Walter Scott and place names in Aotearoa and Australia (part 2)

Abbotsford: Walter Scott’s home near Melrose in the Scottish Borders, and the inspiration for other Abbotsfords around the world

Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish writer Walter Scott, and I mark the occasion by publishing the second part of this post, based on a lecture I gave in 2017.

Why did British settlers and their descendants give places in Australia and New Zealand names associated with Walter Scott? I’ve already suggested some reasons: Scott’s worldwide fame, his status as a symbol of British culture, and the desire of immigrants for reminders of home. It’s notable that many, though not all, of those giving Scott-related names to places were Scottish. I think there’s another reason, however: for at least some colonists, Scott’s stories provided a template through which to imagine the experience of settlement in romantic but ultimately reassuring terms.

In his book Writing the Colonial Adventure, Australian academic Robert Dixon describes how the Waverley novels allow the hero to pursue dreams of adventure, but ultimately end with the reassertion of social stability rooted in possession of property. White settlers in New Zealand and Australia could experience directly or, if they lived further from the frontier, vicariously through newspaper accounts, the dangers of conflict with indigenous peoples, raids by bushrangers, and natural disasters such as bushfires, floods or earthquakes. If they were of a romantic bent, they could imagine themselves as embarked on their own heroic adventure, while always aware that the ultimate aim of colonisation was the pacification of the wild country, the subjugation of its indigenous inhabitants, and the creation of secure property rights for settlers under a British-derived legal system.

Dixon’s discussion of the Waverley novels is a prelude to his consideration of the writing of Thomas Browne or, to give him his nom de plume, Rolf Boldrewood. Browne, a prolific Australian novelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose most famous book is the bushranging tale Robbery Under Arms, was openly influenced by Scott and took the name Boldrewood from Scott’s Marmion.

Before he became a writer, Browne ran a succession of cattle and sheep stations, starting in 1844 with a station in the southwest of what is now the state of Victoria. He called the property Squattlesea Mere, a name that, as a self-described ‘devout worshipper of Walter Scott’, he borrowed from Scott’s novel Woodstock. He later recalled Squattlesea Mere in terms that self-consciously drew on the tropes of adventure stories:

There were wild beasts (kangaroos and dingoes), Indians (blacks, whose fires in ‘The Rocks’ we could see), a pathless waste, and absolute freedom and independence. These last were the most precious possessions of all. … I felt as if this splendid Robinson Crusoe kind of life was too good to be true. Who was I that I should have had this grand inheritance of happiness immeasurable made over to me?

But the land had not, in fact, been ‘made over’ to Browne, but rather taken from its Aboriginal inhabitants, and he goes on in his memoir to spend several chapters recounting what he calls the ‘Eumerella War’ with local Aboriginal people. The settlers won the war and, as Browne puts it: ‘Our border ruffians being settled for good and all, we pioneers were enabled to devote ourselves to our legitimate business – the breeding and fattening of cattle.’

Another settler who gave his property a name with Walter Scott associations was Robert Christison of Lammermoor station in Queensland. Born at Foulden, Berwickshire, son of a Church of Scotland minister, Christison emigrated to Australia with his brother in 1852, at the age of only 15. Christison’s life story was told by his daughter Mary Bennett in the book Christison of Lammermoor, published in 1927. Bennett recounts the following story from Christison’s childhood:

One day, long remembered, Bob was sent with a message to a neighbouring minister. The kindhearted man asked him if he had read Ivanhoe, and lent him the book. Bob devoured it almost at a reading, while day and its concerns faded unheeded, and new worlds opened to his vision. He was another knight without inheritance, and the earth a Holy Land for service and adventure.

This is the only mention of Scott’s writing in Christison of Lammermoor. But Bennett emphasises the importance of this incident by calling it ‘long remembered’ and by placing it just before Christison’s departure for Australia is recounted. Christison, we are given to believe, was inspired by his reading of Scott to seek a life of adventure in a new country.

When Christison reaches the land that is to become Lammermoor station, the book provides an ecstatic description of his first view of ‘the high land of trees and watercourses’:

All at once he seemed to see the Lammermoor Hills standing above the Merse, as the table-land stood above the rolling downs. He had thought of many romantic names for the homestead that he would build. Now he set them all aside for Lammermoor.

