From Island to Island, pt 2

This is a continuation of this post.

Scollay emigration

Scollays of Yell

Robert SCOLLAY was born on October 2, 1834, in Vatsetter, Shetland to Daniel SCOLLAY and Barbara Jane PETRIE. The eldest of 6 children, Robert followed his father into becoming a merchant seaman.

His brothers and sisters were all born between 1838 and 1853. His father died in 1860, at sea, off the coast of Shetland along with his brother, William. Following his death, Daniel’s widow Barbara received a merchant seaman’s pension and remained on Vatsetter, working as a Farmer, Knitter, and Crofter.

Ruins of house, Vatsetter, Yell, Shetland [1]

Shetland to Australia, a mariner’s life

Robert is listed in the Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Alphabetical Index of Registers of Seamen’s Tickets with Register Ticket number 557791, however no definitive record of his registry entry can be found. There is an entry in the 1853-1857 Registry for a “Robert Soollay” of Shetland. The age of the man corresponds and the note “Nord Isles Lerwick” corresponds with the region. In this record, the man went to sea on 1 November 1854 for a P. Byron of Glasgow and did not have a “home” entry in the log.
According to various sources, Robert was an officer on a ship travelling to Australia in 1859 when he met Margaret REIDY/READ/REED (daughter of Colonel John or Cornelius REIDY/READ/REED of the British Army). They married in Melbourne.

Records for the birth of one of Robert’s children in Australia are found (in Sandridge, Victoria, now Port Melbourne), however, arrival records and marriage records are not found with certainty. This is made more difficult by the uncertainty of Margaret’s actual surname. According to a family tree published on Bayanne and Wikitree, the dates and places of birth of all of Robert and Margaret’s children are known, but this is not fully referenced on either site. Owners of both trees have been contacted asking for further information, but no responses have been received.

Logging, Ship Building, Fishing and Stewart Island

Halfmoon Bay, near Oban, Stewart Island [2]

Robert and his family arrived in New Zealand in 1861 on the ship Queen of Perth. He came to Stewart Island with saw-milling timber and a complete saw-mill plant as he was under engagement to erect the first saw-mill on the island. Robert was also involved in the fishing industry, was a pioneer of the oyster business and ran his own schooner on the coast until 1899.

Robert Scollay’s ship ‘Enterprise’ under construction c.1874 [3]

Robert built a total of eight ships:

Ship Name Notes
LerwickCutter. Used for oyster fishing. Ran aground 15 July 1875.
Jane Scollay Schooner. Replacement for Lerwick lost the year before.
Unknown Cutter. Used in summer for tourism. Oil engine and propellor driven.
Margaret Scollay Schooner. Used for trade between Stewart Island, Bluff, Invercargill and Dunedin.
Endeavour Founded at moorings at South Pegasus
EclipseWrecked at Stewart Island.
EnterpriseUsed by Captain Catling to attempt to recover the gold of the General Grant at Auckland Islands.

To improve the fishing industry in New Zealand, immigration agents targeted Shetlanders. In June 1873, a group of thirty-one migrants recruited specifically for this purpose were carried to Stewart Island.

Horses Hauling Logs, Maori Beach, Stewart Island [4]

The logging industry was important to the development of Stewart Island and the discovery of tin in the late 1800s started a “tin rush” in the south of the island. Robert was involved in the establishment of tin mining.

Land Owner

In New Zealand, Shetlanders were drawn in the 1860s to the south-east, especially Dunedin in Otago, and Stewart Island.

Ian Tait, Shetland Museum and Archives [5]
Bravo Island Settlement, 1879. (Located in Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island). Used with permission of Alexander Turnbull Library. [6]

Robert arrived on Steward Island with his wife and three children in 1861. In 1864 he settled at Half Moon Bay and established a successful skippering trade, transporting people to and from the mainland, as well as to nearby islands. One of his boats was named ‘Lerwick’, a throw-back to his Shetland heritage. He built the boarding house Bayview and established his boatyard in front of the property.

