Mackay John Scobie Mackenzie – commonly known as Scobie – was born on 23 January 1845 at Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland, the third son and fourth surviving child of Roderick Mackenzie and his wife, Mary Anne Scobie. Roderick Mackenzie migrated to British Guiana (Guyana) as a young man and later made a fortune as a sugar planter, only to lose it when slavery was abolished. He returned to Scotland in 1841, but never recovered financially and died a broken man in 1850. Scobie Mackenzie was sent to the John Watson Institution in Edinburgh. There he displayed a flair for essay writing and developed a loathing for mathematics.
In 1861 or 1862 Mackenzie left with his mother and sister, Alexa, to join his two older brothers, Alec and Kenneth, in Victoria, Australia. Alec died soon after the family's arrival leaving Kenneth to support the survivors. Scobie Mackenzie roughed it on a barren farm on the border of New South Wales, becoming an expert stockman. He coped with the isolation by writing essays for the Australasian and the Argus and was always proud of the fact that during this time he befriended the writer Marcus Clarke. He ended his time in Australia as the overseer of the Meningoort station owned by the MacArthur family.
By 1870 Mackenzie's health was beginning to suffer from the heat, dust and flies. When Matthew Holmes and Donald McLean offered him the job of managing Deepdell station in Otago, New Zealand, he accepted gratefully. Owned by the New Zealand and Australian Land Company, Deepdell was a big station which ran over 30,000 sheep. It was situated at Waihemo next to the Shag Valley run of the Bell family, and Mackenzie soon became friendly with both Sir Francis Dillon Bell and his son, Alfred. On 28 June 1876 he married Jessy Adela Bell, only daughter of Sir Francis, at the Bell family home; they were to have six children.
Mackenzie did so well as manager of Deepdell that in 1875, with the assistance of Francis Rich and Charles Stewart, he was able to purchase the lease of Kyeburn station – at 110,863 acres a sizeable property. The run prospered and Mackenzie had bought out both his partners by 1883, thus establishing his place in Otago's élite.
Mackenzie now had ample time and wealth to engage in politics. In 1881 he challenged the absentee Cecil de Lautour for Mount Ida and was only narrowly beaten. In 1884 he defeated John Ewing, the goldfields entrepreneur. He stood as a supporter of Sir Julius Vogel and remained loyal to the Stout–Vogel government throughout 1885. Mackenzie made it very clear that he was above all else a classic liberal, ardently devoted to free trade and individualism. He believed that Britain's greatness rested on her power as a trading nation. Samuel Smiles's Self-help was his bible, and he shared Thomas Carlyle's dislike of dependence on the state. Like many other politicians he also admired the imperialism of Benjamin Disraeli.
Mackenzie became increasingly irritated by some of Robert Stout's actions. When Stout backed a tariff in 1886, Mackenzie withdrew his support from the ministry. He developed his already impressive debating skills and became an effective and acerbic critic of Stout, whom he described as 'a wriggling worm'. Mackenzie also revealed himself to be a social conservative by voting against Vogel's proposal to extend the franchise to women.
Mackenzie always hated the isolation of rural life and once he became a politician moved to Dunedin and placed a manager, T. D. Bellett, on his run. In 1885 he built a large home named Melness after his family seat in Scotland. Situated at Grant's Braes above Andersons Bay some four miles from Dunedin it became a haven from the vicissitudes of politics. He joined the élite Dunedin Club and travelled there each lunchtime to discuss the issues of the day and delve in the excellent library. He always returned home by late afternoon, however, so that he could play the indulgent Victorian patriarch by regaling his children with original tales conjured up from his vivid imagination.
The 1887–90 parliamentary term was an uncomfortable one for Mackenzie. He roundly condemned Premier Harry Atkinson's introduction of a modest tariff in 1888. John Ballance's 'Liberal' grouping seemed even more inclined to increase reliance on the state and they too caught the edge of Scobie's tongue. He developed an intense rivalry with John McKenzie, later minister of lands, several of whose short-tempered outbursts were provoked by Scobie Mackenzie's well-aimed barbs. The maverick Mackenzie earned a reputation as one of the best speakers in Parliament, but few outsiders realised that he did not work especially hard when not in the debating chamber. Falling wool prices, rabbits and neglect combined to reduce the profits from his run (sheep numbers fell from 34,037 in 1887 to 23,300 in 1894), and financial difficulties forced him to resign from the Dunedin Club.
The formation of the Liberal government in early 1891 made political life much simpler for Mackenzie. Now there was a clear-cut enemy to attack: the 'socialist' tendencies of the new liberalism. Scobie ridiculed the policies of the new government, especially John McKenzie's land legislation. Ballance and William Pember Reeves's romantic urban radicalism and Richard Seddon's oafishness also came in for special criticism. Once Mackenzie even persuaded the coalminers of Kaitangata to vote for James Allen rather than the Liberal candidate despite a visit from Seddon a few days previously.
Mackenzie's wit and charm were put to a much sterner test in 1893 when he contested the new Waihemo seat against John McKenzie. He put up a commendable fight but could not stem the general swing to the Liberals nor counter the enormous personal popularity of his opponent. His tirades against the purchase of the Cheviot Hills estate and warnings of the dangers of mass legislation seemed strangely anachronistic. He appeared destined for the political wilderness. However, after graciously conceding defeat, Mackenzie put his retirement to good use. Numerous articles published in the Australasian and Otago Witness increased his popularity and restored his fortunes so effectively that in 1896 he was returned for the City of Dunedin with the highest individual vote.
Mackenzie's earlier opposition to women gaining the vote was forgiven and he became the rarest of persons in a democracy – a popular politician. Even suspicious northerners were swayed by his eloquence when he spoke at the Auckland town hall in 1898. He seemed to be emerging as the obvious leader of the opposition. Unlike the colourless Captain William Russell he did not carry the stigma of being an old-style oligarch. But Mackenzie's distaste for hard work was reinforced by failing health. Increasingly he retreated to the parliamentary library rather than slugging it out in the chamber and the lobbies. Political friends as well as foes noted this failing, which would have played into the hands of a workaholic like Seddon; his potential as a challenge for Russell's position faded.
A career which had promised so much was cut short by ill health and Mackenzie retired from politics after his defeat in the election of 1899. His brief retirement was spent raising funds for the South African war which he supported with enthusiasm. He died at his home on 15 September 1901 and was buried in a ceremony as simple as John McKenzie's was elaborate. He was survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters. Jessy Mackenzie died nearly 36 years later on 7 July 1937.
Scobie Mackenzie was a colourful politician who added charm and wit to New Zealand parliamentary life. He never engaged in politics to serve his business interests. Above all else he was an individualist; yet this very quality greatly reduced his impact on political history. He swam against the tide of New Zealand history to the extent that once the generation who knew this thoroughly likeable man died, William Gisborne's 'coming man' became a largely forgotten man.