The Scots Brought their past and their present with them — and a determination to forget neither. Long before surveyor William Tuckett rowed to the head of Otago harbour in April, 1844, and discovered to his “unqualified satisfaction” a site for a new town, Free Church of Scotland colonists had already named the capital of the New Zealand province they were to establish and settle.
First choice was New Edinburgh, approved by lay members of the free church at a meeting in Glasgow’s Eagle Tavern in 1845. But the prefix “new” didn’t please publisher William Chambers. Its use in the Americas had become a confusing “abomination”. Dunedin, the old Celtic name for Edinburgh was more appropriate, though it wasn’t accepted without reservations.
The Rev. Thomas Burns — nephew of Scottish poet Robbie Burns — had given up one of the richest livings in rural Scotland to devote himself to establishing a Scottish settlement in New Zealand. Dunedin, he argued, was a hill, and “our Dunedin has no hill”. His lack of topographical knowledge was soon corrected when he became Dunedin’s first minister and teacher.
The Maori name, “Otakou” — the place of red ochre — had already been corrupted to “Otago” by the whalers and sealers, and Otago it officially became by proclamation in the first issue of the Otago News on June 22, 1848.
Burns reluctantly agreed, but the fires of Scotland burned strong. There were only three sources, he said, from which Otago place names could be drawn names such as Dunedin which “served to recall home associations without wearisome repetitions”; Scottish names of “sequestered glens, linns, clachans, hills, streams, hamlets and villages”; and names such as Free Church Land of Free Valley which could be translated into “euphonious Maori.”
There was also a practical reason. Native names such as Tokomairiro “could prove to be stumbling blocks to the homely Scottish tongue.” Nothing has changed!
To some extent Burns’s dictum succeeded. The soft burr of Scotland abounds in transplanted place names such as Roslyn and Musselburgh; Roxburgh and Mosgiel; and the glint of Scottish steel is in the sound of Bannockburn where claymores were drawn in anger in 1314. And the name Glencoe survives as a reminder of Scottish struggle.
Captain Cook had named the province’s greatest river Molyneux to honour his sailing master, but the Free Church Association had other ideas. Again it turned to its roots. The river was renamed the Clutha, Gaelic for Glasgow’s river Clyde.
The village that sprang up on the river bank became Balclutha — the town on the Clutha — and the island encompassed where the river divides before it reaches the sea became Inch Clutha. That was less colourful than Bloody Jack’s Island, so named by the whalers after the Maori who claimed the land. Later still it was known as Balloon Island because of its shape.
The discovery of gold brought change. There was no stopping a rash of new names on the map in the steps of the millers. They added colour and excitement — and they made the province wealthy.
Australia made a contribution with Bendigo, not far from the town of Cromwell. This direct transplant from the Victorian goldfields takes its name from prizefighter William Abednego, professionally known as Bendigo, who was champion of all England in the 1850s.
And while biblical scholars still search for the Ophir that was the source of gold for Solomon’s temple, Otago has no such problem. Ophir stands in the gold country of Central Otago, named in 1872 by Otago superintendent James Macandrew whose name lives on in Dunedin’s Macandrew Bay.
The Scottish influence moved south. Invercargill was named after Captain William Cargill, leader of the Otago Free Church settlement and later provincial superintendent. The city’s principal streets, Tay, Dee and Tweed, bear the names of Scottish rivers.
Southland became a province in 1861, named by Governor Gore Browne, who had also named Napier and Marlborough and whose own name is enshrined in the market town of Gore.
Scottish names proliferated: Balfour and Groveburn; Mossburn and Benhar; Galloway and Chatton of the Clan McNab.But other names crept in. Lady Barkly perpetuates the name of a famous Southland locomotive that ran the ill-fated Invercargill-Makarewa line in the 1860s. Chaslands recalls the exploits of legendary sealer, part-aboriginal Thomas Chaslands, who sailed an open boat from the Chathams to safety in Otago.
Bluff takes its name from the high hill behind the town. Originally it was known as Port McQuarie, then Campbelltown, after the wife of Governor Gore Browne. It wasn’t until 1917 that official recognition was given to the name Bluff.
And across the divide of the Southern Alps Indian Island in Dusky Sound is a reminder of Cook’s chance meeting with the “Lost Tribe” of Fiordland in 1733, long before the word “Maori” was written into the English language.
The Rev. Mr Burns’s contention that there were only three sources for the names of Scottish settlements in New Zealand ran into the truth of his poet ancestor’s words: the best laid plans “gang aft agley.” Otago and Southland are the richer for that.