There’s no mention here of Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor, only of Christison’s childhood memories of the Lammermoor Hills, but a man who read Scott as a child and had been thinking of ‘romantic names’ for his property can hardly have been unaware of the name’s literary associations. It’s interesting that, as with Thomas Browne (who refers to christening his property Squattlesea Mere ‘in my mind instantly’ because the name was ‘so exceedingly appropriate’), Christison’s naming of the station is depicted as a spur-of-the-moment decision, and yet one that is so right that it is almost predestined.

Christison’s station was located on the land of Yirandali Aboriginal people (also known as the Dalleburra). There’s been some historical debate about Christison’s relationship with the Yirandali. Unlike other owners of sheep and cattle stations in Queensland, Christison encouraged the Yirandali to continue living on their ancestral land, and it was only after he sold Lammermoor in 1910 that many of the Aboriginal people were moved off to government reserves far from their home. Christison’s daughter Mary Bennett later became a prominent advocate for Aboriginal rights, and her biography of her father is not only a work of filial piety but also a polemic about mistreatment of Aboriginal people, using her father as a model for how things should have been. Yet Christison’s treatment of the Yirandali was not always as benign as Bennett makes out, and he profited from the use of their labour on the station at minimal cost.

Christison did make the effort to learn some of the language and, importantly, the place names of the Yirandali. A map in Bennett’s book shows some of the wealth of indigenous names that continued to blanket the landscape, even as Christison added new ones – Lammermoor, Merse, Foulden – from the landscape of his childhood. In her book, Bennett has Christison recall, before he leaves Lammermoor for the last time, ‘the aboriginal names of the noble chain of waterholes that form the head of Tower Hill Creek’: ‘Kooroorinya, like the roar of its waters in flood’; ‘Pilmunny, … a favourite cattle camp, where once the Dalleburra had used to hold their bora ceremonies’; and so on.

A section of ‘Map of the Lammermoor Tableland and Surrounding Country’, in Mary Bennett, Christison of Lammermoor

Writing about the disastrous expedition of the explorers Burke and Wills in the 1860s, the historian David Denholm has commented that ‘We shall have to blame William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and other Romantics for giving Colonial Australians the means to shape their dreams with such splendid foolishness.’ In a sense, place names associated with Walter Scott bear witness to the dreams (whether foolish or otherwise) that settler Australians and New Zealanders brought with them or inherited from Britain, dreams of adventure but also of property and stability.

Yet these dreams were shadowed by anxieties, even nightmares: by fears of degeneration of the British ‘racial stock’ in the colonies, of threats from without from Chinese or other non-white peoples and from within from class conflict. And underlying all, though rarely spoken of, an anxiety about their right to possess land that had so recently been taken from Aboriginal and Māori peoples. Perhaps names such as Abbotsford, Waverley, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Ravenswood, Deloraine, Lochinvar, Lammermoor – names redolent of leather-bound volumes, centuries-old tradition and middle-class respectability – provided a reassuring reminder that they were part of a great and powerful empire; an empire that ruled not only the waves, but also the Waverleys.

Further reading

Robert Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure: Race, Gender and Nation in Anglo-Australian Popular Fiction, 1875-1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Stuart Kelly, Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation (Edinburgh, Polygon, 2010)

Joyce Miles, ‘Oh Young Lochinvar is Come Out of the West…’, Placenames Australia, September 2008, pp. 1, 3

Malcolm Prentis, The Scots in Australia (Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2008)

A.W. Reed, The Story of New Zealand Place Names (Wellington, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1952)

Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012)

Graham Tulloch, ‘Two Hundred Years of Waverley in Australia’, The Bottle Imp (online journal), issue 16, 2014,

Benjamin Wilkie, ‘Space, Commemoration, and Iconography: Scottish Monuments and Memorials in Australia’, in Fred Cahir, Anne Beggs Sunter and Alison Inglis (eds), Scots under the Southern Cross (Ballarat, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2015), pp. 157-165

Walter Scott and place names in Aotearoa and Australia (part 1)

15 August 2021 will be the 250th anniversary of the birth of the birth of the Scottish poet and novelist, Walter Scott. The anniversary is being marked by a programme of commemorations in Scotland, and by a one-day symposium on ‘Walter Scott in the Settler Colonies’ in Wellington. This is the first part of a blog post adapted from a lecture I gave to the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club while I was living in Edinburgh in 2017.

