Letter from Stewart Island New Zealand the way we were

by Sam Samson

Stewart Island, southernmost isle of the New Zealand archipelago, lies far “over the seas from Skye”, literally on the other side of the world. Yet we have many links with the Scottish islands.

One rather fanciful tale associates our present name with an illegitimate daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who supposedly ended her days on sub-Antarctic Campbell Island. More prosaically, the name first appears in the 1816 chart of “South Port” (now Port Pegasus) - drawn by one William Stewart in 1809.

Aotearoa, New Zealand, was the last settled part of the Polynesian triangle. We were also the last major landmass brought to European attention. Capt James Cook sailed Endeavour past the eastern entrance to Foveaux Strait on May 6, 1770. Next morning, his first expedition all-but ended ignominiously on The Traps, a semi-submerged outlier of Stewart Island. Thanks to an eagle-eyed, early morning lookout, disaster was averted. A few hours later Endeavour rounded South Cape, and headed north - putting paid to the last hope of “The Great South Continent” - and a dog! Said animal had his hindquarters roasted, his innards turned into haggis and the remainder stewed - to celebrate an officer’s birthday - and the long trip home.

Cook was a rediscoverer. He never landed in this neck of the woods, where the descendants of equally competent navigators had lived for a millennium.

First Inhabitants

When the first Polynesians arrived, around 1000AD, the giant flightless moa, roamed the mainland, with drumsticks the size of a small haunch of beef. To them the Island was Te Punga o te Waka a Maui, the stone anchor which held the South Island waka (canoe) in place, when super-hero Maui fished the North Island from the sea. Ironically, that last Pacific island brought to the surface by Maui is the only one truly shaped like a fish - just look at a New Zealand map!

Maori population was never high in southern New Zealand, probably only 2,000 in 1800. Climate is too cool to grow kumara the staple sweet potato, brought from Polynesia. People were nomadic, living in small extended family groups and moving seasonally depending on food resources.

Stewart Island was visited in April and May to gather titi the fledging chicks of the sooty shearwater. These pelagic sea birds migrate from the north Pacific in October, to breed in millions on Islets round Stewart Island. Unlike most parts of the world, descendants of the original Maori still gather chicks as food, taking some 300,000 per year, and seemingly having no effect on total populations.


Another Maori name, Rakiura (Glowing Skies), suggests brilliant sunsets, or the more subtle glow of the Aurora australis. At 47º South the “southern lights” are seen quite often. This latitude places us closer to the equator than southern England. Most folk think we are only half a step from the Antarctic, but the Falklands and Patagonia have settlements much further south than ours.

Our longitude of 168º East puts us close to the international date line - the days work is done for Stewart Islanders, before the first Scots Islander is out of bed.

Yes, we are the furthest community from Orkney, Shetland and Scandinavia, home of the forebears of many Stewart Islanders, who emigrated in the 1860s and 70s. Many locals also have Maori ancestry - a mixing of true island blood from opposite sides of the world.

There are many similarities with the lands of our northern progenitors. Fishing, marine farming and tourism are our basic economy. Small scale farming formerly provided meat for a local butchers shop, and some wool was exported to the mainland. Today, however, Stewart Island has more people than sheep, unlike most of New Zealand.

Oil was discovered offshore in reasonable quantities in the 1970s. Conditions in the deep south basin are even more extreme than the North Sea, so these reserves are unlikely to be exploited.


Stewart Island is large, with an area of around 172,000 hectares (including offlying islands). For those more familiar with Imperial measurement, that’s 640 square miles - two square miles for each permanent resident. Not a high population density!

The Island stretches 65 kilometers from north to south and 40 kilometers across the widest axis. Mt Anglem, the highest point, rises to 980 metres, high enough for a snow cap in winter. Several other peaks on the mountain ridges which form the Island backbone top 800 metres.

