ancestral roots in EDAY, orkney
The family legend of the man with a long white beard who rode a white horse in Moonlight, Macraes Flat, Otago. My mother had spoken about this elder member of her family but never knew any details about him. Before she died, she told me of a local history book, East of the Rock and Pillar, which I found in her house. This was the starting point to unravel the legend as a Robert Harcus was mentioned and he turned out to be my GG Grandfather.
The following is his story from Eday, Orkney in 1874 to Otago, New Zealand and outlines:
A brief history of the Orkney Isles and my visit to Eday
Some of the reasons why he wanted to leave Eday and why he chose Dunedin, NZ
What the sea voyage to NZ on a sailing ship, the Nelson would have been like in 1874
Where Robert and family lived after they arrived in Dunedin, NZ
How Robert and sons made a living in Macraes Flat, Otago, NZ
Harcus Family Name - this is a rare surname with its origin going back 800 years and to a single location in the Parish of Fogo, County Berwickshire in SE Scotland. Harcus ancestors migrated North from Berwickshire and some sailed to the Orkney Isles circa 1500. The Harcus 'family tree' therefore goes back to the medieval, 12th century and as there are six main surname variants, Hercus, Herkes, Harcus, Harkes, Harkess and Arcus, we are all related!
History of the Orkney Isles and Eday
Orkney is an ancient land with Neolithic burial and worship sites such as the Ring of Brodgar and remnants of dwelling places such as Skara Brae said to be 4000 years old. It is a collection of small islands, South Ronaldsay is about 10 miles from the Scottish mainland of County Caithness, with other islands extending far to the North. It was first occupied by Mesolithic and Neolithic tribes and then by the Picts. The Vikings conquered the Picts and settled there during the 8th century AD and it became a Norse Earldom in the 9th century. Norsemen adopted christianity and built churches e.g. in the capital, Kirkwall, the main transport hub of the Orkney islands, the magnificant St Magnus Cathedral and Earls' Palace were built with Eday sandstone in their construction. The islands remained under Norse rule until 1468 and in 1472 were annexed by Scotland, following the failed payment of a dowry for King James III's bride, Margaret of Denmark. Orkney became part of the new Kingdom of Great Britain early in the 18th century.
Eday - lies in the centre of the Orkney Northern Isles. It is a tiny island, 14 km (8.7 miles) long from north to south and just over 500 metres wide, west to east between the Sands of Doomy and Bay of London. Remains can be seen of Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pictish and Norse periods and there is a remarkable 4.5m (17 foot) standing stone at the North end, the Stone of Setter. In days gone by, the Fuel consisted of Peat dug from the extensive moss covering the Island which made an excellent fire. Kelp was manufactured from seaweed for little financial reward and Seaweed was used for fertiliser to grow grains and potatoes. Inhabitants had some meat but Fish was the main food e.g. Cod, Herrings in their season, as well as Cooths and Sillocks caught for three quarters of the year. Lobster was caught in April, May, June in small boats with nets and conveyed to London in well-smacks. Cod fishing began in 1828 in small sloops, 4-5 manned boats were used for Herring fishing which started towards the end of July for 6-8 weeks. Women were also employed for cleaning and salting the fish as there was often a shortage of men, due to wars and emigration. Robert Harcus and his father William were fisherman in Eday - an important occupation for the majority of men.
On My Recent Visit to Eday in September 2017, my lasting impression was of a windswept, flat, treeless island with some good undulating grassy fields, heather moorland in the centre and many empty, small crofts (farm houses) in ruins near the coasts as well as derelict churches. There were few people and it felt very remote but the ferry from Backaland to Kirkwall is a life-line to the mainland and there is now a small airport. I only found one shop which is open in the mornings but the Heritage Centre, a converted church, was left open for shelter, to make your own tea or coffee and to browse the Eday resources held there. Much of the history of the Eday people and families lay among the graves in the Old Kirkyard (burial ground), situated on the coast at Skaill. I found many Harcus and Reid headstones, as these were common surnames, but only one was particularly relevant and that was the headstone erected by my GG GF Robert Harcus in loving memory of his mother Jane Reid who died in 1868. It could be clearly read, although lichen fell over some of the letters, but there it stood, very close to the shore, facing out to sea..
