a family story

John Roxborogh

Isabella McLean
(1851-1936)

Isabella McKenzie was the third and youngest daughter of Alexander and Ann. According to the Scottish naming custom she should have been named after her mother, but this was not the case. In 1851 there were two Isabella McKenzies living in Achindrean, possibly relatives. The name Isabella, or forms of it, appear in every subsequent generation.

Isabella first appears in the census of 8 April 1861, when she was ten years old. Neither she nor her youngest brother Alexander were at school at that time. The 1850s was a time of great turmoil in the district with the revolt of the Coigach tenants over the problems of rent arrears and the serving of eviction notices. An awareness of the anxiety and unrest of these events must have made itself felt in the household even although the family may not have been directly involved. Whatever her childhood environment, Isabella grew up to be a stalwart lady.

Little is known of her life in Scotland prior to 1873. Her daughter Nan recalls her mother talking about a frolic in the barn on Saturday nights, but whether this was in Strathkanaird or later at Heaton Park or Turakina, or even in Silverhope is not clear. She was at home in November 1868 when Johana was born, but not three years later in 1871.

She was classed as a general servant in the S S Salisbury shipping list, although that may have been an expedient classification to ensure selection as an emigrant. At the age of 22 she packed her worldly possessions in a leather kist which still in possession of the family and left Scotland for ever. On board ship she would have helped her parents with the care of Johana, but no doubt found time to enjoy the voyage and make friends among the passengers.

While at Heaton Park Isabella met Alexander MacLean who had come to New Zealand in 1864 and they were married on 17 December 1874. For the next 16 years Alexander worked as a contractor in the Upper Tutaenui and Paraekaretu districts. At last, in 1890, he bought 200 acres of land in Silverhope.

 Alexander had been baptised in the parish of Applecross on 12 February 1831. His parents were crofters in Diabaig and he himself grew up to be a fisherman. Diabaig is a very remote village in the Torridon area in the Western Highlands, south of Ullapool. Its setting of mountain and loch is spectacular, but its inaccessibility, except from the sea, and its exposure to the elements, would have meant a hard life for crofter and fisherman alike. Although there was a school at Diabaig Alexander appears to have had little education in contrast to his youngest brother, confusingly also called Alexander, who later obtained a B.D. at an American college and became Presbyterian minister in Avondale, West Auckland.

The explanation for the two brothers having the same name is that when the younger one was born the elder was seriously ill and not expected to live. Wanting a son named Alexander the parents took the precaution of giving the name to the new-born child.

Alexander the elder, then about 17, rallied and came to be known as “Big Alex” (probably Alasdair M¢r). His younger brother was known as “Little Alex” (probably Alasdair Beag), ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ referring to age not stature. “Big Alex” was short and thick-set with fair hair. Some who remember him say that he always wore a black bowler hat.

When “Little Alex” came to New Zealand, “Big Alex” walked with him from Auckland to Waipu looking for land, probably for other members of the McLean family. Although “Big Alex” and Isabella visited Waipu in later years, there is no record of them owning land in the area. Alexander has an entry in the Cyclopaedia New Zealand: 

McLean, Alexander, Farmer, Silverhope. Born in 1834, at Gairloch, Rosshire, Scotland. Mr. McLean spent his early years, first in farming, and later `before the mast.’ He arrived in Wellington in 1864, and was engaged soon after as a shepherd by Mr C. Campion, of lower Rangitikei. The West Coast goldfields proved too strong an attraction, however, and he threw up shepherding for gold-digging. His efforts in this direction were not rewarded with success, and he returned to Rangitikei, but soon left for Auckland where he spent six years in contracting. Rangitikei was his loadstone, and he finally settled at Silverhope, and now possesses a fine freehold farm within a quarter of a mile of the Silverhope Railway Station. Mr. McLean married Miss McKenzie of Rosshire, and has four sons and six daughters.[1]

The year of birth given here is in fact incorrect. He may have been born even before 1831, as baptisms were often performed when the children were no longer babies. It is believed by some that Alexander and Isabella knew one another in Scotland and although there is no evidence to support this belief it cannot be ruled out. Isabella would have been no more than 12 or 13 when Alexander is said to have arrived in New Zealand. Both spoke of Nova Scotia. If either ever spent time there it is more likely to have been Alexander.

Mary McLean believed that her father had been a shipboard carpenter, but there is no documentation of his arrival in New Zealand which might confirm this. He and Isabella are buried in a single grave in the Presbyterian section of the Waikumete cemetery.

