Margaret McKenna was born in County Tyrone, northern Ireland, sometime between 1836 and 1839, the daughter of Alice McConnell and her husband, Hugh McKenna, a farmer. In October 1866 she reached Hokitika, New Zealand, on the Taranaki. She described herself as a servant when she married Daniel McKenzie, a printer, on 23 April 1868 at Hokitika. Two daughters and a son were born there. Adventurous, and lured by prospects of development in the south, Daniel bought cattle and in 1875 the family moved to Jackson Bay, to a shell of a house with no kitchen or chimney. Margaret, several months pregnant, cooked on a stone fireplace outside, sheltered from rain by a few sheets of iron. In December 1876 they moved further south to Jamestown and in 1878 to Martins Bay. Two more sons were born over this time.
Dry stores and mail came to Martins Bay by sea every two or three months, but the service was unreliable as sea conditions often prevented landing. Food was ample but hard-won: fish, birds, beef, vegetables and berry fruits. Margaret McKenzie milked cows, made butter and cheese, and baked bread and potato scones in a camp oven on an open fire. Cooking was often a torment. Gusts of wood-smoke stung her eyes and filled the room; wood and water had to be carried some distance. A water-butt at the door was a late luxury.
For months the family would see no other people and hear no news of the outside world. Lakes Wakatipu and Te Anau were a week's journey on foot each way, with several dangerous river crossings. Margaret was often alone with the children for weeks at a time while Daniel was away with the cattle, and she feared for his safety. The pounding waves on the beach, shrieking kakapo and weird cries of penguins in the bush at night all added to her feeling of fearsome isolation. In 1878 she delivered her last child during a storm, while alone in the flooded house with her sleeping children. Her daughter remembered her sitting on the bed surrounded by flood water, holding up the new baby.
Margaret McKenzie was not easily discouraged but was not indomitable. She feared the sea, could not handle a boat or a gun, and was squeamish at the sight of blood. She treated illness and injuries using traditional remedies.
Despite their extreme isolation the McKenzie family were highly literate and well informed. They were intelligent conversationalists, speaking with a soft Celtic lilt, and welcomed unexpected visitors. They read the novels of Walter Scott, Hansard, and the Bible on Sundays. A sackful of the Otago Witness came on the supply ship and was read and re-read.
It was an arduous, lonely, financially unrewarding life, yet one which pleased Margaret McKenzie. When her daughters left and married she was torn between her love of Martins Bay and her longing for her grandchildren. In 1903 Margaret and Daniel moved to Glenorchy and in 1920 to Queenstown. Daniel died at Frankton Hospital on 14 February 1920. In old age Margaret McKenzie was a gracious, imposing and dignified woman. She died at the Home for the Aged Poor in Andersons Bay, Dunedin, on 13 February 1925.