The Harcus family and KEY DATES
I knew from a snippet of information in the Rock and Pillar book that Robert Harcus was from Orkney, so I began searching the Orkney Archives, Census and Scotlands People websites for information on his family. I eventually discovered Robert's parents, William Harcus and Jane Reid, which was difficult as Harcus was a common surname and there were many Williams in Eday. I also obtained from NZ, Robert Harcus's death certificate and the marriage certificate of his first daughter (Jane Reid Harcus) to verify my Orkney findings. I then had the information to assemble my line of descent from my mother Jean McBeath via her mother Margaret Harcus Davis to her mother Jane Reid Harcus, the first daughter of Margaret and Robert Harcus, my GG Grandfather.
Eday, Orkney Key Dates
1836 - Marriage William Harcus and Jane Reid (parents of Robert) 23 February, in Eday where they lived. William was a fisherman when he married but was not present in the 1841 census and by 1851 he had disappeared and Jane was a widow. No trace of his death can be found. William and Jane had two known children, William, born 2 December 1836 in Parish of Eday and Pharay and later Robert (my GG GF). These boys may have never really known their father as they were parted at a young age.
Abt1839/40 - Birth Robert Harcus. The birth or baptism cannot be found. There are several theories - Scottish parish records are only of Church of Scotland members and it was not compulsory to register a birth or death at that time. If you chose not to have your child baptised in that faith, or could not afford the fee, then there was no record, so another reason records may be incomplete. His birth year was estimated by using Census, passenger list and marriage documents.
1851 and 1861 Census - Robert Harcus, occupation Fisherman, living with his mother Jean/Jane (a widow) in Gutterhole, Eday
1868 - Death Jane Reid, 60yrs. GG GF Robert's mother.
1868, Marriage, 29 October in the Parish of Dunnet, Caithness of Robert Harcus, (Fisherman living at Parkhead, Eday) to Margaret Steven, a domestic servant, living in Dunnet/Olrig. He married Margaret nearly six months after the birth of their first daughter and they went to live in Eday.
1871 Census - Robert's last known address was Parkhead, Property no.15 Eday, Orkney, on the West side district, comprising Greentoft, Sealskerry, Fersness and hills, Fersness Bay and Doomy Loch to the North and bounded on the East by the main road and the South and West by the sea. He seemed to have always lived in Eday, apart from when he married Margaret in Caithness, Scotland a short sea distance away. In 1871 he was 30 years old, occupation Fisherman, his wife Margaret Harcus 27 years, their children Jane, 2 years, born Caithness, Ann 1 year, born Eday.
1874 - 1 October, Emigration to New Zealand on the sailing ship the Nelson.
1874 - 31 December, Arrival of the Nelson in Port Chalmers, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Children of Robert and Margaret Harcus x9
Four children were born before they left Eday, Orkney for NZ:
1868 - Jane, born Dunnet Caithness, Scotland, illegitimate daughter, born on 6 May. She married Frederick Davis 1885 NZ, died 1898 Dunedin, NZ.
1869 - Ann born Eday, Orkney
1872 - William born Eday, Orkney, married Elizabeth McRae NZ, died 13 May 1952, Macraes, Otago NZ
1874 - Robert born Eday, Orkney, fought in 2nd Boer War in South Africa 1899-1902, died 1912 Seacliff, NZ
Five children were born in New Zealand:
1876 - John born Andersons Bay, Dunedin, NZ, single, died 1903, approximately 27yrs
1879 - David born Andersons Bay, Dunedin, NZ, died 1889
1880 - Margaret born Waihemo, Palmerston South, NZ, married Thomas McCauley in 1908
1882 - Mary born Moonlight, Macraes Flat, NZ, married Alexander Goodsir Johnston 1911, died Dunedin 12 September 1954
1886 - James born Palmerston South, NZ, he lived in Christchurch, a Railway surfaceman, fought in WW1 in the Otago Infantry, (New Zealand Expeditionary Force, NZEF) and married Fanny Louisa Stratton in 1917
SOme of the reasons Why Robert Harcus and family wanted to leave Eday
By the time Robert was to leave Eday, he had lost both parents, had an illegitimate daughter, then married Margaret, the mother and had three more children, the youngest being Robert jnr, only five months old. It was a huge decision to leave as often infants did not survive the long sea journeys on sailing ships to NZ which, at a minimum, were approximately 100 days. Some of the reasons they were tempted by assisted immigration schemes in the 1870's include the following -
There is a saying that an Orcadian is a 'farmer with a boat' due to the part-time, nature of Orkney fishing. Although fish was a big part of their diet, Eday fisherman had to farm and grow other food to maintain a subsistence living for their families. The islanders had to work very hard on the land and shore in small communities and life at sea was tough and dangerous.
