May 11 2022
Thanks to those who joined me last Saturday at the Northern Cemetery. With more than 17,000 burials there, there are many more stories for me to find and add to the 50 or 60 I have so far. I'll probably develop three different tours there eventually.
Here's the link to the next lot of tours, it would be wonderful to see you there:
These newsletters were intended to be monthly things but I guess this can be excused as an early one as I'm still explaining how I came to be publishing a history blog and taking historical tours of cemeteries.
It was seven or eight years ago - Facebook will remind me sometime soon which it is - that I made a conscious decision to find and photograph the abandoned places in the area around Dunedin. It was after finding a settler's cottage in the Kilmog area - surrounded by large macrocarpas but visible if you know where to look. Having found that, I looked down into the valley of the Kilmog Creek and saw a complete farmstead, completely abandoned. To get to it I had to take a side road and to take it I had to stop and open a gate.
Not far from the gate the farmer was cutting firewood and I realised that what I was about to do would be very obvious to him and I should ask permission. So I did. He was perfectly happy for me to explore the old family home and told me that his mother, on a frosty winter's day, sometimes didn't have running water till three in the afternoon. He also told me that the building with the bales of hay in it was the original farm cottage, put on runners and dragged to the new house years ago.
It was a real lesson for me. I was previously a little shy about asking that kind of question but I learned that: people were generally friendly and welcoming when asked permission for access, they were often able to give me some of the history of the place I wanted to explore, and - in this case certainly - often said something like: "and there's a place just down the road you can have a look at, too."
I've returned a couple of times to the place near the Kilmog Stream, recording its gradual decline. And it was after finding it that day that I thought about all the places I'd been to or seen while being taken on day trips by my parents and also later on my own. Thought about all the places that no longer existed. They all have their time, if not maintained and cared for. I decided that day that photography was the only way I had to preserve them.
It was about that time that I got a Facebook account and was able to share them. I also saw other explorations in other parts of the world, and read the rules - don't take anything, and don't reveal the location so that others don't.
When asking permission I'm often asked if the photos will be for publication. Yes, I say, since Facebook is a publication. That's generally been fine, and sometimes I've had to promise not to reveal the location. That's also fine, it complies with the unwritten rules and also makes the site exclusive to me.
Often, I'm told, "There's not much there." It may not seem that way to the owner of the land where people once built, lived, and loved. I can be satisfied by climbing down a nearby gully below which I've found scattered chimney bricks or stone flagging and finding the crockery and glass pieces of household things broken and thrown away decades ago. They speak of the lives lived, children brought up.
When buildings are intact, it's great to find the layers of wallpaper that survive. Each one is a decision made by someone who lived there and chose what they wanted to see every day. And sometimes I find a real-time capsule - wallpaper, clocks, magazines, cups, and plates. At one such place, 30 minutes drive from Dunedin, the landowner told me that the last inhabitant of the old family home had been carried out 30 years before, dead of hypothermia. All his heating and cooking were from the old stove, he'd never had electricity or a telephone. When I entered the main room of the house, it looked like there'd been a fire, and there had - decades of wood smoke had blackened the walls so that where pictures had been hung I saw light patches on the wallpaper. There were clothes hanging on a door, stock and station agents' receipts spiked on a nail on the side of a shelf. An Otago Hospital Board tie. In a small cemetery nearby I found the grave of the man himself.
I've only had a couple of refusals for access over the years. Perfectly polite and almost apologetic. And I'm happy to respect that.
A few days ago I went over to Kaikorai Valley to look for a seasonal phenomenon. There's a place where in Autumn an area of sycamore trees drop their leaves and, in the short time before the leaves turn brown, morning sunlight will pour through the bare branches and the golden carpet of leaves will light up the forest. I was late for the sunlight but early for the leaves, which should drop in a week or so.
What I did find was a retired man walking his dog. I'm curious about that small area of Dunedin, as I've found the abutments of a bridge in the forest which look (at least to my untrained eye) too narrow for a wheeled vehicle and too unnecessarily wide for a mere footbridge. I think it's part of a bridle trail but I've not found anything published which mentions it. This is why I occasionally ask people I see there in case a grandparent told them something about it.
As before, this person was unable to tell me anything. But it seemed we had mutual friends and we talked a little. Eventually, talk turned to history and his unhappiness about where history was going in New Zealand. He felt he was losing his history, that the legacy of history that he had been taught was being lost to the importance being placed on other history being given prominence in New Zealand.
I really don't think he was being intentionally antagonistic in what he said. He was just on the wrong side of history. He remembers a time when there used to be a Caledonian Society in Dunedin with an annual Highland Games. He might recall other celebrations of Dunedin's Scottish heritage. And he sees Tangata Whenua heritage and language being given prominence, if not priority, and it's not quite the city where he grew up anymore.
"You want a Caledonian Games?" I replied to one of his concerns, "organise a Caledonian Games." You want to celebrate your cultural heritage? - Do so. No one's stopping you.
Ironically, his take on pre-contact history in this country was (and this may not be a perfect quote) "just a whole lot of tribes running around killing each other." I had to respond to this. After all, isn't that what most of the history of Scotland consists of? I had to figuratively bite my tongue when he described what he saw as the semi-official disregarding of his culture and heritage as "whitewashing."
My opinion of Scottish culture here in "the Edinburgh of the South" - and I'm the first to admit that I've observed little of it - is that, in carefully preserving it here on the other side of the globe, it has been ossified. Made into a set of observances that allow little creativity. There are exceptions - the "Robbie Rocks" competition which encourages people to set one of his poems to modern music, and the annual poetry competition are standouts. But people sharing their cultures which I didn't grow up with doesn't make me think that my culture, ancestry, or heritage are removed or devalued. It's not like slicing a pie. People expressing more of their culture than they did last decade doesn't mean that I have less culture to express. Perhaps it's more like what I see in religious circles - the loss of religious dominance or entitlement is not persecution. It just seems to be when a group that used to call the shots is no longer listened to quite so much.
Thanks for reading - so much more out there to explore!