Book Reviews

Unpacking the Kists: The Scots in New Zealand, by Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon

Landfall Review Online – July 1, 2014

In the nineteenth century John Polson, my maternal great-great-grandfather, downed tools as a cooper in the herring trade in West Helmsdale and said goodbye to his family at their croft in Marrel, a neighbouring village in Sutherlandshire, Highland Scotland, and sailed for New Zealand/Aotearoa. He arrived in Lyttelton in 1862 and sailed on to Port Chalmers. By chance a fellow passenger, contracted to walk a mob of sheep to Morven Hills Station, fell ill during the journey, and John, with apparently little experience in shepherding, manned up for the gig. Perhaps he travelled the Pig Route to the Maniototo Plains, or alternatively on a track the miners took to the goldfields, starting in Outram, West Taieri, on to the Lammermoor Range at Rocklands, and across the Rock and Pillar and over the Knobby Range, descending to cross the Manuherikia River near Alexandra, then on to Tarras and the Lindis Pass to meet John (Jock) McLean, one of the first leaseholders of Morven Hills who, according to John’s grandson Ian Polson, ‘saw his mettle and employed John as a boundary rider on the spot’.

The story was recorded in the family history Kith and Kin – The Story of John and Christina Polson, early Scottish pioneers in the Lindis and Bendigo districts. One suspects Ian (who was interviewed in the 1970s) is pulling the wool over our eyes, but the book’s authors Adair Polson-Genge and Ruth Milmine Polson gave the yarn legs, exploring possible routes for John’s epic journey. And I’ve added a few miles to further fuel the myth because it works as a woolly metaphor – John eventually became head shepherd at Morven Hills, with 130,000 sheep under his care; at its zenith the station was ‘New Zealand’s biggest run, covering over half a million acres from the Lindis Pass down to the Cromwell Gorge and up to Lake Wanaka’, an area approximately the size of Sutherlandshire.

Unpacking The Kists, ‘the first in-depth study of New Zealand’s Scots migrants and their impact on an evolving settler society’, is a wider-ranging beast, a myth-buster derived from the work of academic historians, genealogists and community history societies, harnessed and summarised by Brad Patterson, a former director of Irish-Scottish studies at Victoria University of Wellington; Tom Brooking, professor of history at the University of Otago; and Jim McAloon, associate professor of history at Victoria University of Wellington. The study, with a timeline from 1840 to the 1920s, gathered ‘accurate answers’ to who left Scotland and from what region, and where they settled in New Zealand. Data was analysed from Scottish statistical sources from 1840 to 1880, undertaken by Rosalind McClean for a 1990 University of Edinburgh PhD, and a database prepared for the New Zealand Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s ‘Peopling of New Zealand’ project, and entries in the ‘Register of New Zealand Immigrants of Scottish Birth arriving before 1 January 1921’, compiled by the Scottish Special Interest Group of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.

We learn that the common stereotype of Scots in New Zealand as ‘the traditional Highland image of bagpipes and Highland flings, tartans and claymore-wielding clansmen’ is misleading. ‘Although New Zealand received migrants from all parts of Scotland … the greatest number hailed from the central Lowlands, the counties adjacent to the country’s two greatest nineteenth century cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh.’ In other words, they were mainly ‘improvers in trousers’, rather than refugees from the Highland Clearances, who had largely relocated to other areas in Scotland. We also learn that the Scots settled throughout New Zealand ‘and while Otago was a major focus of Scottish settlement, its immigrant population became less Scottish during the 1860s and the 1870s. The English were a presence from the outset, and both the 1860s gold rushes and the state-funded immigration scheme of the 1870s increased the Irish population in the province.’

It was serendipitous that I received my review copy of the book while in Central Otago researching a project on four mothers, namely Christina, her daughter Christina Flora, her daughter Hazel and her daughter Joy, my mother. I spent my formative years in Alexandra, but until the family histories started appearing in recent times, I knew very little about my Scottish and English ancestry. Christina Flora married Charles Sanders, a son of English folk who arrived in Cromwell via Bendigo, Australia, in 1874. Charles worked on the gold dredges and ended up running a butcher’s shop; he was also a Justice of the Peace, a non-drinker and a non-smoker, and a lay preacher in the Methodist church, serving two terms as mayor of Cromwell. Because my grandmother Hazel, who married Eric Aimers (a descendent of Scottish engineers from Galashiels) talked mostly about her father, who she idolised, I formed the impression that my maternal family were teetotal Protestants, rather than people of English and Scottish ethnicity. But because my mother married a Catholic (initially to her mother’s displeasure) and we attended a Catholic church, and went to a Catholic school, I vaguely aligned our cultural heritage to our father’s Southland Irish roots.

