Interview with Ian McHutchison Sim (2019)

Oral History Interviews with Ian McHutchison Sim conducted on the 14 October 2019 & 28 November 2019

By Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, University of Newcastle (Australia)

With questions and commentary from Mr Garry Jones, Dr Greg Blyton and Uncle Bill Smith

Background research by Mr. Leigh Budden

Recorded in the GLAMx Lab, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle.

Thanks to Mr. Garry Jones, Dr. Ann Hardy, Mr. Terry Busch


This work is conducted in memory and respectfully honours the First Australian people, the Aboriginal People of this land.


Ian McHutchison Sim interview 14.10.2019


Background Notes:

  • Ian McHutchison Sim was born in 1931, worked as a land surveyor in the Sydney area, and a keen bush-walker. He came into contact with Aboriginal people growing up on the north coast of New South Wales. In the 1950s he worked as a surveyor in western New South Wales in the Goodooga area, past Lightning Ridge and made Aboriginal friends there, and spent time recording language.
  • Ian and his wife were extensively involved in documenting Aboriginal Rock Art in the Sydney, Central Coast and Nepean areas in the 1960’s.
  • Ian published his “Records of Rock Engravings” as a five (5) part series of the Sydney and Gosford districts in the journal Mankind in 1962 (Vol.5 No.11); 1963 (Vol.6 No.1); 1965 (Vol.6 No.6); 1966 (Vol.6 No.8); & 1969 (Vol.7 No.1). These detailed the location and description of petroglyphs throughout these regions; some of which had been documented by earlier documenters, but many, appear to be the first site description and recording.
  • He published an article on charcoal drawings located at a rock shelter site near Wilton in the Nepean valley in the journal Oceania in 1964.
  • These publications included photographs and sketches of the engravings and charcoal drawings.  Ian has donated a series of photographs to AIATSIS which may include the original photos used in the journal articles. A collection of Sim’s drawings recently donated to the University of Newcastle Cultural Collections’ may perhaps be the art work prepared for use in the publication of these journal articles.
  • Ian also published a book in 1966 titled “Rock Engravings of the MacDonald River District N.S.W.” which is held in Cultural Collections (709.00113 SIM). This details petroglyphs in Boree track and Mount Yengo districts. The sketches for this publication might also be held in the collection of Sim’s drawings recently donated to the University of Newcastle Cultural Collections
  • Included in the journal articles and in the book is some consideration of the interpretation or meaning of the art.  Ian refers to the work of F. D. McCarthy regularly.
  • Ian also appears to have given evidence to a NSW Committee of Enquiry in 1969. The title of the enquiry is “Differences and Conflicts between Interests of Parks and Conservation Authorities, Scientific Bodies and Mining Companies.”
  • Ian’s notes and records of his archaeological field surveys between 1958 and 1973 seem to have been donated to AIATSIS, as does his recording of Indigenous languages:


Possible Interview Questions:

  • How did he develop his interest in rock art and language?
  • How did he (and his wife) approach recording and documenting the rock art sites?
  • Nature of his discourse and discussion with other researchers at the time e.g., Fred McCarthy?
  • Ongoing interest in art sites – their preservation? New interpretations?
  • How the art was sketched and if the sketches donated to Cultural Collections are those used for publication.
  • His experience in working with Aboriginal communities to document language.
  • His experience and contribution to the New South Wales Committee of Enquiry.




How Did Your Interest in Rock Art Develop?

Interested in rock art sites around the 1950s in the Sydney district through bush-walking – Introduced to Fred McCarthy Australian Museum – Who asked him to do recording work. Results published in Mankind





Fred McCarthy – recording was simple for rock engraving sites, much more complicated and problematic for rock shelters. First sites recorded in the Blue Mountains. Then St Aubins area of the MacDonald Region. Yengo. Publication wishes of Fred McCarthy. What became of his unpublished work?




Respect for Aboriginal Culture in early 1960s?

