Story: Scots

Page 10. Scots in public life

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A democratic country

Individual Scots, well educated and inheriting a Calvinist concern to improve society, made important contributions to New Zealand’s public life. Besides individual achievements, the egalitarian spirit of Scottish culture helped make New Zealand a nation of rough equality, compared with the class system of England.

Politics

Scots were in right at the start of political life in New Zealand. James Busby, the first British Resident, was a Scot. So was Andrew Sinclair, colonial secretary in the 1840s. Of greatest influence in the mid-19th century was the Highlander Donald McLean. A government official and politician, McLean played a key role in the developing relationship between European settlers and Māori, and secured Māori land for settlement.

Among those active in the Liberal Party of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was John McKenzie, minister of lands, whose childhood experiences in Scotland fuelled his hatred of landlordism and his determination to place settlers on family-sized farms. In the later Liberal government of Sir Joseph Ward, five out of ten cabinet ministers were Scottish.

Although Scots were prevalent in politics, there were no specifically Scottish issues or causes around which they could come together. Irish New Zealanders, by contrast, took sides in the struggle to free Ireland from English rule.

One man’s weed

In Scotland a species of thistle (Onopordum acanthium) is honoured as a national symbol. Its significance stems from a historical event, when Danish troops invading under the cover of darkness decided to remove their shoes for extra stealth. When one of them stood on a thistle, his cry alerted the Scots and they defeated the Danes in the ensuing battle.

But in New Zealand the thistle known as Scotch thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is regarded as a weed. The gorse plant, also considered a weed in New Zealand, is cultivated in Scotland as an ornamental plant.

One of the country’s most influential prime ministers was the Scot Peter Fraser. Fraser was a Labour politician, but the Scots were never as prominent in trade union politics as the Irish. And although Scots were more often radicals than conservatives, they were active at both ends of the political spectrum. The leader of the conservative National Party from 1936 to 1940 was Adam Hamilton, born in New Zealand of Scottish parents.

Women’s suffrage

New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, in 1893. Women whose outlooks were shaped by the Scottish readiness to educate girls played a significant role in the struggle for the franchise. They included Kate Sheppard, Learmonth Dalrymple, Margaret Sievwright and Jessie Mackay. Many of these were also leading lights in the temperance or prohibition movements. Robert Stout, too, was an ardent prohibitionist.

The Presbyterian background

Many who were prominent in political life came from a strong Presbyterian background. Although a significant number of Presbyterians came from Ulster, the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand was known as ‘the Scotch Church’. As late as 1940, Scottish traditions – strict observance of the Sabbath and ministers wearing the long black Geneva gown of Calvinist origins – were reminders of the Church’s origins. Until the mid-20th century it continued to recruit ministers and staff for its theological college from Scotland.

The strong Scottish traditions of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand help explain the prominence of Scots in public life. It was a church in which liberals were divided against fundamentalists, but the two groups shared a passionate concern, derived from their common heritage, for justice in society.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Scots - Scots in public life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/scots/page-10 (accessed 23 October 2017)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015