Donald Sutherland was born at the port town of Wick, Caithness, Scotland, probably in 1843 or 1844, the son of Isabella Strachan and her husband, Donald Sutherland, a ropemaker. Of an adventurous temperament, by the age of 16 he had tired of work in the herring fishery on which the town's economy was based, and sought a soldier's career in a Scottish militia unit stationed at Fort George. In 1860 he was among the British volunteers who joined the Italian patriots fighting for a united Italy. In the patriot leader Garibaldi, Donald Sutherland found a like spirit, following him through the campaign in Sicily to its triumph at Naples.
After a spell as a sailor in the British coastal trade Sutherland sailed for Dunedin, New Zealand, as a crew member on the Prince Alfred. On his arrival he deserted from his ship to try his luck prospecting for gold at Gabriels Gully. Unsuccessful, he enlisted in the 3rd Regiment of the Waikato Militia in December 1863, and was posted to the water transport corps. In 1865 he received a grant of land at Pukerimu, but forfeited this the following year as a deserter. He then joined a sealing expedition to Fiordland, and when this failed tried his luck prospecting at Hokitika. Gold still eluded him, and in October 1868 he joined the Armed Constabulary. He was involved in the battles of Moturoa and Ngātapa. After the fall of Tauranga-ika he served as a scout, and took part in the decapitation of fugitives resulting from the misinterpretation of a bounty offer for prisoners. He reached the rank of corporal, and later received the New Zealand War Medal.
Returning to the sea, Sutherland joined the government coastal shipping service under Captain John Fairchild. This palled, and in 1877 the wanderer set sail from Dunedin with a dog in a small open boat. Passing through Foveaux Strait and up the Fiordland coast, he landed at Milford Sound on 3 December. Here he made his home for the next 40 years.
He chose a site close to the Bowen Falls, commanding a magnificent view of Mitre Peak. With a future Milford City in mind he planned Kennedy and Rotorua streets. For a time John McKay and James Malcolm joined him prospecting, unsuccessfully, for asbestos and bowenite. McKay and Sutherland then turned to exploring, in the hope of finding a route to Queenstown.
On 10 November 1880, near the Arthur River, Sutherland spotted a distant flash of water through the treetops, and came to the falls, 1,904 feet high, which thereafter bore his name. His exploring zeal is also remembered in Sutherland Sound, which he found in 1883. In 1888 the government paid him to cut an access track to the Sutherland Falls.
McKay had by this time left Milford, and during the 1880s, apart from an occasional visit to Dunedin, Donald Sutherland lived a hermit-like existence, seeing only those who called on the steamer (the Hinemoa or the Stella ) which made six-monthly visits. He went prospecting for diamonds in Sinbad Gully with the historian James Cowan, guided visitors, was an avid bird-watcher and tried his hand at painting.
In 1890 he ended his self-imposed isolation when, at Dunedin on 7 August, he married Elizabeth Samuels, a widow who had been married twice previously. She had been born Elizabeth Bull in Bedford, England, the daughter of a farmer. Elizabeth was a woman of vision, determination and some financial means. Donald had been only a squatter on the land; Elizabeth bought a site on which they built an accommodation house, the Chalet, to cater for the summer tourist trade brought by the opening of the Milford Track. Forty people visited the Sutherland Falls during the first season in 1888–89; the next year 70. Donald began keeping cattle, pigs and sheep to provide food for the seasonal influx. Later the Sutherlands enlisted the help of Donald's nephew, William Sutherland, and his wife Elizabeth.
Donald Sutherland was described as 'Big enough to fill a doorway; slow of speech, but full of natter when once started on subjects that his self-education had enabled him to master; distant in manner, but fully understanding hospitality as a rite'. He died at Milford on 24 October 1919. Elizabeth, alone with her husband at the time, was unable to lift his body and had to wait for the next call of the Hinemoa five weeks later before she could bury him. There had been no children of the marriage.
Elizabeth Sutherland stayed on at Milford Sound, keeping the Chalet open in the summer, but sold out to the government in 1922 for £1,000. She continued to live at Milford, where she died on 10 December 1923.