Bayview Boarding House, Oban, Stewart Island [7]

Legacy and Conclusion

An influential member of society, Scollay Rocks and Scollay Flat were named after Robert and he was referred to, in one of his obituaries, as the “Patriarch of Stewart Island” . Along with his boat building, fishing and timber activities, Robert was a member of the Stewart Island school committee; a member of the Southland League and a lay preacher of the non-denominational church at Halfmoon Bay.

Advertisement for Bay View House, Stewart Island, 1887 [9]

‘Scotsmen are proverbially inclined to roam abroad in quest of fortune.’ [12]

Whether this is a generalisation or rings true is a subject of debate for historians. However, the success of Robert Scollay in New Zealand, compared to his prospects had he remained in Shetland, suggests this may be somewhat accurate.

Public notice of intention to use an oyster bed at Stewart Island, 1869 [10]
Notification of grant of 20 acres, Stewart Island, 1875 [11]

This report has provided a brief snapshot of the life of this man, and how emigration impacted and shaped his life. It is a similar story to that of other immigrant ancestors, particularly in my family. Being Australian, I have several convict ancestors, however, those who chose to emigrate often found their fortunes improved from when they were “back home”.

A curious document is available in the New Zealand Archives which may provide further information into the activities and fortunes of Robert Scollay. Found in the Dunedin Bankruptcy Files for 1877, a document for a SCOLLAY Robert of Stewart Island who was a Master Mariner can be accessed on-site at the NZ Archives in Dunedin (Item ID: R19947809).

An article entitled “On the Metal – The Tin Miners of Port Pegasus”, published in New Zealand Geographic, makes mention of Robert Scollay and his involvement as a ship captain, land and smithy owner and prospector during the NZ “tin rush” in the 1880s. This article provides some interesting titbits about Robert’s activities and may warrant further investigation.

The changing fortunes of migrants from Scotland has undoubtedly been researched by many historians, but the application of genealogical research and the telling of individual stories helps enrichen our understanding of just how impactful this phenomenon was – both on the economy of the target land but also the lives of the people involved and their descendants.

Sign for Scollay Rocks, named for Robert. [8]

[1] Images: Photograph. Ruins of house, Vatsetter, Yell, Shetland. Date June 2009. Photographer unknown. Google.

[2] Images: Photograph. Halfmoon Bay and Paterson’s Inlet, Stewart Island, New Zealand. Date and photographer unknown. Te Ara.

[3] Images: Photograph. Ship ‘Enterprise’ under construction, Oban, Stewart Island. Date 1873/74. Photographer unknown. Stewart Island News, August 2006.

[4] Images: Photograph. Horses Hauling Logs, Maori Beach, Stewart Island. Date unknown. Photographer: E.A. Phillips. Stewart Island – Island of Tranquility.

[5] Shetland News. 2010. Emigrants’ tales captured.

[6] Images: Painting. Bravo Island Settlement. Date: 1879. Artist: Christopher Aubrey. NZ History.

[7] Images: Photograph. Bayview Boarding House, Oban, Stewart Island. Date and photographer unknown. Stewart Island News, August 2009.

[8] Images: Photograph. Scollay Rocks Sign, Oban, Stewart Island. Date: 2016. Photographer: Emmeline [surname unknown].

[9] Public Notices. Evening Star. 26 November 1887.

[10] Advertisements Column. Southland Times. 22 November 1869.

[11] Waste Lands Board. Southland Times. 13 January 1875.

[12] Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, No. 302, October 1849, p.225.

From Island to Island

From Shetland to New Zealand – Part ONE


This series of posts examines the emigration of Robert Scollay, a merchant seaman, from Shetland to New Zealand by way of Australia in the mid-to-late 1800s. It will first look at the economic situation in Scotland and Shetland and will touch on assisted immigration to the southern hemisphere, the life of merchant seamen, emigration between Australia and New Zealand and the growth of the logging industry and society of Stewart Island, in the south of New Zealand.

