THEY called her “the Lady of the Heather”, and she was rumoured to be the illegitimate granddaughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
If she was, she could hardly have come further from Scotland. For the place she called home was at the very edge of civilisation, if not over it: the now uninhabited Campbell Island, 450 miles south of New Zealand.
Now an team of historians and archaeologists from Heritage New Zealand is to investigate the story of the woman who is said to have lived in the island’s Camp Cove in the early 19th century and who always wore a sprig of heather on her hat.
Legend has it she was a contender for the throne, alarming her rivals, and she was brought to the island by a Captain William Stuart, a privateer in the Caribbean, who had boasted of drinking burgundy with the exiled prince.
The tale has inspired books, novels and a ballad, and the New Zealand expedition may be seen as an attempt to sort out fact from fantasy.
The island was first inhabited in 1810. It was a sealing base until the seals were virtually wiped out by the middle of the decade, although the trade revived briefly in the 1820s. Whaling brought more settlers there in the 1830s and 1840s, and in 1874 the island was visited by a French scientific expedition intending to view the transit of Venus.
Whether fact or fiction, “the Lady of the Heather” – which is also the story of a romantic novel by William Lawson dates from the early 19th century.
In Lawson’s novel, the heroine is exiled to Campbell island because of suspected treachery to the Jacobite cause. But the story may have some factual base – possibly in that some of the early ships visiting the island did indeed have women on board, and women may have been among the first settlers.
The Heritage New Zealand investigative team will be investigating the flattened remains of a sod hut where such a settler might have lived. These huts, made from grass with densely packed roots holding the soil together, were favoured by settlers when there was no timber or brick.
Norm Judd, a historian who will be with the team visiting the island wrote in his blog: “It appears that the seed from which the Lady of the Heather myth was grown by an article for the Dominion in 1891 by a journalist Roderick Carrick.
“What interests me is that Carrick saw a market for the legend in 1891; that the hut’s story reflected the way New Zealanders saw the mystique of the sub-Antarctic islands. The people who perpetuate Carrick’s myth today do so, I believe, as a way of connecting the islands through stories handed down.”
Nick Hirst, of the department of conservation in Auckland, said that the team will visit Campbell Island at end end or next month or in early April.
“The timing of their arrival depends on the weather and how long the voyage takes.
“They will clear vegetation from the remains of the sod hut. The site from sea lions and it will be examined to see what it reveals.”
The island, uninhabited since a meteorological station was automated in 1995, is a Unesco World Heritage site.