Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Jo-Anne Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Elizabeth Ormiston was born in Scotland, probably in Sutherland between 1842 and 1847, the daughter of Mary McKenzie and Walter Ormiston, a shepherd. She married Robert Mackay, a shepherd, at Dalharald, Strathnaver, Sutherland, on 29 August 1862; they were to have at least nine children. In 1863 the Mackays emigrated to New Zealand with their son Walter on the Brothers Pride. Epidemics swept the ship and 44 passengers died before the vessel arrived at Lyttelton in December. While they were staying at the immigration barracks, Walter died.
They travelled for 12 days on a bullock dray to Double Hill station in central Canterbury, where Robert was employed to manage the Redcliff part of the run. Elizabeth began her life at the isolated station grief-stricken at the loss of her child. The Mackays lived in a sod hut for the next five years. Their second child, Jessie, was born on 15 December 1864 with only a woman neighbour in attendance. Two more children were born in the hut.
Robert Mackay was often away for days at a time, especially during mustering. Food was limited; their diet consisted mainly of mutton and whatever could be made with flour. For two years Elizabeth Mackay did not see another woman. She had busy days teaching the children, cooking, cleaning and sewing. Reading was her joy and she pursued this hobby in the small amount of leisure time available. The family made their own amusements; they sang, played games and told stories. The children were taught to be proud of their Scottish heritage and were made familiar with Scottish legends and beliefs. Elizabeth brought them up to be staunch Presbyterians.
In 1869 Robert Mackay was appointed manager of the whole Double Hill station and the family moved to the homestead, further up the Rakaia River. Here there was a man to cook, and to milk the cows, and Robert planted a garden. Like many Scots, Elizabeth Mackay had a strong belief in the importance of education and was now able to devote more time to teaching her children. When Double Hill was sold in 1874, Robert became manager of Raincliff station, only 24 miles from Timaru.
Life was easier at Raincliff: it was less isolated and a governess, Lizzie Lambie, was employed to teach the children. Books and periodicals were readily available. There were two houses, one for the Mackays and one for the owner, Henry Hoare, when he visited. Unfortunately Elizabeth Mackay had a long illness from which she never properly recovered.
In 1892 the Mackay family moved to their own farm at Trentham, South Canterbury. Elizabeth was unwell and died at Trentham on 1 February 1897, survived by her husband and eight children. Her warm and loving nature and ability to cope with the loneliness and privations of her first years in New Zealand left a lasting impression on her children. This was particularly evident in the character and writings of her daughter, the poet, writer and feminist, Jessie Mackay.