From Upper Tutaenui the McLeans moved a short distance into the next district, but not quite as far as Silverhope. ‘Paraekaretu’ was the name of the original block of 11,000 hectares of land purchased from the Maori owners in 1872 and subsequently subdivided for the town of Hunterville, the district of Silverhope and the surrounding farms. Paraekaretu means `open country of sweet-scented grass’ and this it must have been, although there were some clumps of native bush on the McLean farm. Alexander was working somewhere in the district from 1882 until he purchased his own farm in 1890.

The children may have been attending Mount View School or Bonny Glen or even continuing at Upper Tutaenui. After 1890 they were pupils at Silverhope School.

The McLean farm carried sheep and dairy cattle and the usual horses for riding and farm work. Travel to town and to Awahuri was by horse and gig. Here the children grew up, left home for other jobs and in Rodina’s case, married. With ten children Isabella was a very busy person. Nan Bell remembers her mother’s delight at having a new treadle sewing machine and her sewing late into the night. The girls were not allowed to touch it. “It cost your father six pounds!” Although she was only three years old at the time Nan well remembers the excitement at the arrival of a parcel of Maltese lace and tussore silk from a far-away place, thought to have been sent by Donald and Lena McKenzie on their way to South Africa. Every girl in the family had a set of tussore silk underwear which had a foreign smell! Photographs of her daughters as fashionably dressed teenagers attest to Isabella’s skill as a dressmaker.

According to Nan the family was brought up on “porridge and the Bible.” One particular Christmas is remembered for the death of Gertie. She had been the children’s pet goose and when she appeared on the dinner table a great gloom settled upon them all. Nan recalls that “Father carved with increasing impatience, in fact he hacked at the bird, as each child in turn refused the portion offered in spite of his somewhat angry insistence.” Whether or not they were later offered any Christmas pudding is not known!

The girls all rode horses and took part in shows. On one occasion their cousin, Annie Robertson, won the prize, a bracelet. After returning home to Awahuri there was an argument about the judge’s decision, the bracelet was snatched from Annie and disappeared through a crack in the floorboards of the verandah where it remained, probably until the demolition of the old house at ‘Riverlands’ in the mid-1980s.

There were many social and family occasions when only the Gaelic was spoken. The older children could understand it and were probably reasonably fluent. Mary later told her nephew Dashwood McLean a ‘hilarious tale’ of a night when the two of them (Mary and her brother John), very young, sneaked out of bed and managed to get unseen under a large table around which the adults were telling ghost and horror stories in the Gaelic. Finally fright got the better of the duo, and simultaneously they let out a howl of fright and burst into tears. The effect on the superstitious elders is marvellous to imagine!

In summer there were water shortages and baths were restricted to once a week only. The children’s father would tap the tank to gauge the level of the water and if it was low they were sent down to the river with soap and a towel.

Pocket money was a penny per week, distributed by the children’s mother. Whenever they received a threepence it was an occasion for riotous living! In 1892 Rodina and Mary earned two pounds by sweeping the school for a whole term.

In 1907 the farm in Silverhope was sold and the family boarded the train for New Plymouth where they caught a boat for the day’s journey to Onehunga. From there they travelled to Rosebank Road, Avondale. This was to be their home until Alexander died in 1915. They were close to the Manse and Presbyterian Church where Alexander’s brother, the Rev Alexander MacLean, was the minister. For those members of the family still at home, city life and a new circle of friends now replaced farm life.

Mary and Nan became nurses; Rodina, Lillie, Katie and Jessie married and had families of their own; Duncan became a shepherd on Glen Ross Station until eventually he got his own farm; Kenzie worked in the Rotorua district and Alex was a shepherd in Dannevirke. Later Mary and John settled in Australia. John, Alex and Kenzie were killed in action in World War I.

As recalled by those who remember her Isabella “loved hats,” she was “very pretty,” “a cheerful lady,” “someone who “looked severe, but was not severe at all.” “She wore long bombazine frocks, often black.” A certain elegance of bearing and a flair for fashion was a characteristic of each of her daughters and is still evident in later generations. The saying, “Being poor is no reason for looking poor” may well have come from her early years in Scotland. It was still being heard long after it had lost its relevance for the family!

Life dealt her some harsh blows, but she did not succumb. After the death of Alexander in 1915 and losing three of her sons in the First World War, she was also to lose Jessie, one of her younger daughters, in 1924. She and her daughter Nan adopted Jean, Jessie’s eight-year-old daughter. Isabella and her sister Catherine were very close. There was a great deal of interaction among the families up to the time of her death in 1936. Gordon Robertson lived with her for two years while attending Auckland Teachers College and Donald Robertson lived there after his return from World War I. She died in Auckland aged 85.

There are now over six generations of descendants in New Zealand, Australia, the United States of America and England. For Isabella the dream of a better life in another land was no mirage.



[1] Cyclopaedia New Zealand, vol.1, part 2, p.1283.