My family’s story is not an uncommon one, and is one summarised in Unpacking The Kists: ‘ … migrants from the various parts of Great Britain and Ireland intermingled, intermarried, and their cultures blended, age old distinctions tended to first diminish, then in many instances to practically disappear. In a sense, by 1900 Pakeha New Zealanders were becoming British in a way that the inhabitants of the British Isles never could because, from the second generation on, the reality was that their lands of origin became an idea rather than a memory … Although by the early 1900s Hogmanay (New Year) remained the annual highlight for Scots, forms of Christmas and Easter, previously eschewed, were also being cautiously celebrated, something still unusual in Scotland at the time.’

Unpacking the Kists rigorously explores the Scottish settlers’ influence on the land, economy, religion, politics, education and folkways, employing case studies to flesh out its findings. It converges with my maternal family’s history in a short profile on the McLean brothers – Allan, John and Robertson – sons of an impecunious tacksman from the Isle of Coll, who made enough money in Australia to jointly operate Morven Hills Station, and when they sold the leasehold Allan and John (who was also a Member of the Legislative Council) purchased freehold estates: Waikakahi in South Canterbury and Redcastle near Oamaru, respectively. Allan died unmarried, leaving an estate valued at £615,000 in 1913, making him the second wealthiest man in New Zealand at the time of his death; John, also a bachelor, died leaving £213,000 to his nephew.

John Polson, described as a hard worker and a quiet person, supposedly returned to Scotland after 12 months at Morven Hills, travelling as far as Australia on a cattle steamer. He arrived back in Lyttelton in 1864 on the Canterbury with his sister Catherine (who met a crew member en route, later marrying him and living a long life on a farm at Seafield, near Ashburton), and two cousins, James and Mina McKenzie. While back in Scotland it is thought John asked Christina Ross, whose family were more affluent than John’s, to join him in New Zealand. Both families were members of the Scottish Free Church in Helmsdale, where Christina (also called Christy) worked as a schoolteacher; evidently she was ‘to marry well, but was let down in love’. In 1866 she walked with her sister Elspeth the 60 miles from Helmsdale to Inverness to board the boat to London, from where she sailed on the clipper The Blue Jacket on July 15 the same year, arriving in Lyttleton on October 14.

Christina was listed as a domestic servant on the passenger register, perhaps to get assisted passenger status; when she married John in 1867, the industrious Scotswoman cited ‘milliner’ as her occupation on their marriage certificate. For the first three years they lived in a remote stone hut on Morven Hills; John was away for days and weeks patrolling the boundaries of the vast run, leaving Christina alone. Their first child Roderick was born there on March 30, 1868, and in winter the following year, their twins William and George were born prematurely, brought on when Christina was chased by a ‘crazy drunk man’, thought to be a goldminer camped further up the valley – one of the twins died within hours of birth, the other three days later. Snow was thick on the ground, which was frozen hard, and the boys were kept above the turf until it thawed and they could be buried.

When John was made head shepherd, the family moved to the station house, where Jock McLean resided, and Christina was employed as housekeeper. The McLean brothers were away much of the time taking care of their other business interests. Christina’s responsibilities were substantial – ordering supplies from Dunedin (the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh) and feeding shearers and the stonemasons employed to build the huge woolshed. She was also busy looking after and giving birth to children: James (who was born with a club foot and died, aged 10, as a result of being kicked in the head by a horse) in 1870, Christina Flora in 1872, Annie in 1874, Catherine (Kitty) in 1876 and Rose in 1879. When the McLeans sold the station lease, John and Christina purchased a small farm in Bendigo on which they built a cob cottage where John (Jack) was born in 1881. The children were educated at the Bendigo School, and the family attended the Bendigo Presbyterian Church. Christina taught her girls needlework and Christina Flora and Annie later worked as dressmakers in Dunedin.

