Catherine and Alexander Robertson
Sometime during the year, 25 June 1845 to 25 June 1846, Ann McKenzie
gave birth to a second daughter, and named her Catherine, presumably
after her great-grandmother, Catherine Stewart.
there were no fewer than six Catherine’s in the village, two of whom
bore the family name, “McKenzie”.
Any one of them could have been a close relative.
The Old Parish Records for Lochbroom show that on
Catherine was only a year old when the potato famine, that had
already wrought havoc in
Early in December 1846 Thomas Chalmers, leader of the Free Church in Scotland, wrote to the local Free Church minister enquiring about the condition of the poor in the parish at that time. In reply the Reverend McLeod wrote of his inability to describe what many of them were suffering:
The scenes of misery to be witnessed and the sorrowful tales of distress, which are to be heard from every Glen, shore, peninsular and Island are truly pitiable. The people deprived of their only means of subsistence - with famine and actual starvation, not only staring them in the face, but in the case of very many, at this moment along our Coasts their hearts fainting and their strength giving way, for want of the necessary food. The vast majority of the people depend almost wholly upon their potatoes, with fish when they can get it, as the sole means of their subsistence - the small patches of ground which they possess being entirely required to raise potatoes, barely sufficient in the most abundant seasons to support their families, great numbers of them are without any corn crop - and now that the potatoes have failed them, their whole dependence is taken away.
. . .We hear much of the distress of
- but if misery and want be characteristic features of that unhappy land, we have Ireland here. Ireland
Work-related relief schemes, such as road construction and home-based knitting, were instituted. The area needed roads and the people needed cash to buy meal that was brought in by ship from the east coast. The able-bodied men who could not find work on the roads were required to knit for a small remuneration. Other assistance to the poor came from the landlord himself but overall the scene was grim. Some families sought escape through emigration but our McKenzies carried on as best they could, as had their forebears ever since first coming to Achindrean at least a century earlier. Famine conditions lasted for several years and it was not until 1851 that things improved.
In that year Catherine’s three older brothers were at school. She herself was not listed as one of the scholars either then or ten years later when the next census was taken. In fact it is uncertain whether she ever did attend school. When she was married in 1872 she made her mark with a cross in lieu of a signature but many years later she was able to sign her will. During the intervening period she certainly acquired some of those literary skills essential to the whole business of horse racing, farming, and voting in an election.
When her sister Isabella was born Catherine was five years old. Three years later Alexander the last of Alexander and Ann’s children were born. From an early age she learned to help her mother and Mary with the day-to-day household tasks and the care of the younger children.
In 1862 the crops failed again and the dismal scenario of the
period from 1846 - 1851 was repeated although the famine itself was
of shorter duration.
Her grandmother, Helen, died in 1866 and Mary left home to work as a
housemaid. John and
Donald were then young men, working as shepherds, but still living
on the croft. Catherine
had learned the meaning of responsibility early in life.
She was never far from birth and death and the ongoing
struggle to survive.
In adult life she sometimes spoke of that time, remembering what it was like for the people of the village as if it were yesterday. The McKenzie’s fared better than many others because two of Catherine’s uncles were
John left home to seek work and then Catherine followed.
Like her sister Mary she worked as a housemaid, earning her
keep and a little cash.
Living next-door to the McKenzies in Achindrean was a Robertson
It was about 1853 when John and Margaret Robertson had come to live
next door to the McKenzie’s.
Possibly they were Alexander’s relatives as John Robertson
was a blacksmith and it was often said in later years that there had
been a blacksmith in our family (as well as a minister, several
fishermen and a kilt-maker.)
Certainly they were neighbours for twenty years and residents
in the village for even longer.
John’s wife, Margaret, was still living there at the time of
the 1891 census but there is no record of any contact with our
Alexander was born in Ardmair, not far from Achindrean, circa
1835. In the 1861
census he was listed as a tenant farmer.
His mother was Margaret McLeod and his father Murdoch
Robertson, a farm-labourer, who died before Alexander’s marriage.
Little is known of his early life or of the history of his
immediate family but it is believed that before coming to
Strathkanaird he had been a fisherman in
When she married Alexander Catherine left the McKenzie Clan,
and became a member of her husband’s clan, Clan Donnachaidh, the
oldest clan in
Over the centuries Robertson men followed various leaders in
raids and minor skirmishes as well as in the major battles at
It was there at Killiecrankie, according to family tradition, that one John Robertson, (an ancestor of Alexander who married Catherine McKenzie), first fought when a lad of sixteen. Surviving that, he lived to fight again at Culloden when an old man in his seventies. He was wounded in that battle and later died as a result. Those of his descendants who have walked through the fields of Culloden have been haunted by the experience.
While the chiefs came from the Robertsons of Struan there
were many other branches of the clan, the main ones being the
Robertsons of Lude, and the Robertsons of Inshes.