The 700 kilometers of coastline includes long golden sand beaches, separated by rocky granite headlands. Rainforest cloaks the island to the waters edge. Paterson Inlet, which all-but bisects the Island is 15 kilometers deep and an average width of 4 kilometers. It’s deep water area of 55 square kilometers, like Scapa Flow in Orkney, would shelter the British fleet.

Scottish Connections

Even names on the map, or in our one page phone book would be familiar to those from the northern isles. Our only township of Oban, named for the "Gateway to the Isles” was surveyed in 1867. Nostalgic Scots surveyors included Argyll, Dundee, Eyre and Elgin in the street names and even gave us our own Ulva and Iona Islands in Paterson Inlet.

Our first Post Office opened in 1873 on Ulva, with Orcadian Charles Traill as postmaster. His half-brother, Arthur, taught navigation to pupils at the “native school” across the Inlet at The Neck.

The first schoolmaster, “The Dom” Peterson ruled his 20 pupils with fairness and the tawse. On the beach, in front of the school, fellow Shetlander Capt Bob Scollay built boats. Descendants of Tom Leask from Orkney still fish from the bay that bears the family name.

Names like Hansen, Nilsen and Jensen and the placenames Thule and Vaila Voe bear witness to a Nordic component in the community dating from last century. In the 1920s and 30s, Rosshavet Whaling Co. of Sandefjord, Norway had a slipway and workshops in Paterson Inlet. Around fifty “Scandies” overwintered here, servicing the 33 metre steam whale chasers, while factory ships returned to Europe after the summer whaling season in Antarctic waters.


Like the Scottish Islands we have faced fluctuating fortunes. In 1900 a population of around 350 faced the 20th Century full of confidence in a rosy future.

Peak population of over 700 was reached in the 1920s. Sawmills cutting timber for export to the mainland were the main employer of the time. The last mill closed in 1931, and population declined to round 400.

The opening of American markets for rock lobster brought the start of a “crayfish boom” in the late 1950s. Long-term fishermen made money undreamed of in earlier days. New boats arrived to augment the local fleet, which peaked at 65 owner-fished vessels in the seventies. Opening of export markets for paua (NZ abalone) brought young, fit divers, and their families, into the community.

Introduction of a saleable quota system to New Zealand fisheries in the late eighties brought inevitable results. Quota given to existing fishermen, based on their previous catch history, could be sold. Prices offered reached ridiculous levels. Who can blame a fisherman for accepting NZ$1.5 million for his “right to gather a couple of ton of crays”. Some quota was amalgamated locally, but most was sold to mainland companies.

Marine farms brought further employment and population lifted to over 600. Big Glory Bay, on the south side of the Inlet was site of our first salmon farm, established by British Petroleum in 1977. There were four salmon farms in the 80s and early 90s. Unfortunately high energy costs and double handling of the product limited the amount of local processing. Fish are killed on the farms and shipped in ice slurry to Bluff on the mainland for processing and packing.

Despite excellent growing conditions, costs of importing feed, and shipping the fish out for processing and on to Northern Hemisphere export markets hasn’t proved as viable as it seemed in the halcyon days of the 70s. New Zealand Salmon have moved their entire operation to Chile and Regal Salmon have consolidated their farms to Marlborough sounds at the north of South Island. Only Big Glory Seafoods remain, with an annual output in the order of 1,500 tonnes. Now farming of green-lip mussels has taken over as the main marine farming venture.

Present permanent population is a mere 320 souls, but 60-70% of the houses are holiday homes. With all visitor accommodation full, summer population swells to around 1,000. Everyone lives within four kilometers of the Pub - total roading is in the order of 16 km.

Incidentally, the Pub has only been licensed to sell alcohol since 1955. We were “dry” for eighty years, in name, if not nature. Before those from the isles of “Whisky Galore” recoil in total horror, I hasten to assure you there was at least one illicit still producing an acceptable product. Also, the local barber and billiard room was a “sly-grog” outlet. One could walk in for a hair-cut, and walk out half-cut.


