a family story

John Roxborogh



y the late 1860s the McKenzies had witnessed the departure of many friends and neighbours from their village. They would have been familiar with stories of hardship in other areas from the transitory residents who moved into the village but then moved on. They felt the pressures on the traditional ways of life and existence was increasingly difficult and unpredictable. They had survived famine, and while they were not likely to be victims of clearances, uncertainty about their future remained. A great deal of debate and heart searching took place around the table or in the ingle on winter nights.

In December 1872 the Inverness Courier carried an advertisement inviting inquiries about the terms and conditions of emigration.[1] For people who had experienced years of uncertainty, these advertisements offered assurance and hope. In North America the State of Minnesota promised homesteads and 80 acres for ‘merely nominal’ fees after five years of occupancy, Queensland offered free passages, and Otago New Zealand unspecified ‘special inducements.’ In the 1870s the Vogel government in New Zealand was active in employing emigration agents and in placing advertisements such as these.

Canada had long been a favoured destination for Scots, but America was still recovering from its civil war. For whatever reason the choice was made and New Zealand was destined to become the McKenzies’ new homeland. Ben Mor Coigach and the Scottish hills were to give way to the Ruahines and Mount Ngaruhoe; the heather and the rowan to the kowhai and kahikatea; the cuckoo to the tui and the bell-bird.

Roderick, then living near Strathpeffer, was the first of the McKenzie family to leave, going to Hawkes Bay as a shepherd. The others, Alexander and Ann, with Johanna aged three, Donald, Isabella, and Alexander together with Catherine, her husband and baby Kate aged three months, followed a few months later, destined for the Rangitikei.

Alexander paid £19 towards the family’s fares. His assets, mainly cattle, would have been sold either at the market earlier in the summer or to neighbours, just before leaving, perhaps to be purchased by the MacDonalds or the MacLeods. Although Mary remained in Scotland she does not seem to have carried on with the lease of the croft and this was taken up by one of the neighbouring families.

The New Zealand authorities set an upper age limit of 45 but this was relaxed when desirable emigrants would only come if accompanied by older members of the family such as parents.[2] This must have been the case with Alexander in his 70s and Ann in her 60s. One wonders what were their dreams and hopes for the future.

The journey to Gravesend embarkation barracks would have been by ship from Ullapool or Inverness or by train from the latter. Following medical inspections they boarded the S S Salisbury on 2 October 1873 and sailed three days later.

After arrival in New Zealand on the 21st January 1874, Wellington’s Anniversary Day, the Wellington Evening Post reported: 

The ship Salisbury, Captain Clare, left Gravesend on the 5th October, but had to put into Plymouth on the 9th in consequence of an accident to her condenser. She took her final departure from Plymouth on the 24th October and had fresh N.W. winds to Madeira, which she passed on the 1st. November, and caught the N.E. trades, which she carried to latitude 90 N., where they were lost on 11th November. On the 14th November, got the S.E. trades in latitude 50 N., and crossed the Equator on the 17th; sighted the island of Fernando Noronha on 28th November, and passed it very closely, leaving the Southern tropic on the 28th, and losing the S.E. trades. Passed the meridian of Greenwich on the 9th December, and had favourable breezes until arrival off this coast. Passed the Cape of Good Hope on Dec. 14, Cape Lewin on Jan. 4, and Tasmania on the 10th, making Cape Farewell on the 16th, 84 days from Plymouth. Had a good run through Cook’s Strait, and took the pilot on board on Sunday morning, the 18th instant, thus making the passage in 86 days. A northerly gale was then experienced, and the ship had much difficulty in holding her own under close-reefed topsails, the only time during the whole voyage that more than one reef had to be taken in. The Paterson came out to her last night at 11 o’clock. Owing to the heavy sea running a slight collision took place, but the damage occasioned was very trifling. Very fine weather was experienced during the voyage, and the passengers enjoyed excellent health throughout. Two infants died while the ship was at Plymouth, but no death occurred during the voyage, and there was not a single case of sickness serious enough to require removal of the patient to the hospital. One birth occurred. A curious accident happened on the 14th December: a seaman fell over-board from the foreyard. He was picked up a quarter of an hour afterwards alive, although with a broken thigh, having kept himself afloat all that time, with all his clothing on and heavy sea boots, and in spite of the fractured limb. The arrangements and appliances of the ship proved everything that could be desired. The immigrants are a very strong, healthy lot. They were landed today.[3] 

While no diary of the voyage has come to light, some further idea of the dynamics of life on board for these 246 ‘souls’ thrown together in close proximity can be reconstructed from various sources - readings, half-forgotten stories from long ago, and even ones imagination.

