A thirty year migration by Angela Caldin

I’m not usually a great one for museums, finding them either boring or bewildering, but the museum in Waipu in Northland, New Zealand is in another league entirely. It tells the gripping and extraordinary story of the epic migration of hundreds of hardy souls from the Highlands of Scotland to the green rolling hills and forests of northern New Zealand.

Stage one to Nova Scotia

It all began because of the Highland Clearances of the early nineteenth century in Scotland. The break-up of the old clan system had led to the profit motive becoming paramount, with the result that crofters were driven off the land to make way for sheep. They migrated to the coast where they were barely able to make a living so that in desperation many decided to set sail across to Canada where at least the land they laid claim to would be their very own. The land that they settled is known as Nova Scotia which I belatedly realise means New Scotland.

Stage two to Australia

A large group eventually settled in 1820 in St Ann’s, Cape Breton Island, under the leadership of Norman McLeod, a strict Presbyterian and a charismatic figure who inspired both love and loathing. In 1827 he became a fully ordained minister, built a church and a school and ministered successfully to a large congregation every Sunday. The settlers battled the severe weather and the harsh conditions for many years until the failure of the potato crop in 1848 forced them to plan another more perilous voyage to Australia. The first priority was to build with their own hands the ships needed to make the voyage and throughout the next couple of years, the skills of the highland boat-builders came into their own. In early November 1851, Norman McLeod and his wife, family and 150 followers set sail aboard the Margaret. Having called at Cape Town en route, they arrived in Adelaide in April 1852.

But Adelaide was in the grip of a goldrush. Gold had been found at Ballarat, near Melbourne, and the accompanying greed, violence and decadence made Adelaide anathema for the strictly moral Presbyterians. As they had sold the Margaret, they were trapped and when three of his six sons died of typhus, Norman believed that the Old Testament prophesy of plague and pestilence as a punishment for the worship of false gods was coming true.

Stage three to New Zealand

With grit and determination, in early 1853, Norman wrote to the Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Edward Grey, asking for a grant of land for his people. They managed to buy a schooner the Gazelle, and set off. On 21 September 1853, their group is reported to have landed in the North Island. They settled on the far north east coast, between Auckland and the Bay of Islands, in the area around the Waipu River and Whangarei Heads. This land was virgin bush and forest bordering the coast; the skills of the Highlanders again came fully into their own. Norman and his flock had finally found a permanent home where they could make a decent living. By the end of 1859, four more shiploads had arrived and by 1860 there were almost 900 people there representing 19 Scottish clans.

In spite of people moving away and intermarrying, Waipu remains a little enclave of Scottishness in the stunning landscape of the eastern coast. The town holds its Highland Games on 1 January each year with sports such as tossing the caber. The bagpipes are played, the kilt is worn and there are competitions in piping, drumming, dancing, and athletics. The descendants of those brave pioneer migrants have never forgotten their Gaelic roots – as the sign proclaims as you drive into town ceud mìle fàilte, a hundred thousand welcomes.

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6 Comments on “A thirty year migration by Angela Caldin

  1. There is a large photo of my great grandfather in the Museum. He came out on the “Margaret.’ The hardiness and the Presbyterianism have both disappeared.

    • Do you mean disappeared from him or from you? I’m delighted to have your comment – it’s such an amazing story and difficult to imagine the hardships those migrants endured.

      • From me! Fiona Kidman, the novelist, is also descended from there. “The Book of Secrets” is about the migration and the aftermath. The people at the museum were, when I was last there, not happy with her, presumably because of her portrayal of Norman McLeod. He was undoubtedly a product of his time, but nonetheless a truly horrible man.

      • Reading between the lines, I had become aware that Norman McLeod had his dark side. I will make a point of reading Fiona Kidman’s book.

  2. Angela, I didn’t know any of that and found it completely fascinating. I went to Scotland a few years ago and was shocked to hear of the clearances, so it’s doubly interesting to hear of the hardships those poor people endured for so many years. How glad they must have been to at last find a good home in New Zealand.

    • Yes, I found the whole story fascinating and mind boggling. In fact, the lovely assistant at the museum said to me that I should think of the terrible conditions these migrants had to put up with when I’m tempted to complain about the long plane journey between NZ and UK. Good advice indeed!

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