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by  John Wilson

‘Shall I ever return / To the Land of Heather and Thistle / From the Land of Kauri and Fern?’ (‘Heather and fern’, John Liddell Kelly, 1887)

The red in Dunedin’s tartan signifies the blood ties that Scottish settlers had to leave behind. But the green symbolises new pastures. Arriving with a mix of idealism and common sense, they helped build the nation as farmers, engineers, social reformers, businessmen and politicians. In Otago they founded a city renowned for its educational institutions – and for very fine haggis.

Before 1840: sailors and missionaries

Sailors, sealers and whalers

James Cook was half Scottish, and Scottish crew on board his ship Endeavour were the first from their country to visit New Zealand. Among sealers and whalers who frequented New Zealand waters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was Captain William Stewart, who gave his name to Stewart Island (Rakiura). Some of these early Scots stayed to live. John Nicol (‘Scotch Jock’) and Hector McDonald were both Kāpiti Island whalers, and Alexander Robert Fyffe established a whaling station at Kaikōura.

Scottish and Māori intermarriage

Nicol and McDonald were two of many early settlers who took Māori wives and fathered mixed race families. So was David MacNish, a Scot who settled at Raglan in the 1830s. The Love family of Picton and Wellington traces its ancestry back to the marriage of Mere Rere Te Hikanui to a Scottish whaler, John Agar Love. In the far south, George Newton’s marriage to Wharetutu (Anne) produced a very large family. In Moeraki, the daughter of a Scottish farmer and his Māori wife was Tini Pana (Jane Burns), who went on to marry H. K. Taiaroa, a Ngāi Tahu leader.

First arrivals in the far north

Two Sydney-based Scots, David Ramsay and Gordon Browne, established an early (probably 1826) European trading and shipbuilding settlement at Hōreke, in Hokianga Harbour. Their superintendent, David Clarke, was also Scottish. Gilbert Mair from Aberdeenshire arrived at the Bay of Islands in 1824, just ahead of four ‘Scotch carpenters’ who settled in the Hokianga in 1826–27, after the failure of the first New Zealand Company’s settlement. That company’s ship, the Rosanna, had sailed from Leith, Edinburgh. The first recorded European settlers at Whangārei and early settlers on Waiheke Island were also Scots, and in the late 1830s several immigrants from Caithness settled in the Bay of Islands.

New Zealand’s first public servant

New Zealand’s first public servant, and the founder of New Zealand’s wine industry, was a Scot. James Busby accompanied his parents to New South Wales, Australia, in 1824 after studying viticulture in France. In 1833 he was appointed British Resident in New Zealand. He settled at Waitangi – where he lived in the house now known as the Treaty House – and planted New Zealand’s first vineyard.

Because fewer Scottish than English and Irish convicts were transported to Australia, there were probably not many Scots among the groups of escaped convicts who settled in Northland.

Convicts and missionaries

Early missionary endeavours in Northland were Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic, not Presbyterian, so Scots were not among the missionaries before 1840. However, Scottish missionaries did arrive later, in 1843 and 1845.

1840–1852: organised settlement

Who came and why

Organised settlement began in the 1840s and continued well into the 20th century. Many Scottish people came, for a variety of reasons.

The founding of the Free Church in Scotland was evidence of revived religious fervour in Scottish life, but religion was not, even for the Free Church Presbyterians of Otago, why Scots emigrated. The Otago settlers shared with other Scottish immigrants economic reasons for migrating.

Few Scots emigrated as refugees of the infamous Highland Clearances, but up to a half of Scottish immigrants were agricultural labourers or farmers affected by the reorganisation of Lowland agriculture. They also came to escape the potato famine of 1846 and the fall in cattle prices in 1848–52. They arrived hoping to secure land.

Artisans and small traders were almost a third of all Scottish migrants, and industrial workers a small but significant part of the inflow. These groups came primarily from the industrial Lowlands, close to 70% of them from around Edinburgh and Glasgow. Most decided to emigrate when times became hard. A number left Paisley in the early 1840s when its weaving industry was in trouble.

What’s in a name?

