Stories of homecoming: The incredible journey

ON 18 September 1853, a weatherbeaten schooner, the Gazelle, eased itself into Auckland harbour in New Zealand's North Island. The Gaelic-speaking Scots settlers who disembarked, led by an intimidating and determined clergyman in his seventies, had reached the end of an astonishing migratory journey that had taken them from the Highlands across the North Atlantic to Nova Scotia, then traversing the planet to Australia and New Zealand.

They were the "Normanites", the Highland followers of the Reverend Norman McLeod. In 1817, this charismatic, if stern and fiercely dissenting preacher, originally from Clachtoll, Sutherland, had led some 400 of his Gaelic-speaking flock across the Atlantic from Ullapool, out of a land wracked by poverty, agrarian change and clearance to the New World, where they settled in Nova Scotia – initially in Pictou then at St Ann's on Cape Breton Island. After 25 years a combination of harsh winters, crop failure and potato blight had them looking for more hospitable shores. A son of McLeod's who had ventured to Australia wrote to his father extolling the more amenable climate of the antipodean colony, so in the mid-1850s, the Normanites set to boat-building then set sail, initially in two vessels, the Margaret and the smaller Highland Lass, from St Ann's, for the southern hemisphere. They spent time in Adelaide, then Melbourne, Australia, and found themselves amid the turmoil of a gold rush and its associated avarice, violence and disease. Three of Rev McLeod's sons died of typhoid.

He wrote to Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand, seeking a potential settlement less tainted by Mammon, was encouraged by the Governor's response and, having sold the Margaret and Highland Lass, his community bought a 175-tonne Aberdeen schooner, the Gazelle, and more than 120 of them sailed on to Auckland, where they were joined by others over the years until almost 1,000 immigrants from the Highlands had established a thriving community in perhaps the most extraordinary of all the Highland migrations.

When Bob McGregor, a 68-year-old Sydney-based financial forecaster, marches up the Royal Mile during the Gathering's Clan Parade next July, the formidable Reverend McLeod and his followers won't be far from his mind, for McGregor traces his lineage back, through his New Zealand-born father, to emigrant Highlanders on the Margaret, the first of the Normanite vessels to sail from Nova Scotia to their Antipodean promised land.

"My forebears were on that original first boat that came out from St Ann's," says McGregor from his home in Sydney's North Shore. "Some of the McGregors on it are related to me directly." Now 68, a former industrial chemist who has become an established forecaster and commentator on finance and investment, he believes his McGregor ancestors originally hailed from Ross-shire.

McGregor, whose father came to Australia from New Zealand to study marine engineering, met his wife-to-be and stayed, reckons he has always been aware of his Scots heritage. "My two older brothers went to a boarding school in Sydney called the King's School, the oldest independent boys' school in Australia, and I was sent to the Scots College in Sidney , where I learned to play the pipes.

"My great grandfather, Captain Kenneth McGregor, his young brother Donald and their parents Donald and Christina were on that first ship, the Margaret. Some of the group settled in Adelaide and Melbourne, but the majority, after selling the ship in Melbourne, took passage to Auckland, where they negotiated and bought land at Whangarei Heads, about 100 miles north of Auckland.

"Captain Kenneth, apart from farming at Whangarei Heads, had an interest in 15 ships registered in his name, as part owner, between 1859 and 1897. The smallest was 38 tonnes; the biggest – the barque Kathleen Hilda – was 552 tonnes, built in Nova Scotia in 1891."

It's hard to know what the Reverend McLeod and his Mammon-despising Normanites might have made of investment portfolios and hedge funds, and I suspect they might have had some pithy observations to make on the credit crunch. At any rate their settlement, between Whangarei Heads and Waipu prospered, and it's reckoned that by 1860 there were almost 1,000 immigrant Scots there, representing 19 clan names.

Clanship remains important to Bob McGregor who, with wife Robyn, has visited Scotland twice, tracing past McGregor lands in Wester Ross and, naturally, in Rob Roy's old tramping ground of Balquhidder. The Tasmanian-born wife of a friend claims lineage from the redoubtable Highland rogue, but Bob has to make do with just a shared birthdate of 7 March – "That's the date Rob Roy was born in 1671 and the date I was born in 1940," he says.

"The difference is a variation in the square of numbers, and I'm very interested in the square of numbers. It matters a lot in finance. I keep telling people I'm a reincarnation of him," he laughs, "because we're both bloody rebels when it comes to government. I've been known to criticise ours. I've been known to criticise monetary policy of all Governments, especially where it is used to buy votes via an expansion of the money supply."

