Kōrero: Scots

Whārangi 9. Education

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

An influential group

Less than 10% of the two million Scots who emigrated in the century 1840 to 1940 came to New Zealand, yet they were extremely influential. One important reason for such an impact is the value all Scots placed on education.

From the 1600s, the Calvinist insistence on Bible reading ensured widespread literacy in Scotland. In the 1700s the Scottish Enlightenment emphasised learning. These two factors made Scotland one of Europe’s best-educated nations. Parish schools educated young Scots regardless of their wealth and status, and for much of the 19th century there were more universities in Scotland than in England.

Public and Presbyterian schools

Although New Zealand never had parish schools, religious Scots provided leadership for local public schools. In Turakina in 1863 the headmaster of the local school was also session clerk of the local Presbyterian parish. From 1862 until after 1950, every Presbyterian minister in Turakina was on the school committee, if not its chair.

Nationally, the egalitarian ideal of the 1872 Scottish education system was to provide compulsory, free, primary education in public schools. This became the model for New Zealand’s 1877 system.

The Presbyterian Church founded eight secondary schools between 1914 and 1919. However, these never underpinned a Scottish Presbyterian subculture, as church-run schools did for Irish Catholics.

Otago schools and the founding of a university

Predominantly Scottish, early Otago took the lead in education. In 1863 Otago Boys’ High School opened. And New Zealand’s first public high school for girls – one of the earliest such schools in the world – opened in 1871 after a long campaign by a Scot, Learmonth Dalrymple. The school’s first principal, Margaret Gordon Burn, was also Scottish.

New Zealand’s first university was founded in Otago in 1869, supported by clergy who had been recruited for the goldfields in 1863. Scotland’s universities were good models for colonial colleges because of their broader curricula and lack of ties to an established church.

The access to education enjoyed by women in 19th-century New Zealand is attributed to the Scottish influence. The secondary education women had gained in Scotland made many anxious for higher education for themselves or their daughters once in New Zealand.


The Scottish Enlightenment emphasised science and medicine. When New Zealand’s first medical school was founded in Otago in 1875, the dean of medicine, John Scott, and the professor of physiology, John Malcolm, were both Scots. A Scottish woman, Grace Neill, played a key role in the development of public health in New Zealand. Many doctors who were educated in Edinburgh and Glasgow pursued medical careers in New Zealand.

Natural sciences

An eagerness to understand the natural world was central in the Scottish Enlightenment. The earliest studies of New Zealand’s geology were the work of Scots, or scientists of Scottish descent: James Park, James Hector, Charles Cotton, Allan Thomson, James Bell and Alexander McKay.

New Zealand’s most famous scientist

Ernest Rutherford did his important scientific work overseas, but his New Zealand origins were as the son of a Scottish immigrant from Dundee. As a schoolboy, Rutherford was introduced to physics and chemistry by an Aberdonian, William Littlejohn, who coached Rutherford for a university scholarship when the budding scientist was boarding at Nelson College from 1887–89.

An interest in the natural world took some Scots exploring (Charlie Douglas and Donald Sutherland), made naturalists of others (Andrew Sinclair, Thomas Bannatyne Gillies, John Buchanan and James Coutts Crawford) and propelled a few (notably Thomas Mackenzie, but also James Glenny Wilson and Robert McNab) into early roles in conservation.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Wilson, 'Scots - Education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/scots/page-9 (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015