A ‘Lowlanders’ rugby team? ‘Lowlander’ condensed milk? The majority of Otago’s Scottish immigrants came from the Lowlands, but when rugby was reorganised in the 1990s and the provincial team needed a new name, it became The Highlanders.

The name ‘Highlander’ had already been used commercially for a popular brand of condensed milk, manufactured by a company on the outskirts of Invercargill. The Highlander figure, which appeared for many years on the company’s cans of condensed milk, is believed to have been Drum Major James Macgregor of the Invercargill Pipe Band.

Arrivals in the 1840s

By 1839 there were probably upwards of 400 Scots among the country’s non-Māori population of perhaps 2,000.

In the first decade of organised settlement, many Scots came in the major inflows of 1840–42, and 1848. The New Zealand Company actively recruited settlers in Scotland, but only three of the company’s 76 ships sailed from Scottish ports. Scottish people constituted about 20% of all British migrants to New Zealand between 1840 and 1852.


Two groups of Scots came to Auckland in the early 1840s. In 1841 the Scottish Colonisation Company despatched three vessels from the River Clyde, bearing migrants who settled first at Cornwallis Point. A year later the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners sent out a party of more than 500 from Paisley (where the textile industry was in recession) on the Duchess of Argyll and the Jane Gifford.

In Auckland, unlike other early provinces, the Scottish were outnumbered by the Irish. This was partly because there were few Scots among the soldiers discharged from Imperial regiments, or among the Fencible settlers (men who were given land in exchange for military duties).


Two ships sent by the New Zealand Company to Wellington carried Scots. About 120 sailed on the Bengal Merchant, arriving in Port Nicholson in February 1840. On 30 November that year, St Andrew’s Day was celebrated at Petone. The Blenheim arrived in December 1840 with close to 200 Scottish passengers. Many settled a little north of Wellington itself, at Kaiwharawhara, which became known as ‘the Scotch settlement’.

After the government purchase of the Rangitīkei Block in 1849, a group of Blenheim Scots took up land in the Turakina valley, where an awareness of the Scottish origins of the original settlers remained strong into the 20th century.


Prior to the founding of the Canterbury settlement in 1850, several Scots moved south from Wellington. Notable among them were the brothers John and William Deans, who settled at Riccarton in 1843 and established the first successful farm on the Canterbury Plains. After their early deaths, John’s widow Jane became the matriarch of one of Canterbury’s most prominent families.

The Otago settlement

A Scottish settlement

English domination of the first New Zealand Company settlements prompted architect and politician George Rennie to start planning ‘a New Zealand settlement for Scotland’ in 1842. His plan to found a ‘new Edinburgh’ was modified after John McGlashan, Thomas Burns and William Cargill turned the venture into a Free Church enterprise. The Free Church was born in Scotland in 1843, when 400 clergy and about one-third of the lay people of the Church of Scotland left the established church in protest against patronage and state control of church affairs.

Otago is founded

The John Wickliffe sailed from Gravesend on 24 November 1847, with 97 passengers aboard. The Philip Laing sailed three days later from Greenock with 247 passengers. Burns and Cargill both came as settlers. Despite Burns’s dislike of ‘the little enemy’, as he called the non-Presbyterian settlers, only two-thirds of the original Otago settlers were Free Church Presbyterians. In August 1848, over half of Otago’s United Kingdom-born population of 403 was Scottish.

Immigration into Otago lagged in the early 1850s, but picked up later in the decade. Efforts to attract Scots were only partly successful, and by the end of 1864, after the first gold rushes, little more than one-third of the population of Otago and Southland was Scottish-born.

The 1848 Otago settlement set a Scottish stamp on southern New Zealand. Even into the 20th century, Otago and Southland remained the heartland of the Scottish legacy in New Zealand.

Southern place names

Otago’s Scottish origins are reflected in the place names of southern New Zealand. The region’s major river, the Clutha, bears the ancient Gaelic name for the Clyde. ‘Dunedin’ is an older variant of ‘Edinburgh’, and the name Invercargill (devised to honour one of Otago’s founders, William Cargill), includes the Gaelic word 'inver', meaning river mouth, which is part of such Scottish place names as Inverness.

