Scots collective and singular, Kirstine Moffat

Unpacking the Kists: The Scots in New Zealand
Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon
Otago University Press, $70.00,
ISBN 9780773541900

I have always enjoyed the inventiveness of collective nouns, favourites being an exaltation of larks and a worship of writers. If these are extended to national groupings, what springs to mind in relation to the Scots? In spite of my Scottish birth, I have to confess that my initial musings were decidedly stereotypical: a frugality of Scots; a dourness of Scots; a tartan of Scots; a presbytery of Scots. I am not alone. In the 1486 Book of St Albans, there is a reference to “a disworship of Scots”, while Google offers “a filth of Scots”. It is precisely these limited kinds of national stereotypes that Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon seek to challenge and complicate in their thoughtful, authoritative Unpacking the Kists: The Scots in New Zealand. Throughout, the authors argue that the history of Scots in New Zealand is one of complexity and diversity.

Unpacking the Kists focuses primarily on 19th– and early 20th-century settler history and draws on a wide variety of sources – statistics, newspapers, letters, poems, encyclopaedias, genealogies, songs, memoirs, association records – to examine the place and influence of the Scots in New Zealand society. Building on the previous work of the co-authors, and acknowledging the contributions of scholars such as Angela McCarthy and Rosalind McClean, Unpacking the Kists sets out to test, and challenge, accepted assumptions about the Scots through meticulous, objective research. The authors succeed in their aim, providing a comprehensive and long-overdue history of settlers who made up just over 20 per cent of New Zealand’s 19th-century migrants from Britain and Europe. One small quibble is the lack of images. There are several useful tables and charts, but the book would be enhanced by photographs of people, places, and objects. While the emphasis throughout the book is on the broad narrative of the Scots in New Zealand, there is also a pleasing interweaving of individual stories where possible. Images would provide another powerful human, specific dimension to the unfolding story.

Settlers packed all the treasures they could not bear to leave behind into kists (chests). The title thus evokes all of the physical objects that Scots brought with them to New Zealand, but also acts as a symbol of the less tangible possessions that travelled with them: “customs and traditions, inherited folkways and folklore, their religion, and the gifts of language and literature … ingrained attitudes, preconceptions, and prejudices”. By unpacking these kists of the mind, Patterson, Brooking and McAloon reveal that some of the prevailing preconceptions about the Scots are accurate, while simultaneously dismantling some clichés. Throughout, they make the pertinent point that, while the Scots represented a significant percentage of the colonial population, they were still a minority. Through interaction with other settlers, and with Maori, the Scots were part of a wider, evolving fabric of colonial life. This insistence on an emerging colonial identity is a particular strength of the book, allowing as it does for the distinctive qualities of the Scots to be recognised, while avoiding the pitfalls of reductive national stereotypes. Scots travelled to New Zealand from all parts of their homeland, and thus there were also inbuilt nuances and variations in their character and outlook, from religious belief, to a degree of fluency in Gaelic, to farming method.

For many, Scottishness in the New Zealand context immediately evokes two places: Dunedin and Waipu. These centres deliberately cultivate their Scottish image for tourists. Drawing on demographic evidence, Unpacking the Kists highlights the point that, while there was a concentration of Scottish migrants in Otago and Southland, other towns and provinces – such as Auckland, Wellington, the Rangitikei and the West Coast – also had significant Scottish populations. The story of the Scots in New Zealand is thus not just a regional story, but a national one.

Testing the perception that the Scots were economically more successful than other migrants, due to their business acumen, work ethic and frugality, Patterson, Brooking and McAloon discover that the Scots were as prone to the vicissitudes of weather, economic climate, and personal failure as other settlers. What is noteworthy is the disproportionate number of Scots involved in farming, a claim that previous scholars have made, but which has now been substantiated through a painstaking statistical analysis of evidence in the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand (1897-1908). Settlers from all parts of Scotland were eager to own and work their own plot of land, with Scots also gravitating towards the metal trades and finance.

One of the prevailing myths about the Scots in New Zealand is that of the “green Scot”. Given the prevalence of the Scots in agriculture, directly involved in transforming the land, the problems with this claim are immediately apparent. As Patterson, Brooking and McAloon point out, the “Scots burned, drained and sowed pasture, or planted crops and gardens, as enthusiastically as anyone else”. However, individual Scots – such as Captain William Cargill, the Deans family, Thomas Mackenzie, James Wilson, John Buchanan and Alexander Bathgate – were instrumental in establishing a legacy of conservation and preservation, from protecting forests and tussock lands to building botanical gardens. Perhaps because of their familiarity with tough terrain, the Scots were also more receptive than other Britons to learning from Maori about agricultural practices, such as techniques for making flax-covered land productive.