In recent years, authorities in both Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia have been asked to reconsider place names that commemorate controversial figures from colonial history. But what are we to make of places in these two countries named, not for military leaders, governors or monarchs, but for the literary works of one of the Anglophone world’s most popular writers of the nineteenth century, Walter Scott?

Scott’s fictional tales of adventure, history and heroism – many, though not all, set in Scotland – were well known across the English-speaking world. From Canada and the United States, to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, his admirers chose to honour him by bestowing on houses, streets and towns names taken from Scott’s life and, more particularly, his work.

What’s unusual about this global trend is that most of these places are named, not for Scott himself, but for the titles and characters of his novels and poems. Shakespeare may be the only other writer in English whose characters were considered so well known that their names could be given to places. There’s surely something a bit strange about naming a place for someone who never existed outside the pages of a book.

The spread of Scott-related names around the English-speaking world is a symptom of his international fame. As Ann Rigney writes in her book The Afterlives of Walter Scott, ‘Scott provided colonial exiles with a memory of Britain and its imagined landscapes, along with a memory of the pleasures they had experienced when first encountering his romances and poems.’ Scott’s writing could be a comforting reminder of home, while also providing reassurance that the emigrants had brought with them a great literary tradition.

In Australia and New Zealand, Scott was seen as an important figure in the colonies’ cultural inheritance from Britain. Yet the very fact that he was considered a hero of British culture may, to some extent, have worked against his adoption as a cultural icon by colonial Scots. Scott was eclipsed by the poet Robert Burns where public commemoration in New Zealand and Australia of Scottish literary figures is concerned.

There were Burns clubs in both countries but seemingly no societies perpetuating the memory of Walter Scott. Eight statues of Burns were erected in Australia between 1883 and 1935, while there are another four Burns statues in New Zealand. There is only one Australasian statue of Scott, erected as late as 1962 in the Victorian town of Ballarat.

Erecting statues and forming clubs is a community activity, requiring cooperation and consensus, and this may explain why it was Burns rather than Scott who was commemorated in these ways. Perhaps Burns had greater appeal than Scott as a communal rallying point for expatriate Scots because he was seen as embodying a distinctively Scottish tradition, in contrast to Scott’s incorporation into a wider British heritage. Burns may also have more easily transcended differences of class and political ideology, with conservatives, liberals and radicals alike finding elements they could approve of in his poems.

When it came to commemoration through place names, however, Scott reigned supreme. I suggest this is because it was largely individuals, not communities, who were responsible for naming. In the early days of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand, many places were named by individual explorers, surveyors and settlers. A number of the names relating to Walter Scott started as the names of houses or properties, and only later became the names of towns or suburbs that grew up around these properties.

Bestowing familiar names from Britain on colonial landscapes was a way of domesticating these places, making them feel more like home despite the strangeness of flora, fauna, climate and terrain. It was also a way in which settlers claimed possession of the land, asserting their ownership against that of the original Māori and Aboriginal owners. The land was already extensively covered with indigenous names, some of which were retained or modified by the new settlers, while others were replaced. Many of the names the settlers gave to Australasian places came from Scotland: 17% of non-Aboriginal place names in Australia are of Scottish origin, according to the historian Malcolm Prentis.

Sir Walter Scott Lodge of Light, Masonic lodge building, Thames

There are few places in either Australia or New Zealand named after Scott himself. A number of Masonic lodges were named for him, such as the Sir Walter Scott Lodge of Light in the New Zealand goldmining town of Thames. Curiously, too, there were gold mines named for Scott in both New Zealand and Australia. There’s a Sir Walter Scott Reef Mine in northern New South Wales, while in New Zealand the Sir Walter Scott mine at Karangahake was located south of Thames. At Karangahake there were also several gold mining claims named after Scott novels, apparently inspired by a set of the novels that were read by the men in the mining camp.

If there are relatively few places named for Scott himself, how about places named for his home in Scotland, Abbotsford? Abbotsford is a name that is closely associated with Scott, but we should be cautious about assuming that Abbotsfords around the world were all named to commemorate him.