John was said to be ‘no farmer’, and that ‘he knew his place the world’.  He left the family to go back to shepherding, leaving his teenage son Roderick, who was close to his mother, to make a go of the place. Roderick was made of more ambitious stuff, and he spent years improving the farm, working at other jobs to finance the work. He won a contract to build a road at the Nevis, where he met Amy Masters, who he married when he was 36. They had two children, Ian and Emma, and eventually Roderick sold up and the family moved to Dunedin, where he became a successful businessman buying and renting commercial property. He was a Justice of the Peace, an elder in the Presbyterian Church and a pragmatic supporter of the temperance movement.

Christina and John’s story has its twists and turns and heartbreaks. Christina, who was not entirely happy in New Zealand, died of a diabetes-related illness in 1894, aged 53, and John in 1910, aged 73. They are buried in Cromwell with their son James. Christina and Christina Flora were among the first women in the world to vote.

Christina Flora was on the Dunedin suffragette role, which links us back to Unpacking The Kists:

If evangelical Presbyterianism was often narrow and conservative, it could also inspire democratic activism. For many women, temperance politics necessitated female suffrage. In the campaign for women’s suffrage, which became law in 1893, two of the most prominent figures, Kate Sheppard and Margaret Sievwright, were of Scottish birth or heritage.

There were also issues of work remuneration. For her cooking duties, Christina was paid half the money a male cook would have earned, and I’m not sure whether Christina Flora and Annie had to work without pay for the first year of their employment, as was the norm at the time.

Unpacking the Kists is a well-written, highly informative tome of New Zealand and Scottish history scholarship – a welcome addition to my bookcase.

* * *

When I was in Central Otago I stayed with my brother Greg and his English wife Helen in Clyde. They were in the process of having an extension built to a house on a neighbouring ‘life-style’ property, which they had recently purchased. Greg and brother Stephen are doing the work. As they construct boxing and lay steel in preparation for the concrete slab, I tell them about my project. Stephen says that he isn’t interested in dead people; he’s more focused on the future, and, as a casual aside, says that when he was a teenager working on Earnscleugh Station, he was lent out to Morven Hills for a mustering gig, unaware he was following his great-great-grandfather’s footsteps. I walk across the paddock to Greg and Helen’s house and ring Richard Snow, the current owner of Morven Hills, to ask for permission to visit Polson’s Hut. His son answers the phone, and he tells me that his parents are holidaying in Australia, and he’s just about to walk out the door to return to his home in Christchurch. But yes, it’s okay, and he gives me directions of how to get there. Then I google ‘Polson’s Hut, Otago’ and discover it placed on a district map.

The next day Helen, her fox terrier Wee Dog and I set out in her Range Rover. It’s a misty, spasmodic rainy day in mid-March. I am strangely apprehensive at being on my way to visit the seedbed of the Polson-Ross family saga. We travel up the Cromwell Gorge, where I have visions of the old road and the apricot orchards flooded after the building of the Clyde Dam, past the Cromwell bridge on SH8 skirting Lake Dunstan, past Bendigo Loop Road (which leads to the ruins of  Welshtown, Logantown, Bendigo township and the old goldfields) and on to Tarras, where we stop for coffee. It is the road, albeit updated, that I travelled to play football in Tarras as a young man in the late 1960s, but so much has changed: grape vines now climb row after row up and over the stony hills, and the houses of the nouveau riche colonise the Cromwell side of the dam-created lake.

We then continue to our turn-off point: Goodger Road, which is situated a few kilometres before the Morven Hills station house, the magnificent stone woolshed and the Lindis Pass. After about a ten-minute drive we arrive at Polson’s Hut, which appears as solid as the day it was built with a seamlessly integrated chimney. It has been fenced off to protect it from stock, and evidently the hut is still used by musterers. The door is locked and I look through the window: at some point a stove has been installed and there is firewood and diesel on the flagstone floor. I look up to the golden tussock-covered hills thinking about Christina, a young Scotswoman a world away from her parents and siblings, and a husband who was away for much of the time sleeping out in the open. I walk down to the stream and the willow trees where I think the twins are buried, but why would they bury them close to a stream? No records have been found of their births and deaths, but their grave is officially registered on the list of New Zealand graves. On an adjacent hill there is a lone willow, and at its base is the boys’ greywacke headstone, simply engraved ‘1869’.

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