The gold rushes

Although the gold rushes brought a more diverse population into Otago, they did not overwhelm the Scottish presence. In fact, the Scottish character of the south was reinforced by miners drawn to the Otago goldfields. A Scot, John Buchanan, was one of the first to find gold in Otago’s rivers in the late 1850s, although not in profitable quantities. About 30% of the miners who came to Otago in 1861–70 were Scottish.

Despite its burgeoning numbers, in 1866 Dunedin was considered by one European pamphlet-writer to be ‘a little township, something like a small fishing village at home … inhabited by a population consisting chiefly of rigidly righteous but whisky-loving, unprincipled Scotsmen’. 1 Even if parochial in European terms, Dunedin was on its way to becoming New Zealand’s leading city, thanks to the influx of gold miners.

  1. Quoted by W. D. Borrie in The European peopling of Australasia: a demographic history, 1788-1988. Canberra: Demography Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1994, p. 98. › Back

1853–1870: a surge of Scots

More Scottish than the United Kingdom

From 1853 to 1870 Scots came in sufficient numbers to keep New Zealand more Scottish than the United Kingdom – in those years they made up more than 30% of New Zealand’s UK-born immigrants, even though they formed only 10% of the United Kingdom’s population.

Settlement of Waipū

The arrival of one group of Scots in the 1850s is among the most dramatic of New Zealand’s immigration stories. The charismatic preacher Norman McLeod left Scotland in 1817 for Nova Scotia. In 1851 he led his people, who were facing economic hardship in Canada, first to Australia and then on to New Zealand. In 1854 they secured land at Waipū in Northland. After 1854 more Scots came, from Nova Scotia and direct from Scotland. The total number of Waipū Scots exceeded 800. Most were Highlanders. Though now indistinguishable from other rural townships, Waipū still celebrates its Scottish origins.

Increase in arrivals

The surge of arrivals from Scotland that began in the 1850s reached its height in the early 1860s, when the discovery of gold in New Zealand coincided with the American Civil War. Between 1860 and 1863 more Scots left their homeland for New Zealand than for any other destination. These were the only years when Scots arriving in New Zealand outnumbered the English. In 1864 the number of Scottish-born in the country’s total non-Māori population reached a peak of nearly 18%.

The provinces

Scots remained dominant in Otago and Southland: in 1871 they made up about a third of the total population in these provinces. In the other major provinces they made up less than 10% of the population.

Auckland continued to draw a smaller proportion of its immigrants from Scotland than from England and Ireland. But recruiting agents in Glasgow in particular ensured that considerable numbers of Scots came to Auckland as land grant immigrants between 1858 and 1862.

Canterbury received more Scottish immigrants with farming backgrounds than other parts of the country because special efforts were made to recruit Scottish shepherds.

Highlanders and Lowlanders

Few immigrants were Highlanders, forced off their land by the notorious Clearances – these mostly happened long before any significant Scottish migration to New Zealand. Most Highlanders came between 1853 and 1870 because of Canterbury’s recruitment of Highland shepherds, the settlement of Waipū, and the gold rushes.

Lowlanders made up three-quarters of immigrants, although the families of some people recorded as Lowlanders might have moved from the Highlands a generation or two earlier.

The late 1800s

Assisted immigrants

Although more English and Irish came as assisted immigrants, Scots were favoured by recruiters in the 1870s because they were considered hard working, sober and reliable, and they were mostly Protestant.

In the 1880s, as the economic depression worsened, fewer Scots arrived, though in 1886 the Scots-born living in New Zealand peaked at 54,810, a number not approached again for 50 years. After 1886 the number declined, as Scots were among those who moved to Australia from a depressed New Zealand.

Scots throughout the country

In the 1870s Otago (including Southland, which rejoined its parent province in 1870) remained the most Scottish of the provinces.

Except for the south, Scots were spread more or less uniformly through the country, though Canterbury continued to take more of the 1870s inflow than other provinces north of the Waitaki River. Scots were evenly distributed among towns, country districts and the goldfields. However, there were proportionally many more Scots on the Otago goldfields than on those of the West Coast and Marlborough.

