Saturday, January 15, 2011
The Scots in New Zealand
A Celtic cross on the promenade at Petone, looking over the water to Wellington.
There is much in New Zealand that reminds me of Scotland, the land of my birth.
It can be little, unexpected things, like the smell of the damp wind on top of a treeless mountain; or the sight of old men in baggy woolen sweaters sitting around a fire in a carpeted pub, their wind-reddened faces in animated discussion; or the sudden smell of vinegar as I pass a Fish & Chips shop.
But you don't have to look hard for traces of Scotland in New Zealand. They are everywhere. Fully a third of all emigrants from the hard days of Scotland headed for New Zealand, and by the mid-19th Century Scots made up a quarter of the population of their new home at the edge of the world.
Like many migrants, they left for a myriad of reasons: religious, financial, to flee oppression. An implosion in the Church of Scotland in 1840, caused by resentment of the entrenched system of patronage, spurred a huge exodus. Many headed to Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the South Pacific, and formed the Free Church of Scotland there in 1843.
(Someone asked me the other day why the Scots would have chosen the south of the South Island with all its rain and wind. Wouldn't they have chosen someplace with a nicer climate than home? he asked. The weather would have been precisely the point, and would have made the Scots feel at home. They don't do well with prolonged spells of sunlight. It spoils the sense of pessimism and fries the pale blue skin. Besides, do you think it's an accident that the Norwegians ended up in Minnesota or the Russians in South Dakota? I think not. No, the climate in New Zealand was just the trick.)
Dunedin was in fact founded by the Scots for the Scots. One of the driving forces behind the city was Thomas Burns, nephew of the famous poet Robert Burns. He helped to found the University of Otago, its architecture inspired by the main building of Glasgow University. Locals like to say that, landwise, Dunedin is the largest Scottish city in the world. They also established the first girls' high school in the whole of the British empire.
But it's not just Dunedin or Invercargill that show their Scottish roots. The Scots spread throughout New Zealand. Street names, place names, shop names - the Scottish references are everywhere. You bump into reminders everywhere: a cairn to Scottish settlers in Kaiwharawhara park; little cemeteries and churches. The Scots are part of the fabric of New Zealand.
The influence became diluted fairly quickly - Gaelic didn't survive long at all - as the newcomers and their children became Kiwis first and of Scottish heritage second.
The Te Ara Encyclopedia notes that in many cases, the distinctive features of Scottish settlers were often wiped out in a generation or two, and replaced with a British identity which consisted mostly of English culture.
Still, there are lots of first-generation Scots making the journey to New Zealand and refreshing the old traditions as well as the accent pool. To this day, Scots make the journey because they feel boxed in by their lives at home or the weather or just want a change. Many of the Scots I've met here are retired military or merchant mariners who like the sea-feel of the country.
The Kiwis obviously respect the Scots heritage. The Scottish rugby team has been scheduled to play most of its games in Dunedin or Invercargill. A nice touch.