A few days ago the Waipu Caledonian Society in New Zealand held its 145th annual Highland Games – Games the Society has thus organised since its foundation in 1870, though the first Caledonian sports meet in Waipu took place even earlier than that. This does not make the Waipu Society New Zealand’s oldest Caledonian Society, but the Games are among the longest-running Highland Games in the country. While the 145th Games were marred by poor weather, the tradition is still going strong (let’s just ignore that hurling of a hairy haggis … or even of a whole haggis family).
What makes the Scottish heritage in Waipu even more interesting than its long-standing Highland Games, however, is how Scots came to settle in Waipu in the first place. While that settlement story is quite atypical, it provides fascinating insights into the role of lead figures in chain migration, and also how mobile migrants were even in the nineteenth century.
It all began in the Highlands with the Revd Norman McLeod. Born in Sutherland in the late 1770s, he eventually made his way to New Zealand – but in the most long-winding way. But let’s start at the beginning. As Maureen Molloy, who has published the most important works on McLeod and Waipu, wrote in his Te Ara biography, ‘McLeod’s early life is shrouded in uncertainty and folklore.’
He is said to have undergone a religious conversion in his early 20s. After dabbling with several religious sects, he enrolled at the University of Aberdeen in 1807, graduating in 1812; he then spent two years at the University of Edinburgh, studying for the ministry. However, he did not complete his studies, withdrawing in protest over the worldliness and hypocrisy of his teachers.
McLeod taught in two church schools in the Highlands in 1814 and 1815; the first was in his native parish of Assynt and the second at Ullapool in Ross-shire. In each place he antagonised the local ministers and landlords by criticising their conduct and their theology. He was one of many lay preachers, known simply as ‘the Men’, who repudiated the liberalism of the established church and exhorted people to return to the rigorous principles of Knox and Calvin. McLeod’s fervent preaching drew crowds away from the churches and he was eventually relieved of his positions.
After fishing for two years out of Wick, Caithness, McLeod emigrated in July 1817 to Pictou, Nova Scotia, on the Frances Ann. In Pictou McLeod again drew large crowds with his preaching and made enemies by criticising the ungodly ways of the townspeople. With his kinfolk and converts, by now known as Normanists, he built a ship, the Ark, and set out for the United States, intending to settle in Ohio, possibly in 1820. A storm blew the Ark into St Ann’s Harbour, Cape Breton Island, where the travellers, impressed with the bounteous fishing, decided to settle.
St Ann’s was a ‘sober, industrious and orderly settlement’, and contemporary observers credited its success to McLeod, who served as preacher, teacher and magistrate. McLeod was granted 250 acres, which were farmed for him by his parishioners. He owned a series of seagoing vessels and was probably involved in commercial fishing and trading. While resident in St Ann’s he wrote long letters of spiritual guidance to adherents who had remained in Pictou. In 1827 he decided to complete his orders so that he could perform marriages. He was ordained by the Presbytery of New York in 1828.
In 1847 potato blight and wheat rust attacked the crops of Cape Breton, reducing its inhabitants to starvation. Late in 1848 McLeod received a letter from his son, Donald, who was living in Australia. Donald wrote in such glowing terms of Australia’s climate and conditions that many people from St Ann’s and the neighbouring communities decided to emigrate. In 1851 McLeod set out in his ship,Margaret, arriving in Adelaide in April 1852. A second ship, Highland Lass, followed six months later. The 300 migrants arrived in Australia at the height of the Victorian goldrush. They found that good coastal land was available only at exorbitant prices. After a number of their group, including three of McLeod’s sons, died in a typhoid epidemic, McLeod wrote to George Grey, governor of New Zealand, about obtaining a block of land on which all the Nova Scotian migrants could settle.
The first group of Normanists arrived in Auckland on 17 September 1853. One year later they began to settle on allotments on the Waipu River in Northland. Four more ships followed from Nova Scotia, Gertrude (1856), Spray (1857), Breadalbane(1858), and Ellen Lewis (1860). More than 800 people took part in the migration.
An amazing story, isn’t it!
It is important to note, however, that this story of McLeod and the Waipu settlement has, for a long time, entrenched misunderstandings about the character and settlement of Scottish migrants in New Zealand, forsaking broader insight, particularly in terms of the motivations and origins of migrants. Overall, the majority of Scots who went to New Zealand were from the Lowlands and they had much more straightforward journeys than those associated with McLeod (for details see my Scottish Ethnicity and Rebecca Lenihan’s From Alba to Aotearoa).
All images from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Heritage Images.