Yirannali (Yi-ran-na-li) “sort of sacred place near Newcastle on the sea-beach, beneath a high cliff”

Panorama of Yirannali ( South Newcastle Beach, Newcastle - Australia)
Yirannali ( South Newcastle Beach, Newcastle – Australia)

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


Yirannali is the First Nations Aboriginal name of the cliffs and beach shore areas of South Newcastle Beach, New South Wales (Australia).

Yirannali Cliff Face (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali Cliff Face (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)

Where Does The Word ‘Yirannali’ Come From?


The primary historical source on Yirannali is provided within the works of the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld (1788-1859).

Threlkeld was an English missionary who arrived in Newcastle in 1824/1825 to create the first Aboriginal Mission here. He soon befriended an Aboriginal man, M’Gill, also known as Biraban, and together they recorded and systematically documented the first Aboriginal language in Australia.

The original source for Threlkeld’s record of Yirannali came from his friend and tutor Biraban. Learn more about their friendship here.

Yirannali Altar Rock Formation (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali Altar Rock Formation (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)


“Yi-rán-ná-lai, The name of a place near Newcastle on the sea beach, beneath a high cliff, where, it is said, that if any persons speak, the stones fall down from the high arched rocks above, the crumbling state of which is such as to render it extremely probable, that the concussions of air from the voice causes the effect to take place; which once occurred to myself, after being warned, in company with some blacks” – From Threlkeld’s An Australian Grammar (1834) p.84

Yirannali (Photographed by Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali (Photographed by Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)

“There is a sort of sacred place near Newcastle on the sea-beach, beneath a high cliff, named Yi-ran-na-li, where, it is said, that if any person speak, the stones will fall down upon them, from the high arched rocks above, the crumbling state of which is such as to render it extremely probable, that the mere concussion of air from the voice would cause the effect to take place. I was once walking beneath the projecting rock and called loudly to M’Gill, who with other blacks, were with me, he instantly beckoned me to be silent, at which I wondered, a few small stones fell down from the crumbling overshadowing cliff at that moment, and they urged me on. When we had passed out of the precincts of the fearful place, I asked what they meant by commanding my silence, and pushing on so quickly, without speaking? This elicited the tradition of the place as being a very fearful one, for if anyone speak whilst passing beneath the overhanging rocks, stones would invariably fall as we had just witnessed.” – From the Christian Herald, 17th February 1855, Vol.III pp.5-6 [Reprinted in Gunson (1974) p.65]


When did Threlkeld experience Yirannali?

The date of the Yirannali experience as referenced by Threlkeld might have been sometime between 1825 and 1826, when he was in Newcastle.  At least up until 21st September 1826 when he and his family and the local Aboriginals (who chose to) moved to the mission house that was built at a site called by the natives “Biddobar“, on the eastern side of Lake Macquarie.

He published the first account of the name Yi-rán-ná-lai in 1834. So, sometime between 1825 and 1826 would be the best bet.

According to his journal, Threlkeld did take a walking trip to “Red head” on Saturday 12 March 1825 to view Reid’s Mistake (now Lake Maquarie) from afar, prior to an actual visit there on the 14 March 1825 with the Reverend George Augustus Middleton and natives.

It may have been on the return of either of these trips which may have been the occasion, when he experienced the rock fall. However he doesn’t record anything happening there in his journal. (Transcribed by Gunson 1974)

“Saturday 12 March
The Lord Liverpool packet from Sydney arrived having Captain Allman and family on board. He takes the charge of Commandant of Newcastle. Two other small Government vessels put in, one in distress. The rain cleared off at about 1 Oclock when we proposed to walk as far as we could to have some view though but distant of Reid’s Mistake. Lieu’. Owen accompanied us, we went about 9 miles to a place some distance beyond a Mountain called Red head. The walk was very fatiguing as we had to travel over a very rocky part of the sea shore one part, and a deep sand the other part on the level, and steep hills to encounter before we got to the place proposed to visit. At length we were gratified with a very extensive view of Macquarie Lake. In appearance about 5 or 6 miles off we judged it to be full 16 miles long having a bar of sand at the entrance from the sea allowing 4 feet water only for boats to enter. The Sugar loaf a large Mountain forms a western boundary but the land is generally very indifferent. Three days would hardly be a sufficient time to perambulate the vast cove or Lake. We saw a large lagoon which was literally covered with wild geese and a water fowl called Redbills. The natives took our guns and shot swan, three of which they secured; when the flock arose, the place had the appearance, as to numbers, of a well stocked rookery. We returned in the evening completely wet being overtaken with the rain which fell in torrents. Kangaroos were very abundant from the numberless tracks we saw of them.” – Gunson (1974) p.86