Main-stay Kelp and Linen industries had collapsed in the early part of the 19th century as the Hudson Bay and rival Northwest company merged and no longer needed cheap Orkney labour including women. There was an expansion of herring and cod fishing but it never developed its full potential.
As population growth increased, which peaked in 1861, more land was reclaimed by big farmers and small crofters. The old-style farms used the cottar system of 'on call' labourers who were paid in land rather than money and crofters were eventually pushed to the 'margins'. When Lairds took over, they exploited the crofters, e.g. in Eday, they could demand £1.00 per acre from a small croft, (it was only 7 shillings for a large farm). As the value of the land increased, the Laird often demanded more rent and as crofters held only short term leases, it left them insecure and living in fear of losing their land or eviction.
Seeing the new opportunities being offered in NZ, Robert Harcus must have been ambitious and wanted to leave Eday in order to change his life and improve the prospects for his family.
Why they chose Dunedin, South Island, NZ
News of the Otago Gold Rush in New Zealand, between 1861-64. This changed Dunedin from a small coastal settlement to a boom town and within a few years it became the thriving, commercial capital of NZ. It was the nearest sea Port and City for supplies to the gold fields and the armed and mounted Gold Escort (on Cob and Co. coaches) also rode into Dunedin twice a month with thousands of ounces of gold from the prospectors. The Gold Rush did not last in Otago except the Macraes Mine, owned by the OceanaGold Corporation in Macraes Flat (near where Robert Harcus and sons tried gold mining), is still NZ's largest operating open cast and underground Gold mine. Some immigrants to Dunedin would still have chosen to go there to prospect for gold and Macraes Flat was not far away, 88km (55 miles). The Province of Otago was also good farming territory which was attractive to new immigrants.
Assisted Immigration schemes, although 10 years after the main gold rush, they were further incentive for Robert Harcus and his young family to try a new life in the new world. NZ wanted skilled workers, labourers and families for the new colony and as Orkney people have been described as adaptable, hardy and used to turning their hand to a variety of trades, they would have been ideal candidates. Robert Harcus had the courage but must have had the right skills for selection.
Advertising and Recruitment in the UK for Immigrants to NZ - the campaigns and recruiting processes were designed to attract people with the right skills and reached 'farm labourers' even in remote places like Eday. Robert Harcus was a fisherman but knew about farming! Newspaper adverts were used to attract prospective immigrants who were interviewed to make sure they would be of 'good' character and a 'good' worker in a new colony like NZ. Orkney published a newspaper, the 'Orcadian' from 1854, postal services began in 1747 and steam ships carried post to/from the islands from 1845 which improved communications. The Orkneys had good contacts with Scottish and English seaports which historically had led to a labour shortage as young men left for Edinburgh, London, Newcastle, America and then further afield to NZ.
News of other Orkney people settling in NZ - the Harcus family may have known others who had immigrated to NZ.
emigration to NEW ZEALAND
On 1st October 1874 Robert Harcus aged 34 yrs, a farmer labourer (as written on the passenger list), his wife Margaret 29 yrs, their children Jane 6 yrs, Ann 4 yrs, William 2 yrs and Robert jnr 5 months boarded the Nelson at Greenock, Glasgow Scotland, bound for Port Chalmers, Dunedin, NZ. They sailed away, bidding farewell to Eday, the tiny Northern Isle of Orkney and place they had known all their lives.
They had an 'Assisted Passage' like many single men, women and families between 1872 - 1888. The cost to the NZ Government was £47.5.0 shillings for their passage. Single men were quartered at the end of the Nelson, women at the opposite end and families groups were together in the central part of the ship.