The latter family was from
The traditional home of the clan was, of course, in Atholl in the
The land there ranged from marshy swamp near the rivers to mountain
land. It was only the
sheltered ground above the marshes and in the glens that was
suitable for agriculture and settlement.
It was there that the chieftains and the clans folk built
their homes. The system
of land tenure was much the same as in Achindrean with tacks men,
crofters and cottars.
The main crops grown were barley and oats while the animals kept
were ponies, sheep, goats and milching cows.
As in the west cattle were bled, especially during the
winter, to provide the wherewithal for the black pudding, a dish
that was still being made in the Robertson household in
The Robertsons had always been ardent supporters of the Jacobite
cause and after the disaster of Culloden they were a proscribed
family, their land forfeited and their people scattered far and
wide, even across the seas to
Although from different clans, Catherine and Alexander had much in common. Gaelic was their mother tongue, the language they spoke with their children until the younger ones, under pressure from school and from their English-speaking playmates, rebelled against its use. For Catherine and Alexander however, the Gaelic was retained throughout their lives. They shared bitterness against the English and kept alive the romance of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause. And for Catherine, the dream of land ownership in a new country was as strong as it was for Alexander.
After their marriage they returned to the croft until such time as
they were accepted as immigrants to
Their first home in
Oroua Downs was another huge estate and although it was later
reduced to 14,000 acres it still covered a great expanse of land
between the two mighty rivers, the Rangitikei and the Manawatu.
Much of the
The area contained much swampy land where flax grew abundantly but
near the coast there was little vegetation other than scrub and
rough grass growing on the sand dunes.
It was further east towards
When labourers were first employed at Oroua the families lived in tent houses and had their basic provisions supplied by their employer. A tent house was made from a wooden framework covered with a heavy canvas. There was usually a dirt floor. The sparse furniture was made from boxes. Cooking was done outside.
Conditions had no doubt improved a little by the time the Robertsons
arrived there but things were still very primitive and the
countryside bleak indeed.
While Alexander laboured at cutting flax and digging huge
drains Catherine cared for their three children and in 1879 another
baby, Alex. It is
doubtful that things were better for the family here than at
There being no Presbyterian Church in Rongotea Alexander
attended Brethren services.
This entailed a five - mile walk each way through the bush -
a pleasant experience in summer but a challenge in winter.
The Brethren welcomed him but he did not become a member of
Two more children were born before the family’s next move, Donald in
1884 and Mary Ellen in 1886.
In that year Margaret and Alexander were enrolled at
Five years later when their youngest child, Alexandrina Ann, was
born they were living in
The new house was a bungalow with a big veranda and fancy woodwork. Many of their neighbours were Maori who became true friends. One in particular was Punga who was remembered long years after they had left Awahuri. Although much bush had been felled at Awahuri some was still standing – on the little farm and along the riverbanks. Because of the vicinity of the river and the general setting of the place they named it “Riverlands”.
During this time at Awahuri Catherine developed confidence in her relationship with the Maori people. This was in marked contrast to how she had felt in earlier days when they were still at Rongotea and Murdoch was a wee baby. Catherine guarded him well because she was very suspicious of one old Maori man who used to lean over his cradle feeling his little legs and commenting about how well he was growing. This regular checking left Catherine very nervous indeed.
In 1896 the first wedding in the family took place when Margaret
Jane Robertson married Thomas John Evans in the
Although they seem to have enjoyed life in Awahuri and Feilding towards the end of 1907 the Robertsons were on the move again, this time to
Their new home was along
One of the early settlers was a Mr Chew Chong, a very successful and enterprising Chinese who established a dairy factory in Eltham in the 1880s. During a depression around 1890 he purchased fungus from the farming people and exported it to his homeland
, where it was treated as a delicacy. It was nicknamed “Taranaki wool” at that time and the trade continued right into the 1930s China
The host plant was mainly the small native Mahoe tree or Whitey Wood that having died, lay decaying on the forest floor, making an ideal environment where the fungus flourished. During the second season there Mary and Annie collected a great deal of this special delicacy and sold it to a Chinese dealer for three pence per pound, earning more money in that year than the cows returned.
At about that time, land at Ngarua, Waitoa, in the
Gordie’s last day at
Their property was in two blocks, separated by
Donald became a miner, firstly in Huntly, and then in Waihi. In September 1916 he enlisted as a sapper and left with the 3rd Reinforcements to serve with the Arras Tunnellers in France. Postcards survive from the journey over via Cape Town and after they arrived in Devonport England on 29 January 1917, he wrote home to his sister:
1st February 1917 Dear Mary Just a line to say that I have landed in England after nearly eleven weeks at sea. We the Tunnellers are billetted in private houses so we get good beds and meals so we are having a good time. We will get 4 days leave before we go to France.
After the Armistice the Tunnellers were urgently needed back in New Zealand, but it seemed to take a while before they could leave for home.