There were five other nationalities on board. English, Irish, Welsh, Channel Islander and Bavarian. The mixture of so many different peoples was doubtless a new experience for the McKenzie family. They were with one exception the only Highlanders on board. A few families were from the Shetlands but the majority were from England. Did these Gaelic speaking people make friends with the English? Despite a language barrier, common experiences would have helped bring them together including the decision to travel to the other side of the world in search of a better life, the business of winding up their affairs, packing for the voyage and the trauma of parting from relatives and friends, probably never to see them again. They had shared interests in the welfare of the children in their care and speculation about all that lay ahead.

Isabella, Catherine, Alexander, and possibly Donald, having been away from home for periods, they would have had more English than their elderly parents. For a while language differences would have hindered communication for Alexander and Ann. Children make friends quickly and their granddaughter Johanna was no doubt a help in breaking barriers. Alexander and Ann were the oldest people on the ship, in Alexander’s case by 28 years, and would have been regarded as elders and substitute grandparents by many.

The Salisbury had reasonably spacious decks but with 71 children on board, 23 between the ages of three and five, there must have been great bursts of activity and noise from the boisterous youngsters. What consternation must have been caused by games of hide and seek around the decks - it is all too easy to get lost on a ship! The passengers were fortunate to have a calm journey, relatively free from illnesses.

It was the beginning of autumn when they left England, but as the ship sailed south the days lengthened. It must have been difficult adjusting to the routines of shipboard life. There were opportunities to gaze at the stars on clear nights and look for the Southern Cross as they moved nearer their destination. A school was no doubt organized, but that would still have left many daylight hours, and keeping up with an energetic four year old would have been exhausting and says a lot for the stamina and patience of Alexander and Ann. Other members of the family would have shared the responsibility, but they were, with the exception of the Robertsons, in separate quarters and not always able to be with their parents or Johanna.

Johanna had her fourth birthday five days before crossing the equator. It is not known whether they had a cake or not, or what celebrations they later joined in honour of King Neptune and the equatorial crossing. The newspaper account of the voyage reads like an idyllic vacation at sea, but no doubt they had their difficult moments. Still it must have been a record of sorts that serious illnesses were avoided altogether and that no one was lost after leaving Plymouth.

Nan McLean was the only descendant able to share with us stories of the voyage. Her mother Isabella told of taking a barrel of salt herrings to supplement their weekly rations. She also described setting up canvases to catch rainwater for drinking and washing. The ‘Passengers contract ticket’ for steerage passengers such as the McKenzies gave a schedule of weekly allowances for each ‘statute adult’ which included three and a quarter pounds of meat, three and a half pounds of biscuits, a pound of sugar, six ounces of butter, a half pound of molasses, two ounces of salt and three quarts of water daily with an extra quart and six ounces of lime juice while in the tropics.

The weather deteriorated when they approached New Zealand and there was a raging storm as they arrived at Wellington Heads, the first landfall since leaving England nearly three months earlier. Despite the weather - a strong wind was reported and there was a heavy swell around Queen’s Wharf - it was an exciting time. It was the Anniversary weekend in the Wellington Province. Although the planned regatta was affected by the storm, the inaugural journey of the first locomotive to run in the Province was still able to take place. At anchor in the stream, ready to sail for its return to London with the largest cargo ever shipped out of Wellington was the S S Douglas on which Roderick, Margaret and their family had arrived three months earlier.[4]

Within a few days the McKenzies and Robertsons were on their way to the Rangitikei and paths that would eventually take them and their descendants into many walks of life and on to many parts of the world.

[1] Inverness Courier, 19 December 1872.

[2] Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land, Wellington, 1981, p.19 and personal communication, 26 July 1989.

[3] Wellington Evening Post, 20 January 1874.

[4] The cargo included 5800 bales of wool, 691 bales of flax, 1453 sacks of flour and about 20 tons of bones. Wellington Evening Post, 21 January 1874.