Read his story
Roderick McKenzie (1829-1890) was born into a non-conformist religious community of emigrant Scots in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1829. When he was 22 years old he took part in an extraordinary maritime odyssey in which the entire community relocated to the antipodes.
When most of the group paused only briefly in Adelaide, ultimately to put down roots in New Zealand, Roderick chose to remain in South Australia. He settled in Mount Barker in 1854, working as a saddler and harness-maker, and later as a general storekeeper. He and his wife Mary Paltridge had nine children. He died in 1890, aged 61.
Roderick McKenzie arrived in Adelaide in 1852 at the age of 23 and moved to Mount Barker two years later. He was a saddler and harness-maker, and he found work at Henry Hooper’s saddlery business until he took over the enterprise himself, eventually moving into general storekeeping in Gawler Street.
Some of his contemporaries claimed that McKenzie made the best saddles in the colony, but he was apparently not a very good businessman, as he seldom wrote anything down and failed to chase up unpaid accounts. Fortunately, in 1859 he married Mary Paltridge (1839-1931), who assisted with the business over his lifetime and operated her own drapery business after his death (see Paltridge Family History Post). The two of them raised nine children: seven daughters and two sons. Roderick McKenzie played an active part in the affairs of the Mount Barker community and the Presbyterian Church. He was one of the ten founders of the Mount Barker Institute (later the Town Hall).
Most non-Indigenous adults in South Australia in the early 1850s had an emigration story to tell, but Roderick McKenzie’s was more remarkable than most. His Scottish family had been part of a splinter-group of ultra-orthodox Presbyterians known as ‘Normanists,’ who adhered to the extreme religious teachings of firebrand preacher Norman McLeod (1780-1866). McLeod inspired unusual devotion from his adherents, who were mostly, like McLeod himself, from Scotland’s Western Highlands. In 1817, when he was banned from preaching his unorthodox views in Scotland, he decamped to Pictou, Nova Scotia (Canada) and many in his congregation followed. This exodus was just the beginning of a more extended saga that would eventually end in New Zealand.
Intent on locating an earthly paradise for his flock, McLeod resolved to move to the United States, specifically to Ohio. The Normanists build a ship, the Ark, and set sail in 1820, but after only 160 nautical miles a storm blew them ashore at St Ann’s, Cape Breton Island, leaving them still in Nova Scotia. Presumably taking this as a sign from God, they resolved to build a self-contained settlement at St Ann’s, and astonishingly they remained there for thirty years, operating an orderly and sustainable community, despite the extraordinarily harsh conditions and sub-arctic climate. At the end of the 1840s, however, potato blight and wheat rust had made conditions impossible and they decided to move again.
Providentially, it seemed, McLeod received a letter at this time from his long-lost second son Donald, who had gone to Australia. Donald extolled the virtues of Adelaide, which was “free of the convict stain”. This time the Normanites built two ships, the brigs Margaret and the Highland Lass (later also known as the Highland Lassie), each with capacity of more than 130 passengers. In October 1851 the Margaret, with McLeod aboard, disappeared over the horizon from St Ann’s harbour bound for Adelaide via the Cape Verde Islands and South Africa, unaware that the Highland Lass, which had been travelling behind, had become ice-bound in the harbour and would be unable to follow for the next seven months.
Roderick McKenzie was aboard the Highland Lass with his family. He had been born in St Ann’s in 1829, and at the age of twenty-two he was at the helm of one of the small boats that rescued passengers from the sea ice in the harbour. The men of the McKenzie family were all skilled sailors, especially Roderick’s elder brothers Duncan (1808-1893) and Murdoch (1812-1884), who were both master mariners. When the Highland Lass finally headed for Adelaide the brothers became sceptical about the competence of the captain whom they had hired for the trip, and, having concluded that he was under the influence of drink, they put him ashore in Capetown. The Highland Lass and its many passengers then sailed on under Murdoch McKenzie’s own command.
By the time the Highland Lass reached Adelaide in October 1852, the Margaret had gone. Evidently McLeod had not realised that the South Australian colony was being developed on a for-profit basis, and that the government would have no interest in gifting prime land close to the capital to a Gaelic-speaking religious sect. The maritime odyssey continued eastward, first to Melbourne (which was bedlam due to the gold rush), and finally on to Waipu in New Zealand’s North Island, where the pilgrims at last achieved their dream of a promised land. There they founded a colony that would ultimately attract some eight hundred like-minded Nova Scotian immigrants.
Roderick McKenzie, meanwhile, had apparently decided that his questing days were over when he disembarked from the Highland Lass in Adelaide. Along with five other men and their families, he stayed behind when, after more than a year’s delay, the travellers finally sailed again aboard the schooner Gazelle. Having chosen to settle in Mount Barker, Roderick thenceforth lived a quiet life running his shop, raising his family and making his admirable saddles and harnesses far from the coast. It is not known whether he kept in touch with his brother Murdoch, who, during a long and swashbuckling career as a sea captain, sallied forth to Mauritius, Batavia, Noumea, the South Sea Islands, the West Indies and New York.
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