14 March

The Revd. G. A. Middleton accompanied us on our journey to Reid’s Mistake. We had but two horses between three persons. We were accompanied by some natives. We walked about three or four hours when we had a fine view of part of the bay. The situation appears very eligible for a native settlement; there is abundance of fish and wild animals, tl1is will tend to localize the natives. There were a few natives not more than twenty on the spot who appeared pleased with the Idea of my settling among them. Their appearance is most disgusting. Massa when you come? how many moons? one finger was up, two fingers were up as an enquiry. Two moons were to die they were given to understand and then Massa would come and stop with them. Indeed my three dear little girls being expected daily from the Islands is the only reason of not embarking immediately. It is impossible to choose a spot until a more particular examination takes place: this part is too swampy and too difficult to arrive at to form the settlement here. When I remove to Newcastle a more close scrutiny can take place.” – Transcribed by Gunson (1974) p.87

Another occasion may have been the 26 May 1825, again no mention is recorded of Yirannali:

26 May

Went out this day to Reid’s Mistake to a place called Bad debah; we were 4 hours ½ going out and 3½ returning. We found it very difficult in going there but not so much so on our return; apprehend that it is possible and but barely so to get a cart out that way. On my return in crossing a creek my horse plunged in an unperceived hole and threw me off on the apposite side but providentially without any hurt although in recovering himself he came nearly over me. The situation appears very suitable as it respects water but the land is so marshy and hilly together with the necessity of making at least three bridges over creeks to get at the place that if another more suitable could be found it would be better – It is a most perplexing thing to decide on the precise spot for the missionary station – when a road is found the choice will not be so difficult. – Transcribed by Gunson (1974) p.89


Yirannali Strata (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali Strata (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)

In my opinion Yirannali has always meant the cliff and surrounds on the beach. Obviously the beach front contains the rocks that have fallen from the cliff face, hence its importance, especially to the story of its being a quiet place of fearful awe and respect for such rocky places.

Further research needs to be done with regards to the language and the word roots and sounds, as a key to understanding the concept dreaming within the story.

Yirannali Textures (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali Textures (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)

Here are a number of recorded words and meanings (provided by Threlkeld, under the tutorship of Biraban) using the same Yi-ra or Yi-ir sound:

Threlkeld discusses a wooden sword called a Yir-ra (see Threlkeld (1834) p.93 and Gunson (1974) p.68): “The aborigines of N.S.W. had formerly an instrument of warfare called Yir-ra, in reality, a very simple wooden sword.”

Yirannali Views (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali Views (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)

Threlkeld also says that the name of initiated males who had their teeth knocked out were known as “Yi-ra-bai” (Threlkeld 1834 p.94). On p. 104 of the same work he records the following words:

Yi-ir-kul-li-ko, To tear of itself, as cloth, bread, to break.

Yi-ir-ka-bun-bil-li-ko, To permit to tear, to let tear.

Yi-ir-bur-ril-li-ko, To tear by means of something.

Yi-ir-bur-ri-bun, bil-li-ko, To permit to tear, by means, &c.

Yi-ir-bung-ngul-li-ko, To compel to tear.

Yi-ir-bung-nga-bun-bil-li-ko, To permit, compulsively to tear.

The Yi-ra or Yi-ir sounding words all relate to a cleaving or tearing of one thing from another, from the sword that does the cleaving, to the initiate who has been severed from his mother and is now an initiated male, to things being torn from one another.

So in my understanding, this is very much in keeping with a cliff face tearing from itself and falling upon the beach, hence the possible origin of the name.