Fred McCarthy was fighter for greater public awareness, more attention to Aboriginal sites and culture, huge corpus of prehistoric rock art and scandalous that govt had allowed it to be destroyed. Fred McCarthy was a lone voice, there was no status for Aboriginal people or their culture at that time. E.g., at 18:02 They’re A Weird Mob with Nino building his home on the site of an Aboriginal engraving site.




Aboriginal People?

Most of I.S. work done without any Aboriginal involvement or advice. He met Aboriginal people through happenstance. No interest in fieldwork. Aboriginal culture to White society was just as important as Aboriginal people were to White society, at that time, very little. The early records of Europeans were not impressed with quality of work, and answers to questions were met with “we don’t know who made them or why” but understood as being created for some ritual purpose, but no detail was forthcoming. [Fred McCarthy moves to AIATSIS in 1964]



[From Dr Greg Blyton] Who made them? Occupancy at time? Top end Aboriginal people said they did not know who made them, made by other cultures?

I.S. does not indulge in speculation, Aboriginal people’s answer was they did not know, and had no information as to who did. It was seen as “bad manners” to talk of things “not your business” (33:40)




[From Garry Jones] Nature of images, are they are pictorial art language of sorts?

I.S. only records what is there, there are strange images, eg. Puttikan (42:35) Age? Not very old, perhaps a couple of hundred years perhaps due to nature of sandstone. Boree Track is not Mecca of Rock Art, as there are sites in the Sydney region teeming with examples. Burragurra meaning? (57:42) Important to understand distinction between thing, e.g., a mountain, and a place. Burra means “large rock” and is applicable to many places. Discussions of language. Did Aborigines have specific names for places (GDG) Yes. Nature of creation of Boree track engravings created by travellers coming up from the Hawkesbury, to the MacDonald and into the Wollombi Valley. (1:08:15) Garry reminds Ian of account of Ainsley Bailey’s mother, on Fernances homestead at the Southern end of the Boree Track. Recalls in the 1880s the Aboriginal people (around 20 or so) that camped near them. The had long hair, shiny skin, they dug holes in the sand of the river and lined it with grasses and slept there. Then up they went to the Boree Track.



1:11:45 Ian Sim meets Uncle Bill Smith during a short break


1:15:00 Discussion of  archives records, importance of rock art documentation, recording condition over time. Strange things (1:16:53)




What has changed with the site recordings over the years?

Land Rights Act came in, 1970s more professionals started to come through, Aboriginal people started to assert their authority. Some Aboriginal groups complained in the 1970s and work came to a halt.  Q. Any unpublished work? Yes. Hundreds of site recordings languish in the Sim Collection in the State Archives. How much relates to Hunter Region? All of it.  (1:21:03-1:25) Work is now in archives, not public. Material originally given to the National Parks and Wildlife Service.




Aboriginal Map sites? Astronomical?

Astronomical is new trend in interpretation. Aboriginal people always provided guides for all travellers going through land, so they didn’t need “maps” they knew the land very well. It would be grossly underestimating the Aboriginal knowledge of the land by referring to places as “map sites” Garry Jones then asks qualifier regarding emu tracks? I.S. They were reproducing a story in the “dreamtime”. (1:40:03) Why engrave? (1:42:00) Spiritual being are “eternal”. Discussion with respect to modern politics, reburial of objects, birthplace of “eternals” etc. Uncle Bill speaks.



[Dr Greg Blyton] Isabel McBride work, Val Attendbro, Age of Art? Response – few hundred years old.




Aboriginal informants?

I.S. biggest influence was Harry Kelly from Yellow Rock Urunga. He was an initiated man to the third level. His second marriage was to Pearl Harvey of Bellegen. Sim met Kelly around the age of 10 and knew him until his death in his 80s. Harry died around 1967? Describes Harry. Discussion for topics for next interview, technical issues with regards to recordings etc.


