Kōrero: Otago region

Whārangi 8. Presbyterians and Scots

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

From gold to God

Gold gave Otago the wherewithal to celebrate both faith and origins. In 1861 a design competition was held for the first permanent Presbyterian Church in the province. The First Church was to be built on the newly flattened Bell Hill in Dunedin. Winner Robert Lawson came to Dunedin from Melbourne in 1862 and was to practise architecture in the city until 1890. The church was built between 1868 and 1873.

The statue in the Octagon of renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns (uncle of First Church minister Thomas Burns, who died in 1871) was unveiled in 1887 before a crowd of over 8,000.


As in Scotland, education was valued. A high school for both boys and girls was established by 1863. Seven years later, one was set up for girls, the first girls’ public school in the Australasian colonies. The University of Otago enrolled its first students in 1871. It was provided with an endowment of 100,000 acres (40,468 hectares) of pastoral land and authority to grant degrees in arts, medicine, law and music. Degrees in mining, dentistry, commerce and physical education were added later. Knox College, established to train Presbyterian ministers (men only until 1983), opened in 1909.

Still going strong

The Caledonian Society of Otago, established in 1862, was still thriving in 2009. The society organises annual Highland games in Dunedin, with the traditional entertainments of caber tossing, pipe bands and Scottish dancing – as well as the more New Zealand-flavoured event of gumboot tossing.

Presbyterian influence

In 1921, three generations after Otago was founded, most of coastal Otago was more than 55% Presbyterian (compared with 20% in Canterbury and the North Island). In 1956 the region as a whole was still 44% Presbyterian.

The church influenced a variety of social causes. Presbyterianism sustained movements for temperance, prohibition, women’s suffrage, and the rights of workers, women and children. All of these causes had other influences, but drew inspiration from the vigorous social and moral conscience of Presbyterianism. Rutherford Waddell, minister at St Andrew’s in Dunedin from 1879, was a strong liberalising influence on the Presbyterian church of the time; he was also instrumental in exposing sweated labour in Dunedin.

Otago Presbyterians were strong supporters of the church’s missions in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), China, India, and the Urewera country of the North Island. Its work drew in individuals as diverse as Annie James, Jean Begg, Alexander Don and George McNeur.

More districts in Otago and Southland than in any other part of New Zealand voted themselves ‘dry’ (prohibiting the sale of alcohol) under local option votes from 1894. They remained dry until the 1940s and 1950s.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Otago region - Presbyterians and Scots', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/otago-region/page-8 (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 8 May 2009, updated 1 May 2015