Yirannali Rock Pool (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali Rock Pool (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)


See Hunter Living Histories (Dreaming)

The Lives & Language Work of Biraban and Threlkeld

(Threlkeld 1827) Threlkeld, L. E. (Lancelot Edward), 1788-1859. Specimens of a Dialect of the Aborigines of New South Wales; Being the first attempt to form their speech into a written language. Sydney: Printed at the Monitor Office, 1827.

(Threlkeld 1834) Threlkeld, L. E. (Lancelot Edward), 1788-1859. An Australian grammar : comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales / by L.E. Threlkeld. Sydney : Printed by Stephens and Stokes, 1834.

(Threlkeld 1850) Threlkeld, L. E. (Lancelot Edward), 1788-1859. A key to the structure of the Aboriginal language : being an analysis of the particles used as affixes, to form the various modifications of the verbs : shewing the essential powers, abstract roots, and other peculiarities of the language spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter River, Lake Macquarie, etc., New South Wales : together with comparisons of Polynesian and other dialects. Sydney : Printed by Kemp and Fairfax, 1850. (4.60 MB PDF) [University of Newcastle Rare Books: 499.15 THRE-1]

(Gunson 1974) Threlkeld, L.E. Australian Reminiscences & Papers of L.E.Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859. 2 vols, ed. Niel Gunson. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1974.

(Brayshaw 1986) Brayshaw, Helen. Aborigines of the Hunter Valley : a study of colonial records. Scone, N.S.W. : Scone & Upper Hunter Historical Society, 1986. [9 MB PDF file] [Courtesy of Dr Helen Brayshaw]

Yirannali Rock Platform (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)
Yirannali Rock Platform (Photo: Gionni Di Gravio 18 September 2020)

Yirannali Inspirations

[Newcastle South Beach, Newcastle, NSW, 1887/9]

[South Newcastle Beach, Newcastle, N.S.W., 1887-1889] by Ralph Snowball and the image below show that the area was frequented by many beach goers, with a Cliff Walk established with fencing along the cliff face. I remember seeing similar images, with people negotiating the same walk, but with rocks and damaged fencing in their way.

Cliff Walk, Newcastle

The Shortland Esplanade was established along the base of Yirannali leading up to King Edward Park.

View of Newcastle Beach towards King Edward Park from the Royal Newcastle Hospital (n.d.)

By 2001, calls to have Yirannali, as well as other landmarks recognised with dual names, was beginning to gain traction.

Yirannali’s Last Stand

Rock Fall Newcastle October 2002

Photo Credit: Chris Champion. Rock Fall Newcastle October 2002.

On the 28 October 2002 at about 6am, a 20-tonne rock fell 15 metres onto the Shortland Esplanade, only minutes after a security guard had driven past the spot. It left a hole one-metre deep and 3 metres wide and a 10-metre long crack on either side. (NH 29/10/2005 p.5)

The rock remained while waves of public agitation and rising costs and frustrations rose around it.  By 2004, the “rock” had become an possible contender for Newcastle’s own big banana, pineapple or prawn, as an icon of civil incompetence and cost blow outs, some estimated that it would wind up costing millions to remove and stabilise the cliffs. The following examples from the Newcastle Herald illustrate the public mood at the time:

Monolithic ideas for a great city

SCOTLAND has the Stone of Scone; Ireland the Blarney Stone; now Newcastle looks set to have the Stone of Stupidity.

I suggest we placate the residents of Salt Ash by allowing the RAAF to use the rock for target practice. A few 500kg bombs would soon solve the problem and we could kill two birds with one stone by strapping the members of Newcastle City Council to the target.

If, God forbid, this rock project goes ahead, residents of outer suburbs will have more ammunition in the rate debate: clearly those inner-city silvertails should pay higher rates if they get to enjoy such fine amenities as, well, a rock.

Scott Hillard
Hamilton South
October 28 2004 (NH 29/10/2004 p.10)

NEWCASTLE’S Rather Large Rock had its second birthday last week but it seems that no one was celebrating.

The Herald continues to receive calls and letters from angry residents calling for the 20-tonne boulder to be removed and the celebrated Bathers Way Walk to be opened for the first time since 2002.

