From Ardross to Otago: the Odyssey of John MacKenzie

John MacKenzie’s forebears came from Easter Ross. He was partially brought up in Zambia, educated in Canada, and has travelled extensively throughout the British Empire in pursuit of his historical studies. He knows the South Island of New Zealand well. John has published extensively on topics such as ‘The Scots in South Africa’, ‘Imperialism and Popular Culture’ and ‘Imperialism and the Natural World’.

The connections between Highland Scotland and the British Empire are legion. In any community we can find people who went out to the empire as settlers, sojourners (temporary residents pursuing specific professions) or soldiers. Almost every kirkyard in Scotland contains records of such people. Sometimes they died overseas, but are commemorated by their relatives on the family gravestone. However far-flung their lives and deaths, there seems to be a desire in Scotland to bring families together at the home lair where they can be remembered with those who stayed in the locality. Sometimes the so-called ‘people of quality’ place commemorative plaques in churches and cathedrals recording the deaths of sons in colonial campaigns. Some of these migrants became very celebrated figures in their new lives. North of Inverness, it is possible to think of several striking figures who achieved fame in the empire – General Sir Hector Macdonald, for example, whose monument stands at the cemetery in Dingwall, Robert Stout (from Lerwick) or Peter Fraser, both prime ministers of New Zealand, the latter well commemorated in Hill of Fearn.

Fraser used to refer in speeches to a notable predecessor as New Zealand politician who had a considerable influence upon the country. This was John MacKenzie from Ardross. Anyone who knows the map of the South Island of New Zealand will see ‘Mackenzie country’, but this is a different Mackenzie, a sheep stealer who came to be regarded as a hero because of his capacity to escape his captors! He is a shadowy figure, perhaps either James or John and born in Ross-shire around 1820. But John of Ardross was a very different character who has a rather striking monument, a grand cairn, at Palmerston near Dunedin, where he farmed and lived.


Born in Easter Ross in 1839, he saw some of the misery caused by the Clearances in his area and it influenced him throughout his life. In 1860 he emigrated to Otago which had first been settled by Scots in 1848, the settler parties arriving at Port Chalmers before moving on to Dunedin. Thomas Chalmers, the great Free Church minister and leader of the Disruption had recently died, so the place was named in his honour. John soon had his own farm near Palmerston and quickly developed political ambitions. He was elected to the Otago Provincial Council in 1871 and after the provincial system was abolished was elected to the New Zealand parliament in 1881, serving until his death in 1901. He was minister of lands and agriculture in the Liberal Government from 1891 to 1900 and, given the settlement and developmental policies of the period, that was probably the most significant of the ministries. It was in this capacity that he used his Scottish experience to good effect. He initiated many reforms and was determined to ensure that the ownership of large tracts in the hands of individuals – as happened in Australia – should be avoided. In New South Wales and parts of Victoria, vast parcels of land had been taken over by early settlers (many of them Scots) who became in effect a new landowning colonial ‘aristocracy’. John wanted closer settlement, which was not good news for the Maori, insisting that land should be divided up into small family farms. Thus the landlordism of Scotland which in his mind had produced the Clearances should be avoided at all costs. His biography with the resonant title Lands for the People has been written by Tom Brooking, a professor at Otago.

'Lands for the People' by Tom Brooking

‘Lands for the People’ by Tom Brooking

Apparently, John made one visit back to Scotland with his daughters. They enjoyed seeing their father’s country, but announced that they considered New Zealand to be more beautiful! He was knighted in 1901 by the Duke of Cornwall, future George V, but had little time to enjoy his status since he died only six weeks later. Brooking notes that he and his fellow Liberals considered New Zealand to be a useful social laboratory for Britain, hoping that their reforms would be adopted in the old country, but that ambition, at least initially, was not fulfilled. Brooking also notes that the tragedy is that McKenzie (the spelling was changed in New Zealand) in setting out to right one great wrong ended up creating a new one, the dispossession of the Maori people.

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