Services will be familiar to many “Islander” readers. In addition to the Pub, we have one general store, tearooms, two or three “souvenir shops”, a medical clinic with a couple of nurses, and a volunteer fire brigade. Oh, we also have a Policeman - I think!

Constable Bernie Nolan arrived from the North Island 18 months back. A crime-wave hit - five offenses were committed in his first six months. Serious stuff - like, cars “borrowed” from outside the Pub and parked “off street”. In each case, before Bernie could start an investigation, there was a knock on the door - “Bernie, I did it! I think I can pay!”

We don’t have a cop - we have “Father Bernard the Confessor”. He meets the ferry, wanders round with an ear-to-ear grin, and plays rugby with the school kids! I’m not sure how he would’ve coped in 1927 - when the Island’s one-and-only murder occurred.

Unlike most New Zealand towns where pubs outnumber religious buildings, we have two churches. Presbyterians have a steeple, a weekly service and lay preachers. Anglicans have no steeple, two services a month and a minister. One of our local ladies was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1989.


Stewart Island had four primary schools over the years since 1867. Since 1935, there has been just one, occupying the prime real estate on the waterfront of Halfmoon Bay. Now, who else but the Scots would place such priority on education?

Peak roll, in the 1970s was over 80, with four teachers. Today, there are only 26 kids, well served with two teachers.

Traditionally, secondary pupils went to boarding school. Many larger families who couldn’t afford fees, packed their trunks and headed for the mainland, to further the kid’s education. “Free” education is anything but, today. Now six kids do their secondary education by correspondence. “Peter Power’s” son is one.

Electrical Supply

Pete runs the powerhouse - three 235 kva Caterpillar-powered diesel generators. We only got reticulated 24 hour electricity in 1988, after a 50 year wait. Lenny Lister and Geriatric Gardner lighting plants were retired, and a hush settled over the settlement. Power prices are around five times those on the mainland (NZ46.7 cents a kwh).

A wind power survey was done in the 1970s, but wind run was too low. A decade later a Norwegian company would have almost given us a wave-power plant, at a perfect site - 30km away on the other side of the Island. In both cases diesel back-up is still needed. I bit the bullet, disconnected the Winco Wincharger, paid $2,000 for a “free” connection, and went on-line.

The powerhouse was a major leap into the 20th Century. Just this year we have gained a sewerage scheme. A dozen pumps push the proverbial uphill to oxidation ponds two kilometers out of town. It’ll only cost me six grand (NZ) to replace the tin can and hook up. That’s around 50p a poo for the rest of my life. Fortunately we have a fifteen year “drip-feed” option. I’ll take that - with luck, I’ll tip over in 2010 and save a dollar.

We’ve had an even more insidious intrusion into Island life. We now have street numbers. Should my house catch fire, or I have a heart attack, I must dial “111” (c’mon we’re southern hemisphere, so no “999”). The phone call goes to Christchurch, halfway up South Island, some 400 kilometers off. They don’t understand a message “Send the nurse to Sam’s place”.


For early Maori and the first European settlers, the 27 kilometer crossing of Foveaux Strait was a formidable barrier in turbulent weather. Sailing cutters made the crossing easier by the time settlement was really underway. In 1877 the cutter Ulva started a regular weekly mail service with limited passenger accommodation.

In 1885, the Awarua, newly acquired steam tug of the Bluff Harbour Board started a weekly service, boosted by a £300 Government subsidy. The increased passenger capacity and reliability of the service was a definite boost to both fishing and tourism. Tugs provided the service almost continuously for the next fifty years.

A succession of vessels with better passenger accommodation followed. Only those suffering extreme pangs of seasickness had to stay on deck in boisterous weather.

In 1961 the purpose built 287 passenger Wairua, complete with stabilisers, gave us a real ship, crossing the Strait three days a week. This Government run service continued through to 1985.

Today’s sea link is provided by locally-owned, Island based Foveaux Express. Sixty passenger catamarans zip across the Straits in an hour from Bluff, more than halving the time of the crossing. Two daily sailings bring stores for the local shop, and small freight items. Petrol, diesel, cars, coal and building materials are brought by a converted oyster boat on a more irregular basis. Large vehicles, gravel for roading and other bulk freight are delivered by barge when need dictates and weather allows.