Newcastle councillor Aaron Buman (independent) said he was berated often over the situation and the time it was taking to find a solution.

“It’s humiliating,” he said. “People think we are stupid enough as it is.

“The public is in uproar.” – 1/11/2004 Newcastle Herald p.15


Yi-ran-na-li … The Stone Speaks to Us

Glenn Albrecht 2004

(Published in the Newcastle Herald, 17 November 2004 p.9)

About 180 years ago while walking on Newcastle Beach; the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld was in animated conversation with M’Gill, leader of the local Awabakal tribe when he was told by M’Gill to be silent. M’Gill was concerned that the very spot where they were standing was a “sort of sacred place” where the human voice must be kept quiet for fear that stones would fall down from the cliff face above them. This place, called by the Awabakal people Yi-ran-na-li, was one that was feared by the Awabakal people.

Threlkeld actually observed a few stones falling down the cliff face at that moment and immediately put a western scientific explanation to work to explain the fear of M’Gill. The raised human voice acts as a percussive force and was capable of causing rocks that were unstable in the eroding rock face to fall and possibly hurt or kill those under the cliff. Over the years the Awabakal people had observed this phenomenon and had built a cultural belief that this place was to be feared and respected. It was better to move on and leave Yi-ran-na-li alone and resume conversation at a distance.

As the Awabakal people were removed from the vicinity of Newcastle the development of the beach front was undertaken by the new colonisers. In particular, roads and structures were built directly under the cliff faces at Newcastle Beach. I first became aware of the possibility that Yi-ran-na-li was resisting such development from the new people at Newcastle when the old surf club was closed (a murder in the change rooms?) and the car park turned into a kids skate board park. The endless procession of cars and motor bikes along the road directly under Yi-ran-na-li all added to the insults.

While I have nothing against skate boards nothing could be more confronting to Yi-ran-na-li than all those percussive forces and shrill youthful voices that pounded the earth and yelled back to the cliff. Larger and larger rocks began to fall from the cliff to the road. Yi-ran-na-li was fighting back.

The most recent rock (2004) to fall perhaps marks Yi-ran-na-li’s final stand. It is a rock so large that we cannot ignore it. The rock is a statement about our failure to live within the constraints and sensitivities of place. This failure is expressed in so many ways; our failure to build and design sympathetic to place, the assault of the car addicts and their addiction to noise and the innocent kids who know nothing about environmental history and see the environment as their playground.

We can learn from the rock. The stones speak to us with a wisdom that is thousands of years old. M’Gill and the Awabakal knew this stone wisdom and tried to pass it on to us. We failed to listen to them, just as we failed to learn from them about so many other aspects of an endemic sense of place. It is not too late for reconciliation and to restore the place name of Yi-ran-na-li and the respect the place deserves. Whatever we do with the rock, we should make sure that M’Gill’s environmental education is available to all and that our sense of place includes his wisdom.


By 2006 the rock had been moved, and the work of stabilising the cliffs begun providing enough of a contrast of perspectives to the natural world as experienced by the Aboriginal people, and we as the modern inheritor custodians and inhabitants of this area should ponder upon.

The Aboriginal view was one of fear and respect for the dangerous aspects of the natural landform’s geology. Our modern approach appears to blow it apart, for the sake of wrapping ourselves in cotton wool. What we have done to the site is a sacrilege to this Aboriginal landscape.

Newcastle Geotrail (2022)

Click to access newcastle-geotrail-brochure-access.pdf

UON Master of Architecture Concept

Waking a Consciousness – Self Interpretation of the Surroundings by Jack Gillmer


2023 NAIDOC Week Hunter Living Histories Hot Topic Discussion
Yirannali: The Quiet Project

Yirannali: The Quiet Project

NAIDOC Week – Hunter Living Histories – Showcase 3 July 2023

Gionni Di Gravio, OAM
University Archivist, Chair Hunter Living Histories

One thought on “Yirannali (Yi-ran-na-li) “sort of sacred place near Newcastle on the sea-beach, beneath a high cliff”

Leave a Reply