Last year he and his wife spent some four months retracing his ancestors' journey from New Zealand back to Canada and thence back to Scotland. "We flew to New Zealand for the jubilee celebration of Whangarei Heads public school. My great-great-grandfather gave them the land on which the school was built, and it's the second oldest school in New Zealand.

"That (Normanite] community was the first to survive and thrive in that area, from Whangarei heads to Waipu, all that land was settled by people from Nova Scotia, very rich agricultural dairy country, and extremely valuable."

The Normanites, says McGregor, prospered in everything they did – and, he says managed relationships with the local Maoris well. "I guess they were extremely religious people and as such respected the dignity of man and respected the Maoris in their dealings – this is pretty well documented. That was one reason they prospered so beautifully there."

Asked whether he thinks the descendents of Scottish emigrants tend to view the old country and their "clan" history with rose-tinted spectacles, he says: "It depends on the individual. I take an interest in everything. I've read about the clearances and the migrations and I'm aware of the hardships and travails people had to overcome. I've come to the conclusion that the best things that ever happened to some of the clans was that they had to migrate to prosper, like those who were part of that migration to St Ann's then went on to New Zealand."

Another notable immigrant, Sir Peter Fraser, the Scots-born Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1940 to 1949, once said of the Normanite immigrants: "New Zealand has many records of the adventurous voyages and the trying experiences of its hardy and courageous pioneers. Each successive settlement has its history of early trials and vicissitudes, of tremendous difficulties and failures preceding success… but none excel the story of the Highlanders of Waipu."

The Highlanders left their legacy wherever they went. Today St Ann's today is the home of North America's only Gaelic College; and at Waipu, North Island, the House of Memories is a museum to the Normanites and others like them who crossed the world from Scotland. For Bob McGregor, his return journey is "making a statement – just to say that we're back. We're prospering where we are, we're doing very well, but this is our heritage and we'll never ever forget it."

'My Scottish heritage is very important to me'

MICHAEL Stenhouse, a Norwegian-based Englishman who wears a kilt from time to time, grew up in various parts of Britain as his RAF father was posted to different bases, but it wasn't until he was living in Norway that he became interested in his Scots ancestry. Stenhouse, inset, went into the air force himself and was stationed at Kinloss for four years, and after leaving the RAF moved across the North Sea in 1975. Now 60, he's an engineer working in the offshore industry, and lives in Toensberg, Norway's oldest city.

He traces his Scots roots back to Seton, East Lothian. When he and his wife, Brit, arrive in Edinburgh for The Gathering next July, he'll be sporting Bruce tartan while she will be wearing Norwegian national dress. "When I was 50 my wife bought me a kilt for my birthday – Bruce tartan; because I'm told Stenhouse was a sept of the Bruce clan – although I'm more inclined to believe that they were a sept of the Seton clan."

It was while Stenhouse was working in Italy, away from his Norwegian home every second weekend, that he started using his spare time to investigate genealogy sites on the internet. He knew his grandfather had moved south from Scotland during the First World War, but later vanished, leaving his English grandmother with three boys, and is known to have died in Scotland in 1999.

He has managed to trace his Scottish ancestors as far back as 1600, which is further back than usual in terms of genealogical research. "I discovered that a lot of the male names were missing, but that my family originally came from Seton." He has copies of old estate records for the area, showing how his forebears, sometimes under the name Stenners, were among the tenants, described by one chronicler as "martyrs to circumstances", as they were shifted from Seton to nearby Tranent following the bankruptcy of the Winton Estate during the 1770s. "My family ended up at a place called Meadowmill (now the site of a sports complex between Tranent and Prestonpans]."

He describes himself as the last of his line and regards his Scottish heritage as "very important to me". Asked whether or not some members of the Scottish diaspora tend to go over the top when it comes to their heritage he laughs: "I see what you're getting at. But actually, I've read quite a bit of Scottish history in recent years, and about how the Scots are today with regard to the English."

He may be enthusiastic about his heritage, but he appears not to take a rose-tinted view of Scottish independence. "At the moment, with the financial situation, it would be impossible for the Scots to be independent." And to those who point to Norway as example of a successful and oil-rich small, independent country, he remarks: "They want to try living there. You can't isolate yourselves, and also we've managed to lose an awful lot of all this oil money everybody seems to know about.

"I would say that Scotland, as far as I can find out from the BBC, is doing a lot better than we are."