Interview with Ian McHutchison Sim  – 28/11/2019


Topics for further investigation:

  • More on his Aboriginal mentor, friends and colleagues –
    • Harry Kelly of Yellow Rock, Urunga.
    • Bob and Lenny de Silva.
    • Ginny Rose & Willy Willis
    • Vic Shepherd
    • Harry Buchanan (Tiger)
    • People from Belbrook, Nambucca etc
  • The extent of the actual engravings themselves, and the type of figures depicted, along Boree Track
  • His language work.
  • Aboriginal people of Hunter Region
  • His work with F.D. McCarthy,
  • Views of current Aboriginal research etc
  • Other matters of importance



Second interview begins with expansion on Aboriginal people, Harry Kelly.

Met him through Jim Raw, Englishman, who had been a cabin boy and jumped ship in Coffs Harbour. Jim had been a great friend to the local Aboriginal people, and some of the stories he heard originally came from “Jimmy Raw”, and eventually introduced him to Harry Kelly.

Harry Kelly born around 1880, died around 1968, and knew him from 1940.

What is a triple initiated man? Initiation, First is preliminary stage, young boys at Bellbrook. He was born in Bowraville, so he was a Dunghutti man.

He went through second initiation, known as the “main event” at 15 years, and joined the ranks for the male adults.

He had a second marriage to a woman from Belligen, the Gumbaynggir  people and married over to next language group. They put him through another initiation, the third stage, in the Urunga area at Valla.

Could he speak of these things? He could talk generalities, but not free to talk about the contents of a process and what the process meant. Initiation could be spoken of as a public event. The early ones especially, can be talked about, but only in a very general way. They referred to it by the names of the various levels, induction rituals, likened moreso to schools and universities. Very strong learning process involved, and are the triggers to learning processes. All graded from small children to middle aged men. Very sophisticated, and determined whether you were an “Oxford” or “Cambridge” man. Process of evaluation and training. Schooled in a certain way that is subtly different to one another, brought up through one school or another until the 3rd and 4th stage where the process comes under one strand again. How many? 4 stages on north coast. 5 in the outer west. But more senior men in the higher stages were the first to go, and no longer around following the impact of white civilisation.

Lycett painting. Tooth evulsion. Scarifying. Bodies are marked in some way to record their qualifications and their graduation at the various stages. Scaring on the chest, back, arm, tooth evulsion (people he know never referred to it, but it well documented). Harry Kelly described the process of tattooing with fire which had the effect in addition to scarring. Designed to record that this was a qualified person, instead of a chart on the wall, he carried the marks on his body. Q. regarding sophisticated language associated with men of higher degree or women. Only names of things associated with secret lives of men, and sign language which was universal.



“Job Description” of Initiated Man.

Duty? Governance and decision making on behalf of society.

Q. What happened to boys that weren’t up to scratch? A. If for some reason they failed, they were given a chance to do it again, but if unable to be initiated they remained as a “boy” and ever became a man.

Q. Transgressions? What if they went with the wrong woman? Death, but in reality probably exiled. Trangressors left and lived outside society. Relationship between men and women. Sex is not responsible for procreation. It is a matter of the woman and the spirits.

How Harry Kelly saw himself and the older traditional Aboriginal people that taught him.

They had been exposed to 100 or so years of White man’s world view, can’t say if all views were adopted by Aboriginal people. Distinction between white man’s and black man’s so called religion. Harry always made clear distinctions between both. Most important to keep clear in modern world. He was nearest to what you would describe as embodying “traditional values”. Always said that he was also “partially white”. The people he grew up with were very different to him, very difficult to explain. Spent much of his life learning about the old people from the old people, who had preceded the arrival of the whites. Harry was a man in-between worlds. He was very highly regarded by white and blacks, and strictly enforced and adhered to the injunctions that had been laid on him at initiation.

Names of peoples authentic? He originally named a Dunghutti girl in Kempsey, but later married a second time to a woman in Gumbaynggir. So the names were authentic. What do the names mean? They are the names of a language or language groups.



Threlkeld’s name for Newcastle, and its people. Mulubinba.