New Zealand’s highest waterfall

The country’s highest waterfall, at 580.3 m (1,904 ft), bears the name of the Scot who discovered it in 1880. William Sutherland was one of several Scots who explored the country in the 19th century. He ended a wandering life (he had earlier fought under Garibaldi in Italy) when he settled at Milford Sound in 1877. A fiord he discovered in 1883 also bears his name.


Among the Scots who arrived as goldminers in the 1860s were a substantial number from the Shetland Islands, far to the north of the Scottish mainland. Many of them settled on the West Coast, at Charleston and Nine-mile Beach. Other Shetlanders mined for gold in Otago.

Shetland Islanders also arrived in significant numbers in the 1870s, when the Clearances in the Shetlands coincided with the offer of assisted passages to New Zealand. Some settled initially at Port William on Stewart Island and at Karamea on the West Coast. From 1871 to 1890 (and again from 1916 to 1945) fishermen and seamen were among the Shetlanders who came to New Zealand.

In 1904–8 a group of Shetlanders made an unsuccessful effort to farm on bleak Campbell Island. The Shetland population later became concentrated in Wellington, where a society was formed in 1922.

One of the earliest Shetlanders to arrive in New Zealand was Robert Stout. He came in 1864 as a 19-year-old, settled in Dunedin, and embarked on a career in teaching, law and politics. Like many Scots, his political beliefs were radical. He served as chief justice of the Supreme Court between 1899 and 1926, and played a significant role in fostering tertiary education in New Zealand. Proud of his Shetland heritage, Stout encouraged others from his homeland to come to New Zealand.

1900–1945: ebbs and flows

Immigration flux

After a lull in immigrants from 1895 to 1905, numbers picked up. More than 16,000 Scots arrived between 1906 and 1916.

The decline of immigrants with farming backgrounds, which began in the 1870s, continued in the early years of the 20th century. A further change was that the Scottish flavour of the south diminished.

Between the wars

Between the First and Second World Wars, the number of Scots coming to New Zealand increased dramatically.

Reasons for this increase are to be found in Scotland itself. Scottish industry mostly produced goods for export rather than for the domestic market, and when downturns affected particular industries or particular regions in Scotland, large numbers of Scots were prompted to seek better opportunities overseas. Assistance schemes encouraged them to look to New Zealand.

Scots from different backgrounds

Arrivals in the years between the wars were mostly skilled industrial and white-collar workers. In May 1923, for example, the 100 Scots who came out on the SS Athenic included Glaswegian shipyard workers, miners from Fife, and artisans and shopkeepers.

Some farmers came from the Highlands. Other interwar immigrants included children who came under the Flock House scheme to be trained for lives on the land. Youngsters from Scottish orphanages also arrived.

New Zealand’s own moonshine

Hokonui whisky is part of New Zealand folklore. It was unlawfully distilled in the hills behind Gore, mostly by members of a family of Catholic Highlanders, the Macraes. The whisky was distributed in secret, largely through the pipe band fraternity, from the 1870s until the 1930s, when raids by excise men shut most of the stills down.

A 1936 peak

By 1936 the number of Scots living in New Zealand had risen to 54,188, the highest it had been since 1886. By 1945 the number had fallen, and it did not rise above 50,000 again. Fewer Scots chose to settle in Otago and Southland as the 20th century advanced.

Immigration after 1945

The end of assisted immigration

There was a fresh wave of immigrants from Scotland after 1945. But the end of assisted immigration in 1975 curbed the flow. By the time the last major influx of migrants stopped in 1976, Otago and Southland were no longer predominantly Scottish centres. The Scottish population was fairly evenly distributed around New Zealand. However, Scottish traditions remained strong in the south.

Words of Scottish origin

The dialect spoken by the Lowland Scots of south and east Scotland is called Lallans, and is entirely different from the Gaelic spoken in the Highlands. There is also a dialect in north-east Scotland called Doric. The Lallans dialect has left its mark on the English spoken in New Zealand. ‘Wee’, meaning ‘little’, is the most common word of Scottish origin still heard. The popularity of ‘-ie’ or ‘-y’ as a suffix, as in ‘wharfie’ (waterside worker), ‘footie’ (the game of rugby football) and ‘shrewdie’ (a shrewd person), is also a legacy from colloquial Scots.

