The villages at Burrill Lakes and Termeil made headlines when they were caught in the holocaust of 78,000 hectares of bush ablaze in 2019. Les Stewart was trapped in a creek bed with fire all around, his clothes smouldering, trying to defend his homestead, when his son arrived in a water-tanker and hosed him down.
It was a narrow escape, but not the first for the man singer/song-writer Colin Buchanan christened, ‘The Bishop of Burrill.’ Les is a surfer, a horseman, a bikie and a preacher. More than anything, this bushman is a doer. Most of his life has been given in the service of people in remote places as a leader in the Bush Missionary Society.
I learned from him that this grew from the initiative of a handful of teenage boys back in the 1850’s, taking simple leaflets explaining the Christian faith to isolated people on the fringes of Sydney. In a short time, missioners in horse-drawn vehicles were travelling all across NSW, an area four times the size of the United Kingdom, connecting to families and itinerants on lonely back-country properties.
John Mills, a long-time member of the BMS, described what they looked for in a man who would take on the tough assignment of travelling long miles to meet bush people who were often sceptical of religious types. They needed to be practical and not afraid of hard work. After meeting Les, I felt sure he qualified.
‘We require a man who could drive a horse, swim a stream, traverse a mountain, penetrate the trackless forest, pull (row a boat) up a river where he had never before been; camp out with the howl of the dingo resounding in his ears; and, in fact, face with a bold heart all the hardships and deprivation of bush life; steadily upholding, at all times, and under all circumstances, the work of God. He must be a man who would be able to express himself courteously, and, if necessary, to speak roughly and decisively.’ The Newcastle Chronicle (NSW), 18 April 1871, 2.
Les began by telling me he had no real stories to tell. I’ll let you decide that after you listen to him talk. I realised after we’d spoken for a while, that I barely scratched the surface of his extraordinary collection of experiences. I got the feeling we need more big-hearted men like Les, who model themselves on the Jesus who boldly faced hardships, spoke decisively and courteously, but was blunt when opposed.
Colin Buchanan wrote once about deciding the measure of a man.
‘The measure of man isn’t found,
In the dollars in his pocket
Or where he lives in town.
It’s what lies deep within,
Past the colour of his skin,
When we look there,
We begin to understand
The measure of a man.
After spending time with Les, Colin measured what he saw as the secret of Les’s strength in a reflective song. It pictured him as Burrill’s ‘bush bishop’ riding through an ‘ironbark cathedral’ alive to the handiwork and presence of his Creator. WATCH the interview and also LISTEN to the song. DON'T MISS Part 2 of the interview, next on this website.
The Bishop of Burrill
Words & Music Colin Buchanan © 2001 Universal Music (Aust.)
He’s going up into the mountains
Going up into the hills
Going to saddle up the chestnut mare
And let her take him where she will
Goin’ to catch himself a fish or two
Going to gather up some wood
Going to sit beneath the messmates wondering
How he ever got it so good
Somewhere out past Yadboro
Out behind Termeil
In his ironbark cathedral
Rides the Bishop of Burrill
Out past Yadboro
The bush behind Termeil
Is ringing with the praises
Of the Bishop of Burrill
Going do a lot of thinking
Going take a bit of space
Maybe let a bit of angry weather
Put him in his place
On a swag under the moonlight
By the flicker of a fire
He’s going to marvel at the majesty
Of the One who names the stars
(and who knows that ...)
And on top of Kaliana
He’s going to sing a simple prayer
For the everlasting mercy
Of the God who put him there
And who holds him in his care
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.