Robert and family were among those selected for emigration by the Otago Home Agency as seen in a Note from Home (Edinburgh) in the NZ, Otago Daily Times newspaper on 23 November 1874. The Agency took great pains to select emigrants who were both respectable and well suited to colonial life. Each Province had its own policy on immigration and schemes, Provincial Government decided. As only the South Island of NZ was prosperous due to the Gold Rush in the 1860's, to benefit all of NZ, Central Government announced a big program of public works and immigration in the 1870's (the Julius Vogel Scheme) and in 1871 an Agent in London arranged the supply of immigrants to various NZ provinces. 1871 - 1880 became NZ's largest Immigration period with the arrival of 99,000 from England, Ireland, Scotland and Europe.
What would the SEA Voyage Have been like?
They sailed on the maiden Voyage of the Nelson - an Albion Company clipper (sailing) ship, 1247 tons and especially built to carry emigrants. She travelled to NZ, from 1874 - 1902 making 23 voyages. She was built on identical lines as sister ships, the Invercargill, Dunedin and Auckland who did similar journeys.
The Voyage took 91 days Port to Port - the Nelson sailed from Greenock, Glasgow on 1st October 1874 via Southampton and arrived Port Chalmers, Otago, NZ on 31st December 1874. Captain Anderson was in command and the Surgeon Superintendent was John Harkess Macaffer.
There was no Panama canal in 1874 and ships had to sail via the Cape of Good Hope.... Captain Anderson's voyage report ....after leaving Greenock, the Nelson was met by many gales...the NE trade winds found her and on 6th November she crossed the Equator. She then picked up the SE trades until 11 November and crossed the Meridian at Greenwich on 30th November, the Meridian of the Cape of Good Hope on 4th December and Meridian of Leuwin on 20th December. Ran her easting down on about the 45th parallel and arrived with sight of the Snares on 29th December (NZ). At daylight she bore away with NE winds down the coast and reached the Heads (Otago, Dunedin) early on 31 December. 1874
Conditions on board - the Nelson arrived in Port Chalmers in good time with 365 souls, two less than when they departed Glasgow. This is the excess of deaths over births on board. Four children died and two were born. A baby boy of 6 months and boy of 3.5 years died of mesenteric disease, a baby girl of 8 months and a boy of 2 years died of chronic diarrhoea. Robert Harcus's son Robert was only 8 months old but he was fortunate and survived the long days at sea, the food and potential dangers for an infant on board ship.
Report in the Otago Daily Times, Newspaper of the Arrival of the Nelson in Port Chalmers, Dunedin, NZ on New Year's Eve, 1874, - the new arrivals appeared a good class of people, looked strong and healthy and did not have the slightest complaint over those in charge of them during the voyage. On inspection by the Commissioners, cleanliness of the compartments prevailed. The Margaret Galbraith, a ship arriving just before the Nelson, was quarantined for a few days due to a case of scarlatina on board but the Nelson was not delayed, after signalling from Taiaroa Head Station was at a snug anchorage off Port Chalmers by 11am on 31 December...
Where the Harcus family Lived AFter They ARrived in dunedin, NZ
1874 - 1879 Andersons Bay, Dunedin.
When immigrants first arrived in Dunedin accommodation could be found in Immigration Barracks. The first barracks was a 20 metre hut with a thatched roof, but in the 1870's the new barracks in Caversham could house up to 400 people and employers could interview prospective employees there. When the Harcus family first arrived, the Dunedin labour market was described as 'bare' as the Immigration Barracks were void of inmates. It is not clear whether they stayed in the Barracks as they may have had a 'sponsor' in Dunedin they already knew who would have helped them settle and find jobs. New immigrants could hopefully find jobs on the railways, road building, domestic service, the construction industry and in agriculture. The ideal was to get immigrants and families settled on the land. Some were walked or taken in carts to bush covered backblocks where they lived in tents until they could afford enough for a deposit on a 40 acre farm purchased from the government. In the early 1870's, New Zealand was still in the age of sailing ships, foot and horse traffic and had no telegraph connections to the outside world! Work was done by hand with simple tools.