Bora Grounds. Marked trees. Names of actual initiation. Public ceremonies. Clever men? Harry Kelly knew a lot about them. Magicians? No, that’s fantasy stuff, these were men of extraordinary powers. Was Harry a clever man? A boy could not ask a man such a question, but he could know about the functions of the clevermen, the collegiality, where they went to go and commune with the spirits. He could speak in generalities, but no details. Names of spiritual beings?



Pointing the bone – catching a man’s spirit – bringing him under control – Sim lived with a man who trained as a doctor in the west, and described process (as it was gone through) – in the culmination, the man’s spirit has been drawn from his body into the bone, and you can see a mark on the bone to see that 100% has been drawn. Destroy the bone and he’s finished “balou”.



GDG views Sim as conduit between Traditional Aboriginal world view (Harry Kelly) – discussion of Brian Laut views – story of Tiddalik, says he was present with Perc Haslam when he named the frog shaped rock. Baiame Cave at Milbrodale – Brian believes perhaps he is a warrior hero, not all seeing creator. Sim discusses representation of Baiaime. Harry Kelly’s views and views of him as authenticity



Did Harry Kelly see a future for Aboriginal culture? (These are Ian’s views) He taught none of his own family. His last remaining son, is a man of Sim’s age. He said to Sim that he taught us nothing. Kelly’s generation had decided that there was no point in deliberately attempting to inform their own children. It had been a great disadvantage to them, and therefore a big disadvantage to them. He had four sons. Sure, they knew a few things, but if asked any searching questions about Aboriginal world views, beliefs, etc, they knew little. Kelly had carried a great burden of knowledge that had nowhere to go. Kelly’s views on places, without going into details or explicit terms on what had gone on there.



Other people Bob Lenny De Silva, Willy Willis of a calibre to Harry Kelly etc. Yes. Willy knowledge was different, he hadn’t been through the law as Harry had. Legal considerations interfered with his education. Mother took boy and left her own country. He spent the rest of his life learning what he could of traditional aboriginal life, spoke his language quite fluently.



Back to Harry not passing down knowledge to children. (This is Ian’s interpretation of the situation) Assessment of boys, by the older men. They fostered natural talent, whatever it was for, and fostered specialisations in various things. Traditionally, it wasn’t the father, but the mother’s brother (the uncle) that did the training. Harry Kelly would say that “these young fellows (including his sons) know nothing).



Revitalisation of Aboriginal Culture in the 1970s? people like Harry would have said that: in Harry Buchanan’s words “These are people trying to dig up the bones of the dead.” More on Harry Buchanan, as “last man standing” who could speak the language. But didn’t know much about traditional Aboriginal life.



Language work etc words of Harry Kelly talking locally, does not mean nationally. What has survived, northern. Threlkeld’s work. Opinion of language work done here. Meaning of words. Mulubin. Yiranali. Whibayganba. Nature of Aboriginal language as a “song”



Place-names. Port Stephens. Discussion of place-names. Every thing has a place-name. They named districts, specific mountains, on the north coast places denoting spirit ownership of land. Land owned by humans and land owned by spirit beings.



Languages. Sim learnt Dunghutti, Gumbaynggir from Harry. Then out west learnt language that was a sub group of Gomeroi. People were closer to the bush than people on coast were.



View of traditional Aboriginal men such as Harry Kelly. Aboriginal people saw potential in young people. Nature of spirit world and concept of history? One of the four basic tenets of Aboriginal belief are the spiritual, that is right here. What were the other foundations? The dream time creation of the Universe (and a lot to do with Aboriginal place-names), the classification system that works across and between human and things, and the human life cycle, the spirit incarnation into matter and back again.



Did Harry say anything about the sites Sim documented. He passed on the simple information. E.g., hands were simply a record of men/people who had been there, like a signature register. Harry took him to sites that a one time would have been only visited by initiated men. At Yellow Rock, he lived near (1km) away from the Yellow Rock Bora Ground, but was not allowed to visit it, and never did. The two warning trees were cut down by a curio hunter and a white man bought the property the bora ground was on, and the bull dozers swept everything away. He was aghast when he was told what he had done. The process of bora. It was like a circus. Two circles together at the public site. The private site is half a km away in a quiet spot. Threlkeld’s work. “Ba” means “place of”, or “time of”.



