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But I soon became engrossed by the scholarly yet stylish storytelling of ex-pat Rod Edmond, a nephew of the late Lauris Edmond, and it became one of those hard-to-put-down books that captured both my interest and imagination.
There are twin strands to Migration, beginning with the obligatory family trees. These provide a clearly defined access point as the stories of the Murrays, of St Fergus in Aberdeenshire, (the maternal line) and McLeods, of Ullapool, in the northwestern Highlands, (the paternal line), are woven together.
Although old diaries and records form the basis of Edmond's story, he tells it from an onlooker's point of view, beginning by travelling to see what is left of the homes and graves of his Scottish ancestors, while describing in vivid detail their hardships as tenant farmers or crofters driven from their land and homes by greedy landlords.
Thanks to help from their church, the tenant-farmer Murrays, marginally better off than the crofter McLeods, manage to get two of their sons, William and Charles, into Aberdeen University where they receive training as Free Church missionaries.
William, older by two years, is posted to an island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), where Charles is due to join him later. Meanwhile, the McLeods manage to get on the only emigrant ship to carry Scots to Tasmania.
The two strands meet generations later in New Zealand, but not before Charles endures hardship and grief trying to convert the New Hebrides natives to a Christianity that flies in the face of their accepted beliefs.
When his wife dies in childbirth, he questions his own faith and beliefs; obviously, a time to relocate to New Zealand. There he helps transform the working-class suburb of Sydenham by building churches and preaching abstinence, while marrying the daughter of a wealthy Canterbury farming family. Meanwhile, the McLeods find all the best land in Tasmania has been taken up and are left to hack farms out of upland bush country.
When the gold rush begins in Australia, Catherine McLeod leaves for Melbourne where she meets and marries James Edmond, the son of English emigrants. He is a builder with a brutish nature and, 15 births later, tosses Catherine out of their house, which she doesn't mind one bit.
If these dramas were just culled from records or even Rod Edmond's imagination, they would still be dramatic; but he is Johnny-on-the-spot, walking in the footsteps of his forebears in Scotland, Vanuatu, Tasmania, Australia and New Zealand, visiting cities, towns, hamlets, graveyards, inspecting what is left of homes and farms; talking with descendants of New Hebrideans who had been close to the Murrays; driving through Tasmanian townships, dreary places, empty of people, hollowed out to commemorate a past that had been cleared of all trace of the indigenous inhabitants.
Edmond has ancestors who settled in and/or worked in Dunedin (one a former mayor), Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Gisborne, Carterton, Feilding etc, so New Zealanders interested in genealogy will have, so to speak, a field day. How he was able to discover so much and relate it so well, is probably because of his teaching and writing experience as an academic at an English university. Indeed, he has been living and working there since 1969, but with numerous trips back home.
- Ian Williams is a Dunedin writer and composer.