Our first air service began in 1952, with a five-seat Grumman Widgeon. This would land in the Bay in a shower of spray, taxi in through the fishing boats, drop the wheels, and waddle ashore right outside the Pub. Ah! Those were the days - there were but 27 paces from the cockpit to the bar!

Ryans Creek airfield was built on a hill a couple of kilometers out of town, in 1976. Southern Air planes land there after a 20 minute flight from Invercargill Airport. The aircraft used are that doyen of island aviation, worldwide - nine-passenger Britten Norman Islander BN2As from the Isle of Wight.

Stewart Island was linked to the mainland by telephone, as early as 1902. For the next fifty years there were only half a dozen phones. A new Post Office was built in 1954, complete with a manual telephone exchange. A second submarine cable was added, and anyone could have a phone. Communications were still somewhat erratic until 1968 when a radio link replaced the cables across the straits. The cables had been laid over oyster beds - with inevitable results “in season”. A new digital automatic exchange in 1985, with toll free calls to Invercargill allowed up to date communications. Fax machines and Internet connections are now common. We communicate with the world as easily as anyone.

Flora and Fauna

In the 1870s a “planned settlement” was started at Port William. Barracks were built to cater for 80-100. The first contingent of 24 Shetlanders arrived, to be greeted by almost vertical hills right behind the proposed township.

The vegetation which confronted them was a far cry from that of the Scottish islands. It remains the same today - rainforest to the water’s edge. Tall rimu towered 30 metres or more, with 1.5 metre diameter trunks. These were the trees which sawmills were starting to fell in other parts of the Island. The main forest canopy was up to 20 metres high, with a wide range of evergreen hardwoods. Tall tree ferns, and a rich variety of other ferns and mosses gave the whole area a sub-tropical appearance - alas, not matched by the climate.

The Port William Settlement lasted a scant couple of years. Some small clearings were made, but natural regeneration has reclothed them in bush. Even areas logged by sawmillers have regrown, though it will be a few hundred years before the forest giants regain their former splendour in cut-over areas.

As early as 1900, parts of Stewart Island were reserved for “the preservation of flora and fauna”. Today, around 90% is government owned, administered by the Department of Conservation. It remains much as it was in prehuman times, from a superficial view. Deeper down big changes are evident.

Maori had little impact, but birds such as kiwi, kaka (a bush parrot), kakapo (ground parrot), pigeon and others were an important food source, along with the muttonbird. They were food for those early Shetlanders and others through to the 1920s.

The birds are now protected species, but introduced rats, opossum and feral cats take their toll. Fortunately stoats and ferrets, scourge of native birds on mainland New Zealand, have never been introduced to Stewart Island.


Walking tracks in, and near, the village, allow even the least active to experience New Zealand bush and birdlife much as it was on the mainland 150 years ago. An evening trip to see kiwi almost guarantees seeing New Zealand’s national bird in the wild.

Bus tours round the settled area and scenic boat cruises round Paterson Inlet give a good introduction to the Island and it’s life. Water taxis and hire sea kayaks let folk explore further afield.

More energetic folk can go tramping. The three day Rakiura Track is very popular in summer. The Northern Circuit is a ten day tramp round the coast of the top third of the Island. A series of bunk huts provide shelter, but you have to carry your own gear and food. It’s a great trip for fitter folk.

Both Scottish red deer and American Virginia deer were liberated in the early 1900s. The reds are present in scattered pockets, but the Virginian white-tail are widespread. During the autumn “roar” keen hunters from all over New Zealand and overseas, return year after year to hunt the elusive white-tail.

So there you have a little of Stewart Island - part Polynesian and part European heritage. An easily accessible “isolated outpost”. Despite reticulated electricity, automatic telephones, sealed roads and a sewerage scheme, we still remain much as - “New Zealand the way we were”.