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Story: McKay, Alexander

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McKay, Alexander



This biography, written by Roger Cooper, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Alexander McKay has been a legendary figure among New Zealand geologists for over 100 years. He was born in Carsphairn, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, on 11 April 1841. His family were of Calvinist shepherd stock, although his father, William Sloane McKay, was a wheelwright. His mother was Agnes MacClellan. Alexander attended the village school until he was 11, after which he was required to assist his father and attended school only during the winter. A summer job as a cowherd stimulated his interest in geology: he was able to examine the rocks of the district and learn the significance of strata, and to do some prospecting for minerals.

At the age of 22 McKay emigrated to New Zealand on the Helenslee, arriving at Campbelltown (Bluff) in September 1863. For a few years he worked as a goldminer in Otago and at Wakamarina in Marlborough. After a brief visit to the Australian goldfields of New South Wales and Queensland he spent four years exploring and prospecting the south-west part of the Mackenzie Country, travelling alone and in all seasons. It was during this time that he met Julius Haast, the Canterbury provincial geologist. In 1870, while prospecting for coal in Ashley Gorge, he again encountered Haast, who engaged him as an assistant on some geological surveys of the region. He subsequently helped Haast to investigate the Shag Point coalfield in North Otago, and to collect reptilian fossils at the Waipara River in North Canterbury. In 1872 McKay carried out the excavation of the Moa-bone Point Cave at Sumner under Haast's direction.

Late in 1872 James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum and Geological Survey of New Zealand, noted McKay's fine saurian fossil collections from Waipara in the Canterbury Museum, and engaged the young geologist to make similar collections from Haumuri Bluff near Kaikoura. At the completion of this work in April 1873 McKay moved to Wellington, where he was joined the following month by his wife, Susannah Barnes. The couple had married in Dunedin on 24 August 1868 and the first of their two sons was born the day after Susannah's arrival in Wellington. Shortly afterwards Alexander was appointed a permanent officer in the Geological Survey, where he remained until retrenchment of the survey in 1892. He was then transferred to the Mines Department as mining geologist, eventually becoming government geologist.

Initially a fossil collector for the Geological Survey, McKay was soon sent by Hector on geological reconnaissance explorations of unknown territory, joining S. H. Cox, F. W. Hutton, and later James Park. This small but energetic and talented group covered most of New Zealand – a country of exceptional geological diversity and complexity, and rugged terrain – in less than 15 years. Over 120,000 fossils were collected during Hector's reign, the majority by McKay.

As Hector became increasingly office-bound he relied more and more on McKay as his geological 'eyes and ears'. McKay, however, did not hesitate to record observations that conflicted with the views of Hector and others. His reports, written with a flowing Victorian verbosity, proved to be an astonishingly reliable and accurate guide to the succession, structure, fossil content and distribution of strata of widely differing regions and geological age. As late as the 1940s they remained the best account for many regions. On several occasions, such as in his interpretation of the mechanism and timing of mountain building in Marlborough, he showed quite exceptional creative insight and inspiration. This ability, together with the perceptiveness and reliability of his field observations and his flair for finding fossils, made him a legend in his own time among geologists.

Enthusiasm, physical and mental robustness, and a sheer joy in discovery and exploration carried McKay to the remotest parts of the country. He delighted in the discovery of a new fossil locality, the rocking motion of an earthquake, and particularly, a finding in the field that cast doubt on the favoured theory of a local specialist. Having had no formal education in science he was not constrained by many of the conventions in geological thought as were his European-trained colleagues; and he had confidence in his own judgement. Many of his field observations and conclusions, which were to be verified by subsequent investigation, were quite controversial at the time they were proposed; for example, his careful measurement of the horizontal displacement of two fence-lines on the Hope Fault in the 1888 Glynn Wye earthquake. Because it was thought that the only large movements possible at faults were vertical ones, the full significance of McKay's observations was not appreciated until more than 20 years after his death. The world's largest faults, such as the Alpine Fault of New Zealand, are now known to be transcurrent: adjacent sections of the earth's crust are horizontally displaced, sometimes by hundreds of kilometres. McKay was probably the first geologist in the world to document a transcurrent fault.

From his own field observations McKay deduced that the uplift of the mountains in New Zealand occurred much more recently than was known elsewhere in the world (about 15 million years ago). This conclusion, not accepted by authorities of the time, was later substantiated. His meticulous measurements and observations of earthquake fault movements enabled him to conclude that the mountains (particularly of Marlborough) formed by uplift along the faults, and that this uplift was achieved by repeated small fault movements associated with earthquakes over a long period of time. This major advance in thinking was developed further by C. A. Cotton, and became the basis of the modern discipline of neotectonics, for which New Zealand is now known worldwide.

As a self-taught scientist, McKay read widely. James Park described him as a man of high culture, and recalled him reading to his companions in the field tent by the dim light of a candle, late into the night, from Charles Lyell's Principles of geology: 'the drone of his soft monotonous voice soon lulled me to sleep…often he chided me with sleeping instead of listening to the words of the great master'. McKay's wry humour was occasionally expressed in verse. His most notable literary accomplishment was The Canterbury Gilpin, published anonymously in 1880, which satirised the debate over Julius Haast's long-favoured view on the antiquity of the moa. The poem describes the discovery of a living specimen which is paraded through the streets of Christchurch with the local professor (Haast) riding on its back; the frightened creature bolts for the countryside with the startled professor clinging for dear life, the two never to be seen again.

With a fierce independence of spirit, McKay was unafraid to question the views of his more highly educated colleagues, and the bitter conflict with Haast over moa hunter culture was the most notorious example. In a paper read by James Hector to the Wellington Philosophical Society on 8 August 1874, McKay reported his interpretation of the Sumner cave excavation: that the moa hunters were ancestral Maori and not a separate, earlier, palaeolithic race. This challenged Haast's cherished hypothesis (shortly afterwards abandoned by scientists) of a pre-Maori, palaeolithic moa hunter culture, and pre-empted Haast's own paper on the subject. Although the two papers were eventually published together in July 1875, Haast was deeply offended, and the ensuing public row raised questions in Parliament and resulted in an appeal to the Royal Society of London for a ruling on the ethics of the action of pre-empting Haast's paper. The debate, which may have had as much to do with rivalry between Hector and Haast as with McKay, was exploited by humorists such as Walter Mantell, and symbolised the clash between the new, younger generation of scientist-explorers and the established authority of the time.

In the late 1880s McKay took up a new enthusiasm – photography. He experimented with designs of cameras and telescopes and with telephotography and microphotography, even grinding his own lenses from bottle ends, and achieved good quality photo-micrographs of thin sections of rocks. He retired from the public service in 1904. His wife, Susannah McKay, died on 11 May 1906, and on 3 June the following year, at Wellington, he married Adelaide Dootson. Alexander McKay died at Wellington on 8 July 1917, survived by Adelaide and his two children.

Philosophically, McKay's greatest achievement can be seen as freeing New Zealand earth scientists from the strictures of a European-based 'received wisdom', enabling them to see, interpret and report the uniqueness of New Zealand geology. This in turn opened the way for the development of new theory with worldwide importance, brilliantly exploited by later workers such as C. A. Cotton, Patrick Marshall and H. W. Wellman.

How to cite this page:

Roger Cooper. 'McKay, Alexander', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2m12/mckay-alexander (accessed 25 June 2024)