A variety of occupations

Until 1975 the country’s attraction as a land of economic opportunity motivated Scots to journey to the far side of the globe. One woman who arrived at the age of 15 with her family after the Second World War reflected later that if she had stayed in Scotland, she would have had little respite from post-industrial working-class hardships. Despite being wrenched away from friends and familiar places as a teenager, she believed she had gained a better life.

Almost half of Scottish people living in New Zealand in 2013 had professional or managerial occupations. Around one-third worked in trade and manual occupations.

Scottish culture

Highland traditions

Most Scots who came to New Zealand were Lowlanders, but they took the emblems and activities that proclaimed their identity from the Highlands. They adopted popular Highland symbols – clan societies, kilts, piping and Highland games – which were more romantic than the history and culture of the Lowlands.

Games, societies and publications

Highland games, cultural societies and publications sustained Scottish identity.

The identity of Waipū settlers, originally defined by kinship, religion and the Gaelic language, was later expressed through participation in the Caledonian games, first held in 1871. Caledonian gatherings (Caledonia is the Latin word for North Britain) celebrated aspects of Scottish identity in the south from the 1860s.

New Zealand’s first Caledonian society was formed in 1862. Scottish, Burns, Highland and St Andrew’s societies also flourished.

Some Masonic lodges followed Scottish rituals. Even Taranaki, with its consistently low proportion of Scots, had a Scottish society by 1912. A Scottish interest group of genealogists was formed in 1990. Many clan societies established branches in New Zealand.

Some societies originally restricted their membership to people of Scottish birth or descent. The Dunedin Gaelic Society, founded in 1881, excluded even Lowlanders. These restrictions were gradually relaxed.

For some years Scottish societies had a national magazine. The New Zealand Scot, founded in 1912 in Dunedin, was published under a variety of titles in Auckland and Wellington until, as The New Zealand Scotsman, it folded in 1933. Today, the magazine Scotia Pacific, published by the Piping and Dancing Association, enjoys national circulation.

Pipe bands

Although there were no pipers among the first Otago settlers, in the 20th century pipe bands became the face of Scottish identity in New Zealand. The first civilian pipe band was set up in Invercargill in 1896. Pipe bands were often linked to Scottish societies, which also promoted Highland dancing. The first national pipe band contest was held in Christchurch in 1907. By 1953 there were more than 100 bands in the country. In 2003 there were still over 80.

Gaelic language

Gaelic was spoken in pockets of 19th-century New Zealand, including Waipū, Turakina and the Mackenzie Country. But even there, children were educated in English. Gaelic societies attempted to keep the language alive, but they later became indistinguishable from other Scottish societies.

Although Gaelic died, words and phrases entered everyday English from the Lowland Scots (Lallans) of the south and east, such as ‘crib’ for holiday house and ‘wee’ for little. And the burr in the accents of Southlanders is Scottish in origin.

The old language

The 1930s were the last years in which any significant number in New Zealand spoke Gaelic. Sermons were still being preached in Gaelic from a few Presbyterian pulpits in that decade, and in 1938 T. D. Burnett, of the Mt Cook station, organised a highland gathering at which the speeches and a sermon were in the old language. When Dame Flora McLeod visited Dunedin in 1954, she was welcomed in Gaelic by a woman from Skye.

Poetry, sports and knitting

A love of Robert Burns’s poetry was brought to New Zealand. The first Burns Club was founded in Dunedin in 1891. Burns night (25 January) vies with St Andrew’s day (30 November) as an occasion to celebrate national traditions.

Burns-inspired verse was written in New Zealand by John Barr, Jessie Mackay and Hugh Smith. Dugald Ferguson expressed a sentimental Scottish nationalism in verse and wrote a historical novel modelled on those of Sir Walter Scott. Alexander Bathgate wrote novels with a Scottish flavour about colonial life.