Place names



Boree Track



Theory that sites were completed in a state of contemplation. What drew Ian Sim to do this work? Great interest in documenting the sites. Interest in Aboriginal art is a flow on from learning about the complexities of Aboriginal…older Aboriginal people who embodied genuine Aboriginal knowledge, and what Sim was able to absorb led him to continue to be interested in Aboriginal culture. Artistic verses other ways of being interested in this work.



Gosford site at Kariong, site with many engravings. People who lived around the salt water, Kariong was on one of the two routes that were travelled to get to Brisbane water from further west. As with the Boree Track, you will find more sites along it, with the travel of people. (This is Sim’s speculation) Kariong is a word for “ear” in the coastal language. Whatever led them to draw these pictures, they drew them. The salt water as a source of food has had a great deal to do with the occurrence of rock art. Daruk Park, the flat rocks, huge number of Aboriginal engravings, are concentrated on a track which use to go from Mangrove Creek to the MacDonald River; which was subsequently exploited by white people. McCarthy subscribed to the theory that places like flat rocks and Somersby, were places that the low lying Aboriginals went to carry out their ceremonies, and the engravings are the results of that. That may have been true, but they did it on the course of travel, and so both applied. (This is also speculation) It is impossible to understand what the original scenario was.



Engravings as rough or smooth. MacDonald River – smooth engravings were important engravings by the rubbing. Sim agrees with McCarthy, then Elkin. Traditional Aboriginal practice is to go over it, rubbing. However none of them showed evidence of having been retraced. So therefore, according to their theories, none of this art was important (or able to be done following the arrival of white Europeans). Cave Art sites have been gone over. But in the case of the MacDonald, they look as though they were done with a rough groove, and never touched again. That’s not to say they weren’t consulted. Sim has seen plenty sites where grooves have been smoothed by rerubbing, and gone over and over to such an extent of a groove about 100mm wide. But not in the case of the MacDonald River series.



Age of engravings? Sim believes they can only be a few hundred years. Discussion of physical surface of sandstone. Natural influences, such as rain. Sandstone is a very soft rock, which erodes at quite a significant rate. Example of engravings recorded in 1890 and by 1960 were completely gone, not a trace. Some may last a thousand years. Engravings recorded by Luff, recorded at night, that could not be seen in daylight. The practice has existed for thousands of years, but Sim does not believe that the ones that are visible today are that age. But engravings on granite in Europe are a different matter.



Advice for people researching Aboriginal Culture. No suggestion. Older Aboriginal people had a tremendous influence on Sim, but cannot be put to any use due to the “political football” it has become.



Harry Kelly


22 Jun 1879
Bowraville, Nambucca Shire, New South Wales, Australia


25 Jul 1967 (aged 88)
Bellingen, Bellingen Shire, New South Wales, Australia


Urunga Cemetery
Urunga, Bellingen Shire, New South Wales, Australia


Grave Place: Row; D, Plot: 24, Headstone: Yes; Religion: Roman Catholic


2 thoughts on “Interview with Ian McHutchison Sim (2019)

  1. Thank you for conducting these interviews with Ian Sim. Sadly Mr Sim died on 23 September 2021. The interviews now become an important record of one of the greats in his field of recording Aboriginal sites, stories and language. I was fortunate to have met him in 2014 and enjoyed regular phone conversations with him since then. Considering his achievements and the broad depth of his knowledge, he was remarkably humble about it, and very kind in the way he was willing to share his knowledge.

    Are the audio recordings of his responses available? And if so how might I access them.

    Thanks again, Bruce Howell

    P.S. Please note that Mr Sim’s middle name was ‘McHutchison’ not ‘McHutchinson’.

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