1880 - 1881 Waihemo, Palmerston South
1882 onwards - Moonlight, Macraes Flat area of Otago. Their youngest daughter Mary was born in Moonlight on 12 December 1882. Evidence of Robert and his family living and working in this area can be seen in the local Directories, Electoral Rolls and Newspapers. Many of the family died and/or are buried in Macraes Flat No.1 and N0.2 cemeteries.
They lived in Andersons Bay, Dunedin first then moved to Waihemo, Palmerston South and finally settled in Moonlight, Macraes Flat, a short distance away. Dunedin to Wiahemo is 79km (49 miles), Waihemo to Macraes Flat, Waitaki District, a further 15 km (10 miles). Distances are approximate. The settlement was named after John McRae, who lived in the area in the late 1850's before gold was discovered nearby. In 2015 the name was officially altered from Macraes Flat to Macraes.
How Robert Harcus and Sons Made a Living in Macraes Flat, Otago, NZ.
Robert Harcus was primarily a Farmer.
He and sons' Robert junior, John and William Harcus are listed in Directories coming and going in the area of Macraes, Moonlight, Stoneburn and Hampden and their occupations were farmer, miner, rabbiter (Robert), surfaceman (James) and labourer. He and sons also had Gold mining interests! See evidence below. In 1891 -1907, the railway brought progress, jobs and more development to Macraes Flat and the Otago area.
Robert Harcus applied for Agricultural land leases in 1879, 1881, 1889. He obtained agricultural land leases near the road to Nenthorn. Evidence: 4 October 1879, Otago Witness newspaper - Waste LANDS Board, R Harcus and other Agricultural lease holders' applications, were refused an extension to pay the present rents due. This is evidence Robert had applied to lease land as early as 1879. 21 September 1881, Tuapeka Times LAND Board, R Harcus to Purchase Agricultural Leases. 20 November 1889 The Mount Ida Chronicle: Application for licensed holding of 30 acres at Nenthorn were adjourned for survey. Robert Harcus.
The book, East of the Rock and Pillar, states Robert Harcus worked for Mr J Curle and that he owned a section opposite Curle's on the road to Nenthorn. The informant on the birth certificate of his daughter Margaret Harcus, born in Waihemo, was Mary Curle, so they already knew this family well and I found James Curle farmer, Moonlight Macraes, mentioned in the NZ City and Area Directories from 1883, the exact time period as Robert Harcus.
Robert Harcus took pride in the growing of young trees and became well known. Many Pine Trees in Macraes today came from his nursery. A report on 18 September 1894 in the Otago Witness on Tree Planting at the School in Moonlight confirms. 165 trees were planted in the school grounds, 49 of which were kindly donated by Mr Harcus. In later years he was conspicuous for his long white beard as well as for the white horse he rode. He was a familiar figure in the district.
Gold Mining - Robert Harcus senior applied for Gold mining leases from about 1889. He and sons' Robert jnr, John and William had some success discovering gold due to the exceptional geology in the Central Otago Schist belt. Minerals such as gold were deposited in the schist rock and erosion of the schist also allowed alluvial gold to be discovered. This could have been another reason why the Harcus family lived in Moonlight not far from Macraes which still has NZ's largest gold mine. See evidence below of their gold mining exploits. It must have been exciting 'seeking your fortune' but it was a dangerous occupation and son John, who was awarded mining privileges in 1903, was tragically killed the same year in the Golden Bar mine explosion. Reports in the newspaper gave a good account of this accident - An inquest heard the John was killed at the Golden Bar mine at Stoneburn, Macraes. Mr Cunningham found the deceased lying dead, his body fearfully mangled. It was thought he went for a plug of dynamite and was doing something to it when it went off, exploding the other plugs in the magazine. The jury concluded the deceased died by an explosion of dynamite, there was no evidence to show how it occured and that no blame was attached to anyone.