Abbotsford is the name of a suburb of the New Zealand city of Dunedin, whose main claim to fame is the dramatic landslip that occurred there in 1979. This Abbotsford was not, however, named for Scott’s home, but for an early surveyor and settler in the area, Edward Immyns Abbot.

Another Abbotsford was established in the province of Hawke’s Bay in the 1860s. This town, too, was named for a man called Abbott – in this case, Frederick Abbott, who established a sheep station there near a ford over the Waipawa River. In the 1870s the town’s name was changed to match that of the river. The townsfolk were clearly aware of the name Abbotsford’s connection with Scott, however. Visitors to Waipawa can find, near the town’s centre, two streets named for Scott novels, Waverley and Kenilworth, intersecting in the shape of a St Andrew’s cross.

While there are no towns or suburbs in New Zealand named after Scott’s Abbotsford, there are some in Australia.

Although European settlement of Australia was at an early stage during Scott’s lifetime, it was far enough advanced that Scott knew people who emigrated to or spent time in the colony of New South Wales. One was a young man named George Harper who worked briefly for Scott as a gardener before emigrating to Sydney, which he reached in 1821.

Scott provided Harper with an introduction to the New South Wales Governor. In gratitude for Scott’s help, Harper named the property he was granted to the southwest of Sydney, Abbotsford, and wrote to Scott to tell him so. But Harper’s expression of thanks didn’t end there. In 1827 he returned to Britain for a visit, bringing with him a collection of ‘natural curiosities’, including two live emus which he gifted to Scott. I’ve written elsewhere about Scott’s experience with what he charmingly called the ‘Emusses’ – let’s just say Scott was not a grateful recipient of Harper’s gift.

Returning to Australia in 1829, Harper took up residence at his own Abbotsford, where he proposed to lay out a township, but this plan was never realised. However, communities called Abbotsford were to be found elsewhere in Australia.

The Melbourne suburb of Abbotsford gets its name from an early estate in the area, which was apparently named after Scott’s home. There’s also an Abbotsford in the inner west of Sydney. It’s named for Abbotsford House, built in 1878 by a local Scottish-born doctor and politician, who called his house after Scott’s.

It was in Sydney’s Abbotsford that one of Australia’s best-known writers, Henry Lawson, died in 1922. Lawson, who was frequently impoverished and who flirted with socialism and republicanism, had little in common with the comfortably-off and conservative Scott. But Lawson was linked with Scott in death through place names. For not only did Lawson die in Abbotsford; he was also buried in Waverley Cemetery. The suburb in which the cemetery is located got its name from Waverley House, built in 1827 for Barnett Levey, a merchant, founder of Australia’s first permanent theatre, and the first non-convict Jewish settler in Australia.

Waverley was the best-known and the most widely-used name associated with Scott. Scott wrote that he called the hero of his first novel Waverley because it was an ‘uncontaminated name’, with no associations other than those that readers ‘shall hereafter be pleased to affix to it’. Despite the cautionary tale of New Zealand’s Abbotsfords, it seems safe to assume that places called Waverley were, more likely than not, named for Scott’s novel.

In Australia, as well as Sydney’s Waverley, Melbourne has the neighbouring suburbs of Glen Waverley and Mount Waverley, and there is a Waverley in Launceston, Tasmania. There are a number of other Waverleys in Australia, from homesteads to streams and hills.

In New Zealand, there are suburbs called Waverley in Dunedin and Invercargill. There’s also a town in Taranaki called Waverley, although it was originally known by a Māori name, Wairoa. It was established as a military settlement in 1866, during the wars in Taranaki between Māori and colonial troops. In 1876, after the wars were over, the town’s name was changed to Waverley, probably inspired by Scott’s novels. The name was ostensibly changed to avoid confusion with other towns called Wairoa. However, I wonder whether the townsfolk may also have been seeking to assert the town’s British identity following the insecurity of the wars. Taranaki is also home to another town whose name has literary associations, Stratford, established around the same time that Wairoa’s name was changed to Waverley.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its strong Scottish heritage, New Zealand doesn’t appear to have any other towns or suburbs with names clearly linked to Scott, but there are streets with names such as Waverley and Ivanhoe. Australia has a wider range of Scott-related names, including suburbs or towns named Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, Ravenswood (after a character from Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor) and more.

But why did colonists in Aotearoa and Australia name places for Scott’s writing? I’ll consider that question in the second part of this post.