Far away but feels very close to home

Dunedin, replete with Edinburgh place names. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Dunedin, replete with Edinburgh place names. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
In November 1895, renowned American writer Mark Twain dropped by New Zealand as part of a world tour, giving three lectures to packed audiences at the Dunedin City Hall.

Afterwards, Twain wrote of the Dunedinites: "The people are Scotch. They stopped here on their way from home to heaven thinking they had arrived."

The people of Dunedin are not only "Scotch" in nature or origin (the city has a rich Māori, Scottish and Chinese heritage), but our "Edinburgh of the South" owes much to its Scottish settlers. Even the city’s name, Dun Eideann, is the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

Countless similarities abound between my home city and the city I now call home. For starters, there are the place names — streets, suburbs, boroughs and even rugby stadiums (think Calton Hill, Corstorphine, Murrayfield, Waverley and Musselburgh).

In my first year studying at the University of Otago, I boarded at St Margaret’s College at 333 Leith St.

Ten years later I live in Leith itself; and while the Water of Leith in Edinburgh isn’t populated by the shopping trolleys and the traffic cones of Dunedin’s version, an inebriated man did jump in the rancid Edinburgh waters twice yesterday.

Tourist shops dotted around the Octagon display lush tartan swatches, Harris tweed, whisky and haggis-shaped fridge magnets. Here in Edinburgh it’s no different — every second shop along Princes St and George St is devoted to tartan-themed tourist tat.

I once walked daily past Cargill’s Monument, a Gothic Revival masterpiece standing in the centre of Dunedin’s old business district. Now, my bus trundles past the towering Scott monument, the probable inspiration for Dunedin’s diminutive version. We even have a statue of that glorious old rogue Rabbie Burns in our town "square".

Dunedin’s links with Scotland stretch back almost two centuries. In 1842, Scottish sculptor and politician George Rennie proposed the building of a Scottish settlement in New Zealand, proclaiming "We shall found a New Edinburgh at the Antipodes that shall one day rival the old."

In 1848, the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland established Dunedin at the head of Otago Harbour as the main town of its settlement through the efforts of the Otago Association company. In March and April of that year, the first two immigrant ships — John Wickliffe and the Philip Laing — arrived from Greenock on the Firth of Clyde.

The former was commanded by Edinburgh-born former British Army captain William Cargill (1784-1860), who officially founded the Otago settlement and became Otago’s first superintendent. He was aided by Edinburgh solicitor John McGlashan, who served as the chief organiser and promoter of the Otago scheme, recruiting residents for the new colony and arranging ships. The Rev Thomas Burns, nephew of Rabbie himself, acted as the settlement’s spiritual guide.

By the late 1850s, about 12,000 Scots had settled in Dunedin, predominantly hailing from the industrial lowlands, Edinburgh and Glasgow. These settlers faced harsh conditions upon arrival — much mud, dense bush, heavy rains and cold winters.

But they persevered, and in an 1853 publication, the Free Church praised the "very high character" of the Scottish settlers, with their "very serious regard to their religious duties".

Perhaps the rigid Calvinist demeanour of Dunedin’s initial settlers provided subsequent generations with a foundation to rebel against. One grumpy correspondent, as noted by historian Tom Devine in To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s global diaspora, 1750-2010, wrote into the New Zealand Otago Times under the moniker "Staunch Englishman", railing against the "mean, close, bigoted, porridge-eating" Scots settlers, who were notorious for "minding the sixpences".

I grew up under the stiff Presbyterian rule of a stiff Presbyterian father, who was himself born in Glasgow before following in the footsteps of his intrepid forefathers and migrating to New Zealand.

My father instilled in me the value of hard work and discipline — he was frugal to the point of miserliness, his theology was austere and uncompromising, and he sure did love his porridge.

And so, in the tradition of my artistic forebears like James K. Baxter and Rabbie Burns, I too was spurred to a sort of artistic rebellion against the strictures of my upbringing.

To the Scottish migrants, New Zealand was a land of opportunities. It was a chance for them to shape a new society, albeit one moulded by distinct Scottish values; strong beliefs in education, democracy and equal opportunities for all, as well as a deep-seated sense of personal and social accountability.

Whereas the Canterbury settlement aimed to replicate the English class system and import various societal strata including the landed gentry, tradespeople and domestic servants, Otago was envisioned as egalitarian.

In his 1997 documentary Full Circle, my favourite Monty Python member Michael Palin says of Dunedin "at first glance it is a dour, damp, chilly place, its buildings heavy with ponderous Presbyterian pride ... but beneath a grey and sober heart there lurks a wild heart".

Beyond the haggis ceremonies, the tartan memorabilia, the ever-present wailing bagpipes and the name of the city itself, Dunedin is a city with a warm Scottish heart.

It stands as testament to those Scots who sought to forge anew, shaping a glorious new city through interaction with the harsh environment, local iwi and fellow migrants from Europe’s sooty, crowded cities.

 - Jean Balchin is an ODT columnist who has started a new life in Edinburgh.