London, 6th March: Just a few lines to say that I am going back to France tomorrow morning. I enjoyed my leave very much only the time went rather tow quick - I met Fred James here he was on his draft leave he will be going to Germany to wait for demobilization it will be sometime yet before we leave for New Zealand. . . . We are having a good time now - we are billetted in the Belgium peoples houses"
There are stories in the family of how miners at Waihi smuggled gold out in their milk pails, and it is not hard to guess their origin. But stories of what he did in the war itself have not been passed down. The work of the New Zealand Tunnellers in Arras is however commerated in France and in Wellington, and is now very well documented. Their service records, including that of Donald are now available online.
The youngest in the family Gordon has also left a record. Though his own story was complicated by the family secret that his "sister" Kate was actually his mother, his life was one of pride and achievement. Cathie Roxborogh spoke of her aunts and uncles frequently, but Gordon was her special inspiration, and one who strongly supported her through her own adventurous life and career.
Gordie was enrolled at
There were many visitors to “Riverlands”.
The Evans children, Alma and Wallace, from Feilding spent
quite long periods there and attended school with Gordie.
Catherine’s brother, Alexander, came from Mangaweka, her
sister Isabella and daughter
The new house was relatively large and spacious. It was known as “The Homestead” and probably was built for the Scherer’s. There was no house of similar design anywhere in the district. The beds with their feather mattresses were luxurious. No matter how many relatives came to stay there was always room for one and all. The outbuildings consisted of a wash-house with copper and tubs and lavatory. Monday was washday. Kate used to gather the fallen leaves of the ti or cabbage tree tie them in bundles and use them to start the fire for the copper.
The cowshed was unusual and perhaps more American than colonial in style. Murdoch had a penchant for the latest and the best - be it for cars or cows, or systems of milk disposal. He saw a real distinction between the “Billy-can” farmer and the genuine one. When John returned from the War he was given responsibility for the pedigree herd, which was kept separate from the others. All were milked by hand. When John died in 1931, some of the best animals in his herd were given to the Matthews and Scott families.
When the Cunningham’s came as new neighbours a tennis court
was built on their farm next to the road.
It was Alexander who used his fisherman skills from his early
In 1917 Alexander died and was buried in the Te Aroha Cemetery. The granite for his headstone was said to have come from
In 1923 Annie married Robert Scott and went to live in the Kaimai’s. Access was by a dirt road, winding and steep in parts, sloshy and unstable in wet weather. In those days many a journey by car necessitated placing scrub and tea-tree in front of the wheels and hoping to get sufficient grip to get out of the bog. As soon as the first skid was felt it was a case of “All out and push!” Even the driver would push with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the doorframe. The moment the car gained a bit of momentum, he would slide onto his seat and accelerate. Murdoch had given Bob and Annie a car as a wedding present so that they would be able to make Sunday visits back to Ngarua in time for the mid-day dinner.
Sometime in the early 1930s the family decided to engage a
sharemilker on the Ngarua property and they moved to a new place on
Gordon had married Annie Osbourne from
The people of Ngarua formed a close-knit community, working hard to solve the problems of poor roading, inadequate school buildings as well as the status of the school itself. Other concerns were the need for a mail service, an outlet for their milk and cream and provision for social activities. The settlers were persistent in their correspondence to the County Council re these matters. Murdoch Robertson gave much of the sand for the road as noted in the council minutes. School was held in the local hall. Until 1912 the teacher taught at Ngarua for three days in the week and then travelled on horseback to Walton where she taught for the other two days. In 1922 a new school building was opened but Gordie had left school long since.
There being no church building in the district services were held in the hall. When it was the turn of the Presbyterian minister to ride out from Te Aroha or Morrinsville, he dined at the Robertson’s home before returning. A roast dinner with all the trimmings was served at the huge dining table in the parlour. With its plush red drapes, piano and dresser it was an impressive room even although somewhat heavy rather than elegant. Children were seldom allowed in there although there was one Christmas when the older ones were permitted to have dinner with the adults. Because it was a forbidden area it was enticing to two little boys. One day after the Christmas dinner Kate found them in a somewhat inebriated condition hiding under the table after having drained the leftover bottles of wine.
Te Aroha was the shopping centre, the horse and gig the method of transport. However one could leave the horse tethered to a hitching post by the railway station at Waitoa, about four miles away, and catch a train.
In 1939 Catherine died and after her funeral a photo was taken of her extended family.
After many years of endeavour the little church in Ngarua was built and includes a Robertson pew.
Murdoch and Jean married in Melbourne in 1940 and returned to Ngarua but Jean did not fit into the family easily in spite of the efforts of all the families.
Catherine and Alexander's Children
Catherine Anne (Kate) (1873-1944)
Margaret Jane (Jenny) (1875-1954)
Mary Ellen (1886-1967)
Alexandrina Ann (1891-1951)