Another of the myths about the Scots in New Zealand, cultivated by politician Peter Fraser and by poets like Jessie Mackay, is that migrants from the Highlands had a cultural affinity with and sympathy for Maori. Unpacking the Kists emphasises that, particularly in the 19th century, many of the Scots prominent in the worlds of business and government were staunch enforcers of Empire and active agents of European land acquisition. As with any people, the Scots covered the width of the political spectrum. Conservative attitudes co-existed with a Burnsian emphasis on “independence, egalitarian democracy, and the moral of agrarian self-sufficiency”. For many New Zealand Scots, the safe, cosy Burns of “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” was more appealing than the radical Burns of “A Man’s a Man”, but, particularly in the 20th century, some prominent Scots espoused a more explicitly militant socialist ideology: David McLaren, Samuel Lister, Robert Hogg.

The legacy of Presbyterianism is one of the most highly contested aspects of the Scottish inheritance. The Scottish poet Edwin Muir famously railed that “what [John] Knox did was to rob Scotland of all the benefits of the Renaissance”. James K Baxter was equally disparaging of the Presbyterian influence on New Zealand literature and society, describing Calvinism in his Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand (1972) as “that austere, anti-aesthetic angel”. While acknowledging the sabbatarian, predestination strain in Presbyterian theology, Patterson, Brooking and McAloon thankfully move beyond a simplistic anti-Calvinist mind-set to examine the multi-faceted influence of Presbyterianism on emerging settler society, going as far as claiming that New Zealand was “one of the most Protestant countries in the Empire”.

Not all Scots migrants were Presbyterian, of course, but Unpacking the Kists reveals that the kirk had a “striking” shaping influence “on New Zealand civil society”. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Presbyterian Church claimed 25 per cent of all religious adherents. Once again, the emphasis is on complexity and diversity. A secularised version of the godly commonwealth was evident in the “authoritarian social engineering” of Duncan MacGregor, Robert Stout, John Salmond and John Findlay. Likewise, a significant number of prohibition and suffrage campaigners were of Scottish heritage, including Learmonth Dalrymple, Margaret Burn, Kate Sheppard, and Margaret Sievwright. A “radical Presbyterian conscience” remained a feature of many who rejected the formal tenets of belief, epitomised by militant pacifist Archibald Baxter. The Presbyterian inheritance also made its mark in the field of education. The New Zealand Scots promoted state education, the education of women, and the importance of a university system open to everyone.

Associations can be sites of nostalgia and the perpetuation of national outlooks and practices, but Unpacking the Kists reveals that the most popular Scottish association, the Caledonian Society, had a function beyond being a site of memory. Scots gathered together for a variety of reasons: ethnic pride, a connection to the past, entertainment, a source of congenial company, personal advancement through useful contacts, respectability.

The story of the Scottish home and Scottish leisure is likewise one of modification and adaptation in the new land. Migrants clung to folk traditions, beliefs, and practices, but increasingly merged with a composite New Zealand-British identity, seen in the way in which Scots gradually accommodated Easter and Christmas rituals. Some writers cultivated a Scottish image, such as John Barr, the “Burns of the South”. The Gaelic Society was formed in 1881 to promote the language in New Zealand, a Southland burr persists, and many words of Scottish origin entered the New Zealand English lexicon. But Scots also read Charles Dickens and danced the waltz, played the piano and visited the public house, joined rugby teams and bet at the races, hunted for deer and caught snapper.

So, is James Belich right in Paradise Reforged (2010) to claim New Zealand as “the neo-Scotland”? In some ways, yes, Patterson, Brooking and McAloon conclude, particularly in the shaping of New Zealand agriculture, education, and civil society. But in many ways, no, because while they retained distinctive cultural traditions and practices, the Scots who left their homeland were in the process of becoming something else in the melting pot of colonial society. This resonates for me, a more recent Scottish migrant to New Zealand, who is neither solely Scots, nor solely a New Zealander. This state of transition, of duality, is both the burden and the gift of the migrant.


Kirstine Moffat is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Waikato and the author of Piano Forte: Stories and Soundscapes from Colonial New Zealand.


Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category