New Zealand’s Scottish Gene

Guest Article by Dr Cathy Gunn, Edinburgh and Auckland

First impressions of my adopted home were of similar natural beauty, but otherwise a world apart from Scotland. The climate was a good deal warmer, the plant life more tropical, and most houses on a single level with timber walls and an iron roof. No tenements here!


It wasn’t long before the strength of New Zealand’s Scottish connections began to emerge. Walking past a popular beachfront wedding venue one day, I spotted a tall, handsome Maori man in full highland dress. A sight for sore eyes indeed – and I had to ask! He was a McDonald, honoring family tradition by getting married in his grandfather’s formal attire. His Maori connection was obvious, although the depths of those cultural traditions remain unknown to many New Zealanders.


The next surprise was the Auckland City Christmas Parade. Along with colourful floats carrying jolly men in red suits, elves and ruddy nosed reindeer, marched more pipe bands than I had ever seen in one place. The connection between Santa Claus and pipe bands escaped me, and those poor folk were marching in woollen kilts, jackets and bonnets in the height of New Zealand summer! It didn’t make sense, but it still tugged on my heartstrings, as the sound of the pipes always has and always will.


My next encounter with New Zealand’s ‘Scottish gene’ was at the Waipu Highland Games. This small north island town is where Reverend Norman McLeod landed his flock after the clearances. They moved from Ullapool to Nova Scotia and Australia before settling in New Zealand in 1854. The New Years Day Games have run for 142 years, and often host international championships. Like so many Scottish events, there are mutton pies, tattie scones and ‘your other national drink’ to sustain the crowds. The serious business is followed by a lively ceilidh, and a wee dram or two.


The Waipu Games are just one of many events held annually around the country to celebrate the Scottish heritage of citizens of various ethnic blends and origins. Scottish music and dance, Burns Suppers, Kirkin o’ the Tartan, Gaelic and Clan Societies are part of the vernacular for a small but significant number of New Zealanders. A Scottish accent is a great conversation starter and often leads to stories of a granny or granddad that sounded like they walked out of Glasgow yesterday after 63 years away! Apart from areas of general discontent around the legacy of colonization, which many Scots can understand, I have often received a special welcome because I am Scottish.


Many old, familiar cultural traditions are alive and well in my adopted country. Some are echoes from the point of migration. Hence the phrase ‘more Scottish than the Scots’ for a diaspora that maintains traditions long since changed in the homeland. Others are a lovely fusion of immigrant and indigenous cultures, reflected, for example, by the music trio Pacific Curls, ‘an inimitable combination of Pacifica, Maori and Celtic influences, with taonga puoro (traditional Maori instruments) and Scottish fiddle’; or weaver Roka Ngarimu-Cameron ‘combining traditional indigenous methods with European technologies, showing the similarities between Maori cloaks and Scottish kilts.’ In a different vein, a ceremony at the Gathering in Edinburgh 2009 to honour the late Squadron Leader John Mahiti Wilson noted similarities between Scottish Clan and Maori Tribe (Iwi). One of NZ’s first WWII Maori fighter pilots, and a high profile lawyer in civilian life, John Mahiti Wilson was of Scottish and Maori descent. So whether the elements are traditional and ‘pure’ or modern infusions, the ‘Scottish gene’ really has become a core part of New Zealand culture.