a family story

John Roxborogh

Alexander McKenzie (1854-1945)

Alexander McKenzie, the fifth son and youngest child of Alexander and Ann, a whisky-drinking, Gaelic-singing, dogmatic and somewhat taciturn Scotsman; drover, Master Mason and Presbyterian, lover of Gaelic poetry and teller of tales, was perhaps the most colourful member of his generation of the McKenzie family. According to entries in his Bible he was born in Strathkanaird on 12 July 1854. This was one year before the registration of births became compulsory in Scotland.

In 1861, 11 of the 22 children in the village aged between six and fifteen were listed as scholars, but Alexander was not one of them. Maybe that was a hard year when the cost of sending him to school was more than the family could manage. There are stories of him having developed the elementary techniques of stalking and poaching deer and perhaps it was during this time that these skills were developed! No doubt he spent time roaming the hills and the streams of the area, but he would also have been expected to help in the work of the croft. He may have spent some of his time with Donald who was working as a shepherd, probably on a nearby sheep farm. One task would have been the seasonal cutting and stacking of peats and the seemingly endless one of carting them home.

At the age of 12 he joined a fishing vessel captained by an uncle and the next few years were spent at sea working out of Ullapool, sometimes as far afield as the coast of Europe. Once caught in a storm the boat had to take shelter in a German port. From his uncle he got some of the education that he otherwise lacked and it was he who taught him to read and write in the Gaelic.

Alexander came to New Zealand as a general labourer which classification may have been an expediency to satisfy the demands of the Colonial Office immigration quota at that particular time, or it may in fact have been what he was doing. His great love of horses and cattle and the life of a drover suggest some experience of these while still in Scotland. He would have been familiar with the Drove Road out of Strathkanaird Eastwards and slightly South, along and round and over the hills heading towards the cattle markets in the East. It is very easy to imagine him, more a cattle man than a shepherd, working this route, singing hauntingly beautiful Gaelic songs

In New Zealand Alexander knew many droving routes intimately, but unfortunately left no written record of his experiences on the road. From his base farm at Mangaweka he drove routes out of Taihape and knew the people of the area well, Maori and Pakeha alike. He had his special `watering holes' and places where he stopped overnight. Sometime in the early 1930s he found himself in the home of the well-known base singer, Oscar Natzka. With Gaelic ballads from the one and grand opera from the other it must have been quite an evening! A photograph of a Maori double wedding in Hawkes Bay has two Europeans among the guests. These are believed to be Alexander and his wife Mary. Their presence at such functions would would attest to his friendship with Maori families along the routes he travelled.

He had married Mary Walker in 1887, thirteen years after his arrival in New Zealand. She was from Upper Tutaenui and the elder sister of Euphemia who had married Donald McKenzie a few months earlier. By this time he had bought some property in Feilding and the couple settled there, probably on one of the sections in Marlborough Street. In 1888 their only son, Edward Walker McKenzie (Ted), was born there.

In 1896 the family, which by then included their niece Euphemia Alexandrina Walker McKenzie (Effie), and at times her sister Euphemia Anne (Pheme), had moved to a farm at Mangaweka, near the site of the old railway station. When the decision was made to leave Feilding it may have been influenced by Donald's move to South Africa and the fact that at Mangaweka they would be within a day's visiting distance of the Walker family at Hunterville as well as the MacLeans at Silverhope, although of course at Feilding they had been close to the Robertsons at Awahuri. Maybe the thought of another block of virgin land being opened up with the consequent opportunity of fresh droving routes was a challenge.

In 1890 the site of the township of Managaweka was still standing bush although there was some activity in the area. Within the next four or five years business boomed, much of it centred on the needs of travellers and contractors - blacksmiths, wheelwrights, a boarding-house, a post-office and a school with 23 pupils. Land in surrounding blocks was also being opened up. One of these was the Te Kapua and Manui Road area where one of the original settlers was Paddy O'Keeffe whom Effie was to marry in 1914. In 1895 the sections in the Managaweka township were sold. Alexander McKenzie's name does not appear on the map of block ten of the Hautapu Survey District which shows the original purchasers, so it must have been sometime after 1895 that they took up residence there.

Life for the family in the years up to the time of World War I revolved around the farm, droving cattle, the Church, the wider family, and the Masonic Lodge. Alexander kept about 100 cattle on his farm. He also grew oats and made a feature of calculating how many sheaves he would need for his own stock so that he could sell the remainder. In his later years he bought land in Cussin Road, Tatuanui and in Piakonui Road, Richmond Downs.

After the death of Mary in 1914, followed by that of their only child Ted, killed in action in World War I, Alexander must have been a sad and lonely person, yet still romantic in his habits. He was known for turning up unannounced at various homes throughout the Central North Island asking "Have you a bed for me?"

For many of his grand-nieces and nephews their memory of him is as an upright, "straight in the saddle" stern gentleman who nevertheless stopped to talk while his horse grazed. He had a beard which had the fascinating habit of waggling as he spoke. If a child was currently in favour out from his pocket would come a special tin of threepences. The especially favoured would get sixpence. Bobby Taylor still today has one of his threepences. Phillip Gibbs can recall his willingness to play ball with a small boy and Elsie Campbell remembers how her brother Dennis used to follow him around on the O'Keeffe farm at Taihape where they were constant companions. Others such as Lulu Paton and Barbara McKee can still hear his Gaelic singing floating up the valley at Richmond Downs as he rode home from a day at the club in Matamata - contrite and carrying gifts. He was known to cross the reins of his roan horse and leave it to walk home while he himself drifted in his mind, lost in the Gaelic world of his songs and memories.

Family legend has it that at Masonic gatherings he had sat next to Lord Bledisloe, the Governor-general. Whether it is true or not, the story is common knowledge among several branches of the McKenzie family. Other stories were told to many on his travels. Out poaching, it was said, on Ben Mor Coigach, he lost his knife, one with a distinctive carved antler handle. Years later when judging the piping contest at a show in Turakina he saw the familiar carving on a knife being used by one of his neighbours. As already mentioned it turned out that the knife had been found on Ben Mor and brought by the finder to New Zealand.

There are other memories. After the crisis point in an illness during which he nearly died, his niece Kate who was nursing him, bent over and asked "Do you know who I am?" "Yes," replied Alex, "you're Methusela!" In Mangaweka it was said that around the farm there were many strategic, but secret, places where he hid bottles of whisky for when they might be needed.

He must be remembered too, for what he and Mary did in caring for and bringing up Effie when her mother died shortly after her birth. It also says something, particularly for a Presbyterian in his day and age, that he accepted with equanimity her marriage to Paddy O'Keeffe, an Irish Catholic, and made his home with the O'Keeffes for some years before moving north.

For some time he stayed at Ngarua with his sister Catherine and her daughter Kate, and then for a number of years with his niece Annie Scott at Richmond Downs, Walton. At Ngarua he and Alexander Robertson would sit outside for hours talking in Gaelic. Curious young boys without an understanding of the Gaelic, were none the wiser for creeping up to find out what the old men were talking about.

Although he was much sought-after as a judge of the bag-pipes at country shows, he did not play them himself.

He died in a nursing home in Cambridge and is buried in the Mangaweka Cemetery. With his passing a treasure-trove of Gaelic lore was lost forever. Mary Walker was loved by all who knew her. She is buried in Mangaweka not far from Alexander. Her headstone also commemorates their son Ted, killed in France.