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.

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