Learning of the land (3): Tuggeranong, Queanbeyan, and other Canberra place names

Living in Canberra, I am encountering a whole collection of indigenous words which are used as placenames. Why, Canberra itself is said to derive from an Aboriginal word. I have been exploring what these words mean, in my ongoing commitment to learn from the land on which I live and the people who have cared for it over the millennia.

The land on which we live is officially described as Ngunnawal country. However, this is contested; it seem there are a number of groups from the First People who are linked with this particular area. That makes sense, if it was, indeed, an ancient meeting place for various groups of people, who met each other on this land on regular occasions, perhaps at an annual festival gathering. Rather than there being just one nation for whom this was traditional land, it seems there were a number of nations which met here regularly.

I have encountered claims about the land being inhabited, or visited, by various peoples: primarily, the Ngunnawal, from the Southern Highlands to the north of the Molonglo River; the Ngarigo, from the Monaro Plateau to its south; and the Walgalgu, from the Tumut Valley to the west and south. I have already blogged something about this at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/12/18/learning-of-the-land-2-ngunnawal-namadgi-and-ngarigo/

Some also refer to the Ngambri, of the Limestone Plains (the area on which central Canberra sits today), seen by some as a clan within Ngunnawal; and others refer to the Namadgi peoples, a group inhabiting the high country to the west of modern-day Canberra (the area is gazetted as the Namadgi National Park). There are also suggestions that some from the Wiradjuri people from the Central West participated in these regional gatherings.

Elizabeth and I live in the Tuggeranong Valley, south of the river. The name Tuggeranong is derived from a Ngunnawal expression meaning cold place. From the earliest colonial times, the plain extending south into the centre of the present-day territory was referred to as Tuggeranong. I understand there is a rock shelter which dates Ngunnawal activity here at 20,000 years ago into the last Ice Age. They may have lived here much longer than that, possibly 60,000 or more years.

20,000 years ago is about the time of the coldest period of the Ice Age (Pleistocene). The name Tuggeranong, it is said, reflects the snow which would have covered the valley for much of the winter, with icy streams and cold winds blown from a glacier near Mt Kosziusko. Gradually, as the climate changed, the winters became less severe, with the people hunting animals and catching fish in this area.

Certainly, Bogong Moths became an important source of food in summer, so the Ngunnawal people gathered in great numbers for the arrival of the moths and it was a time of feasting and ceremonies. (I have been reading the work of Dr Josephine Flood in this regard; there’s a brief summary of her views at https://pateblog.nma.gov.au/2017/03/22/moth-man-prophecies-reflections-from-the-field/)

To the west of where we live, we can see the line of mountains that form the Brindabella Ranges. The name Brindabella is said to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning two kangaroo rats. It is the name associated with the beautiful mountain range which runs along the southwestern horizon of Canberra. Alternatively, another account states that brindy brindy was a local term meaning water running over rocks, to which “bella” was presumably added by the Europeans as in “bella vista”.

The traditional custodians of the area now known as the Brindabella Valley, across “the border” in New South Wales to the west of the range, was first settled by Europeans as a stock outstation in the 1830s. Gold was found in 1860 and mined from the 1880s. Today, there are small cattle farms throughout the valley, as well as the heritage-listed Brindabella Station, the childhood home of the early 20th-century Australian author, Miles Franklin.

In those Brindabella Ranges, there is an area called Tidbinbilla, with a small nature reserve about 20kms west of where we live. This name is said to derive from an Aboriginal word Jedbinbilla, meaning a place where boys become men. It is claimed that the last corroboree, an Aboriginal dance ceremony, was held at Tidbinbilla in around 1904.

A little over 2km from where we live, the Murrumbidgee River winds its way through the countryside at the base of the Brindabellas. The word Murrumbidgee means big water in the Wiradjuri language, which is where much of the river lies. The river itself flows through several traditional Indigenous Australian lands, over the course of about 1,500km. In the Australian Capital Territory, the river is bordered by a narrow strip of land on each side, with nature reserves, recreation reserves, a conservation zone and rural leases.

As the river flows through the Australian Capital Territory, it picks up the tributaries of the Gudgenby, Queanbeyan, Molonglo and Cotter rivers. The Murrumbidgee drains much of southern New South Wales and all of the Australian Capital Territory, and is an important source of irrigation water for the Riverina farming area.

The Molongolo River actually provides the key geographical feature for modern Canberra. About 20km north from where we live, the Scrivener Dam (built in 1964) has banked up the water flow to create Lake Burley Griffin, at the heart of the city. The river continues on to join the Murrumbidgee River at Uriarra Crossing, further to the west. It is about 115km in length. The word Molongolo is derived, it is claimed, from an Aboriginal word meaning like the sound of thunder.

This year, I am serving in ministry with the congregation at Queanbeyan, which is an old township, long predating Canberra, by the banks of the Queanbeyan River. The word Queanbeyan is said to be the anglicised form of Quinbean, a Ngarigo word meaning clear waters. The Queanbeyan River is 104 kilometres in length and, along with the Cotter River, it provides much of the drinking water for Canberra and Queanbeyan.

In my own family history, the name Ginninderra features. 181 years ago, my Scottish greatgreatgreat-grandparents, Andrew and Elizabeth Wotherspoon, came as immigrants to the colony. In 1850, Andrew became the second school teacher in Canberra, at the St John the Baptist Anglican Church, and in 1859 he opened a school at Ginninderra, whilst also running a sheep station there.

The name Ginninderra is claimed to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning sparkling like the stars. It is the name given to the creek that flows through the middle of Belconnen, which was dammed to form Lake Ginninderra, the lake beside which the Belconnen Town Centre is sited. Earliest written references to the area use the spelling Ginninginderry; the version Ginninderra came into general use later in the century.

Belconnen is the name given to the north-western section of Canberra. The word is said to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning beautiful place. It was the name given to the land granted to the explorer Charles Sturt in 1835.

To the northeast of the city is Gungahlin, from an Aboriginal word which is said to mean white man’s house. Another version is that Gungahlin derived its name from an Aboriginal woman who used to repeat the word over and over, and as far as anyone could ascertain it meant wonderful or beautiful. The Gungahlin area is rich in Aboriginal and natural heritage. Several special sites, including five Aboriginal tool making sites, and a clay pit of archaeological significance in the Gungahlin Pond area, have been identified and are preserved and protected by the ACT Government.

Of course, Canberra is known for being the residence of our de facto head of state, the Governor-General, who resides at Yarralumla, from whence he represents the Queen. The word Yarralumla also has an indigenous origin, but of uncertain meaning, it would seem. Henry Donnison was granted this land in 1828; the area was named Yarralumla in a survey of the area conducted in 1834, apparently after the indigenous people’s term for the area.

Canberra is a planned city, built on lands which had been claimed for pastoral runs by the colonising British settlers, but not further developed until it became the site of the national capital in the early 20th century. The word Canberra is popularly claimed to derive from the word Kambera or Canberry, which is claimed to mean meeting place, although there is no clear evidence to support this.

That’s fitting, in a way, since the modern Canberra is the meeting place where representatives from people all across Australia gather, from time to time, to confer together and make laws for the country—and an appreciation of Canberra is shrouded in the mists of ambiguity and uncertainty, at least according to many Australians who live in other places. But learning the meaning of names in our locality is at least an important step that we can all take.


I have consulted various websites about the meanings of these names as noted above. I hope I have accurately reflected what I found there. On the importance of learning the local Aboriginal names, there is a fine interview with Bruce Pascoe at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-21/to-learn-your-country-start-by-learning-its-aboriginal-names/10719890

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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