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The Real McKay, by Graham Bishop

27 March 2011

The remarkable life of Alexander McKay, geologist


Born in the small village of Carsphairn, Scotland, in 1841, Alexander McKay grew up in an isolated rural environment that seemed to offer little stimulus to his gifted mind. He left school at age 14, then made a living from odd jobs on farms – not always with success. At least twice he was sacked, once for repeatedly reading while on the job as opposed to looking after stock, and once for getting so drunk as to being unfit to work. At 22 years of age, he contemplated his life and realised that “so far he had not been a great success.” He decided that a fresh start was needed, and followed in the footsteps of his brother William, who had sailed to New Zealand the year before.

His start in the new colony wasn’t exactly easy, and we get the impression of a young man with a very fit body but a lost soul. After landing in Bluff, he walked north in quest of his brother. He walked the distance between Milburn and Dunedin in just over half a day. In Dunedin, he learnt that his brother had left that very morning for the gold fields in Central Otago – McKay lost no time, and set off at once over Three Mile Hill to Outram and the Maungatua. By nightfall, he had walked more than 80km. A misadventure the next day must have been a real low point – after taking his trousers off to ford the Taieri, McKay was swept away by the river, and lost his swag with all his belongings. He made it to the opposite shore alive, but had no money, no spare clothing, and no trousers.

Alex McKay caught up with his brother eventually, and accompanied him on gold diggings for two years, first in New Zealand, then in Australia. After a period working as a station hand at Lake Ohau, where he met and married Susannah, his fortune changed when he was employed as a fossil collector by Sir Julius von Haast. This was a late start in a new career, but from then on McKay made astounding progress: he was employed as a geologist by Sir James Hector, then became Government Geologist, and a Fellow of the Geological Society. By the time he retired in 1908, he had authored over 200 scientific reports and publications.

During his career as a geologist, Alex McKay got to travel literally all over the country, often in remote locations. Some of his most remarkable expeditions include a trip from Lake Harris over the Serpentine Range to North Col, Lake Nerine and Park Pass, and geological explorations of the Hopkins River, the Matukituki River (with first ascents of Fog and Niger Peaks), Preservation Inlet and the South Coast. McKay thoroughly explored the Richardson Mountains, where his name is commemorated by the 115m high Alexander McKay Falls in Sixteen Mile Creek.

In this biography, Graham Bishop (a geologist himself) has gone to every length to unearth the past of the ‘folk-hero’ of New Zealand geology. Not only, but Bishop is an excellent writer, who has published 6 books before (both fiction and non-fiction). McKay’s biography is extremely well researched, and is accompanied by a number of maps and black and white photographs. Thanks to an easy writing style and a wealth of entertaining anecdotes, this book is a joy to read.


Bishop, G. (2008) The Real McKay. Otago University Press, 252 pages

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 April 2015 8:19 am

    having just read this wonderful biography, it was great to read not only about Alexander himself but also his family – his brother John was my ggg-grandfather – a fantastic read, i now have a family hero that i truly feel blessed to be able to call Uncle Alex :), he was truly a remarkable man alright.

  2. 11 January 2016 1:46 pm

    It was a real privilege to work on publishing this title and designing the cover for a keen tramper like myself. I learned so much!

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