Scotland left its impression on sport with golf and curling, first played in central Otago by gold miners. Knitting owes its popularity to Scottish immigrants. So does whisky. Porridge, shortbread and scones (if not haggis), all Scottish in origin, appear on everyday New Zealand menus.


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.

Scots in public life

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.


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.

Scots and the economy

The urge to succeed

From their Presbyterianism, Scots inherited a strong work ethic, and from the Scottish Enlightenment a self-confident individualism and eagerness to achieve material success. Migrants were well educated and possessed a range of skills. They prospered ahead of other immigrant groups, and were well represented among the very successful.


In the second half of the 19th century, when many immigrants were from farming backgrounds, there were higher proportions of Scots in the countryside than in towns. Allan and John McLean were among those who succeeded impressively as pastoralists, owning large tracts of land on which sheep were grazed. In south Canterbury, Jeanie Collier was the country’s first recorded woman pastoralist.

In the harsh Mackenzie Country, Scots succeeded an earlier English generation to dominate the holding of sheep runs. The Scottish shepherd with his border collie was also a familiar figure on runs in the Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay.

Scots were also successful farmers. In 1882 they owned about half the farms of more than 40 hectares. Some succeeded spectacularly well. In 1892, 40% of those owning more than 4,000 hectares were Scots. Donald Reid on the Taieri was an example. In the Rangitīkei, the leading landowner, James Glenny Wilson, held more than 2,400 hectares.

Farm-based industries

Thomas Brydone and William Soltau Davidson started the meat-freezing industry. James Little developed the Corriedale breed of sheep, and John Matheson founded the cooperative dairying industry on the Otago Peninsula. Later, T. C. Brash saw the Dairy Board through its formative years.


There is some truth in the stereotype of the thrifty, hard-working Scot, and the Scots played key roles in developing the colonial economy. Their numbers in Otago, and wealth from gold, explain why many of the country’s early leading firms were founded in Dunedin. John Macfarlane Ritchie’s National Mortgage and Agency Company was one of the country’s most influential firms. John Ross and Robert Glendining founded a company that dominated the textile industry in Otago.

In Auckland, John Logan Campbell and William Brown were the founding fathers of the city’s business community and George Fowlds, son of a handloom weaver, was a leader in the clothing business. Nathaniel Wilson expanded from lime-burning to manufacturing Portland cement at Warkworth.

Engineering and shipping

A San Francisco connection

In Dunedin, George Smith Duncan, an engineer of Scottish background, decided that the cable car invented for San Francisco’s steep streets by another engineer of Scottish descent, Andrew Smith Hallidie, was ideal for his own hilly city. For Dunedin, Duncan developed a pull-curve pulley system, which was later adopted in the cable car’s birthplace itself.

Scottish immigrants also brought skills in engineering and shipbuilding. Henry Niccol and George Fraser were prominent in Auckland’s shipbuilding industry. In Christchurch, John Anderson founded a notable engineering firm. Two brothers, Peter and David Duncan, founded another Christchurch engineering firm and two more, Alexander and Thomas Burt, established a similar firm in Dunedin. Anderson was one of several Scots involved in setting up shipping lines. The company flag of the Northern Steam Ship Company, founded by Alexander McGregor, incorporated a St Andrew’s cross.

20th-century business

Success in business continued into the 20th century. James Fletcher (Fletcher Construction), Charles Todd (Todd Motor Company), and David Henry (New Zealand Forest Products) founded three of the country’s largest companies. James Wattie, of tinned-food fame, was born in New Zealand of Scottish parents. In retailing, Robert Laidlaw set up the Farmers’ Union Trading Company and James Hay and Benjamin Sutherland, both New Zealand-born of Scottish parents, established Hay’s department store and the Self Help grocery chain.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Scotland.

  • 1858 census: 7,976
  • 1901 census: 47,858
  • 1951 census: 44,089
  • 1976 census: 47,827
  • 2001 census: 28,680
  • 2006 census: 29,016
  • 2013 census: 25,953

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Scottish: 15,039 (2006); 14,412 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'Scots', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 25 o Māehe 2015