Magersfontein battlefield of 1899
Image by: Sam J Basch

Why should we want to know this?

For one thing, Matjiesfontein is where Major-General Andrew Wauchope of the Scottish Black Watch (the famous Royal Highlanders) Regiment lies buried.

This might seem curious: he was killed in the Battle of Magersfontein on 11 December 1899 during the Anglo-Boer War (now called the South African War). There’s a memorial on top of Magersfontein Hill, with a heart-wrenching inscription that reads:

Scotland is poorer in men but richer in heroes.

The memorial was erected by Scots the world over to honour their fallen countrymen.

The Scottish Memorial on Magersfontein Hill
Image by: Sam J Basch

Perhaps I should have guessed why the decorated soldier lies at Matjiesfontein. After all, this tiny hamlet 230 kilometres from Cape Town was established by a Scot, James Douglas Logan? He ended up in South Africa by accident at the age of 20 after his ship foundered in Simon’s Bay, now known as Simonstown.

Logan assisted in developing Matjiesfontein as a Victorian health resort in 1884, principally because of the dry climate that suited those with respiratory problems. As the owner of a farm near Touwsrivier, he connected it to Matjiesfontein with a telephone line, making it the longest private line in South Africa at the time.

A milage marker at Matjiesfontein
Image by: Sam J Basch

(The name Matjiesfontein is derived from the Khoi method of constructing their dwellings with woven reed mats – ‘matjies’ in Afrikaans).

He was an astute marketer who enticed the likes of Lord Randolph Churchill, father of the famous Winston, and other luminaries like Rudyard Kipling and astronomer, Sir David Gill to Matjiesfontein. Even the Sultan of Zanzibar, Ali Il bin Hamud, paid a visit. Well-known author, Olive Schreiner often rented a cottage here that still carries her name.

During the South African War (1899-1902), Logan built a hotel that for a while served as a military hospital. Its turrets proved to be useful lookout posts. The Commander of the British forces in South Africa, Lord Roberts, was a frequent guest.

The Victorian era Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein
Image by: Sam J Basch

In recent times, the village became the property of hotelier David Rawdon who invested much to renovate it, including the hotel that is now called the Lord Milner. Rawdon was renowned for establishing prestigious hotels, including the Lanzerac in Stellenbosch, Rawdons at Nottingham Road in KwaZulu-Natal, the Marine in Hermanus, and The Drostdy in Graaff-Reinet.

Matjiesfontein was declared a national heritage site in 1975. Some of its attractions include the historic cricket pitch – Logan was a great fan, helping to develop the game in South Africa – and the waterworks. Steam trains that stopped here in bygone days required water for their boilers, and the arid Karoo also prompted the production of soda water, ginger beer, and lemonade for parched travellers.

Waiting for the bar to open. My pal Tony from the UK in the Lord Milner Hotel.
Image by: Sam J Basch

The Railway Museum takes visitors back to those early days and the Transport Museum is home to the two official Daimler motorcars used by the British Royal family during their tour of South Africa in 1947.

The historic Daimlers among the many vintage motorcars in the Transport Museum
Image by: Sam J Basch

Postscript: An unknown young Scottish bugler was buried at Magersfontein by the Boer commandos – in which my grandfather served – on that fateful December day. He was later identified as William Milne of the Seaforth Highlanders.

There never was a good war, or a bad peace – Benjamin Franklin

Many thanks to Andrea Abbott for editing support!

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