Evidence supporting Gold mining interests found in local Newspapers: the Otago Witness, Otago Daily Times, ODT, the Macraes Correspondent, Mt Ida Chronicle -
1 November 1889, Application for a licensed holding for gold mining purposes, Nenthorn, Robert Harcus applicant, Agent William Donaldson. 27 November 1889, Otago Daily Times, Mining Section: Harcus and party who own a claim near Macraes, had a ton of the ore treated at the prospectors battery and the return was 1oz 2 dwt. 12 December 1889, Otago Witness, Notes from Macraes: Harcus and party who discovered a reef some short time back, south of Macraes township, have so far succeeded in discovering the reef in several places and the prospects are very fair.... 9 September 1897, Otago Witness: Harcus brothers 19 tons stone for 8oz gold.....
Macraes Flat Cemeteries-where Many of the harcus family are buried.
Macraes Flat Cemetery No. 1
1889 - David Harcus died 11 December 1889, 11yrs,
1900 - Margaret Harcus, Plot 59 B.R. died of consumption on 29 November at Macraes Flat, 57 yrs.
Margaret was dearly loved by her husband and children, as seen in her Death notice in the Otago Witness newspaper on 5 December 1900......Margaret died at her residence, Macraes Flat, after a long and painful illness, borne with Christian patience, the dearly loved wife of Robert Harcus. Four sons and three daughters mourn their loss.............
Southern Cemetery, Macraes Flat Cemetery No. 2
There is a Headstone with the following inscriptions:
24 November 1903, In loving memory of John Harcus killed by an explosion of dynamite, age 27yrs, Erected by father, sisters and brothers. This was a tragedy for the family and a sad loss of someone so young doing a dangerous job in a gold mine, the Golden Bar mine. Also on the Headstone:
29 June 1912, Robert Harcus, junior, passed away, 38 yrs, born Eday Orkney, 37 yrs in NZ
23 March 1918, Robert Harcus, senior, 83yrs. (his age is not accurate, he may have been abt 78 yrs based on his age in the 1871 Orkney census records and age stated on the Passenger list of the ship, the Nelson). He died in Palmerston South of senility and heart failure.
The journey of Robert Harcus, the Eday fisherman who became a well respected early settler pioneer, tree grower and gold miner in Otago NZ is full of courage, tragedy and love. He and his wife Margaret brought up nine children in damp and difficult circumstances and Margaret died of consumption in 1900 at home in Macraes after a long and painfull illness. Robert died in 1918 in Palmerston South but his final resting place was Macraes' southern cemetery where many others of the family are buried and mentioned on a Harcus headstone. By the time he died, he had lost his wife and three sons including John in a tragic mining explosion. He had also witnessed two sons going off to war, both of whom returned, but Robert junior ended up and died in the Seacliff Mental Hospital.
The risks were great when GG GF Robert sailed away on board the Nelson in 1874, the future very uncertain and to succeed he needed immense courage and love for his family. The tribute to him in the Otago Daily Times newspaper by his son James and wife Fanny Louisa expresses the depth of feeling and respect shared by the family towards their father, the man that my Mother mentioned with the long white beard who rode a white horse in Moonlight, Macraes Flat.
...In loving memory of our dear father who passed away at Palmerston South on 23 March 1918.
Though cruel death was snatched from view, A loving father kind and true
Death cannot from our minds efface, His tender smile, his loving face
His words, his actions are not dead, But in our minds are daily read
They also remembered Robert again in the ODT on 23 March 1920 with another tribute to him.
His courage, strength and love should be an inspiration to all those descendants of the 'Harcus' family in New Zealand.
Family History Resources Used:
Orkney Family History Society, OFHS, Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1AG
Orkney Library and Archives, Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1AG
Scotlands People Website, www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk
The New Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1795 - 1845
United Parishes of Stronsay and Eday by Rev. John Simpson
NZ Birth, Death, Marriage Historical Records
Toitu Early Settlers Museum, Dunedin NZ
Hocken Library, Dunedin, NZ
East of the Rock and Pillar, A History of the Straith Taieri and Macraes District. H. M. Thompson
Acknowledgement of other Sources of Information/Photos/Maps:
One Family, Six Names. The story of the name and medieval origins of the Scottish family of Hercus, Herkes, Harcus, Harkes, Harkess and Arcus. Researched and written by John and Ann Hercus.
The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand, Edited by Keith Sinclair
Stromness Museum, Stromness Orkney