Captain Robert Scollay [1]

Shetland Economics

Shetland is found just 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle and is as far north as St Petersburg, Russia or Anchorage, Alaska. Because of the climate, most of the products of the land were used for subsistence with the main export commodity being fish. [2]

Known as “haaf fishing”, between mid-May and mid-August, fishermen would head 40 miles out into the Far Haaf (open sea) in 6-oared boats (sixareens) to catch cod, ling, and saithe which would then be preserved and sent south. [3]

Each boat had to sell its complete catch to a single landlord, selling to someone else could lead to eviction, and as payment was not made until the catch had been cured and sold (and payment was often by way of goods, rather than cash) this led to a high level of poverty on the islands. [4]

Sixareens moored. Used with the permission of Shetland Museum and Archives [5]

Although Shetland is part of Scotland and the United Kingdom, its links with Scandinavia are still evident in the names of settlements and places throughout the islands. Customs that are found in Scandinavia can also be applied to Shetland genealogical research. For example, until the 19th century, patronymic naming convention was sometimes used and women often did not take their husband’s surname upon marriage. [6] As Shetland has been part of Scotland since the 1600s, a lot of general research can be done in the main Scottish and British resources. Not all Parish Registers are digitised, however, and are held at a local level in Lerwick or other places throughout the islands

Profession Options

Aside from fishing, whaling and farming were staples of Shetland rural life, however, due to the harsh climate, bad harvests ensured that poverty remained high. In the 19th century, the number of small, uneconomic crofts were replaced by landlords with larger, more efficient farms which resulted in a surplus population. [7] The lack of work, high levels of poverty and famine (including the potato blight that affected Ireland and the Highlands in the 1840s) resulted in thousands of people leaving the islands between the 1820s and 1870s. [8]

A Shetland Crofter [9]

Lerwick and Upper Sound crofts [10]

The options available were assisted or unassisted migration to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.; military service as a merchant seaman or emigration to the Scottish mainland or England.

Records of assisted and unassisted migration can be found in most of the larger general genealogical research sites. Records of merchant seaman can also be found on these sites, as well as The National Archives.

Scottish Diaspora

Contrary to the “sentimentalised images of exile and destitution”, Scottish emigration was a complex issue, with most Scots who emigrated being from the Lowlands. [11]

Following the Battle of Culloden and the subsequent Clearances, emigration from Scotland to various lands of supposed opportunity was high. Although these Clearances didn’t affect Shetland as they affected the Highlands, in the 19th century Shetland experienced its own Clearances, when crofting land was sold and made way for more profitable sheep farming. [12]


Scottish immigration to Australia (particularly the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales) was small before 1820.[13] As the Scottish justice system resorted to transportation less frequently than was the case in England or Ireland, comparatively few Scots came to Australia as convicts. [14]

Assisted and unassisted immigration drew a higher percentage of Scots migrants, with estimates suggesting that between 1832 and 1950, 20 to 25 percent of unassisted migrants to eastern Australia were Scots and that between 1850 and 1900 160,000 to 180,000 Scots arrived in eastern Australia, which accounted for around 15 percent of total British migration to the area. [15] [16]

New Zealand

In the mid to late 1800s, the population of Scotland hovered around 10 percent of the population of the United Kingdom and Ireland (with England and Wales accounting for almost 75 percent of the combined total in 1881 and Ireland holding around 15% in that census) [17]. The balance is shifted, however, when one looks at migration to New Zealand. In 1878, England/Wales represented almost 54 percent of the British-isles born population, Ireland just over 22 percent and Scotland a bit more than 24 percent. [18] “New Zealand could thus be viewed as approximately 13.5 percent more ‘Scottish’ than the British archipelago itself.” [19]

Regional origins of Scots Migrants 1842 – 1915 [20]

Migrants from Scotland originated from a relatively balanced cross-section of regions, with a strong representation from the far north of Scotland and the off-shore islands. Shetland Islanders account for approximated 14% of Scots emigration to the West Coast for mining purposes and over 6% going to Otago for the same purpose. [21] This is likely following an article in the Shetland Advertiser in 1862 on the Otago gold discoveries. [22]

It is estimated that almost 4 percent of Shetland’s total 1861 population migrated to New Zealand in the 1870s. [23]

Map of New Zealand showing provinces [24]
People Born in UK living in NZ Provinces 1871 [25]

Coming next week, the story of the emigration of Robert Scollay from Vatsetter, Shetland to Stewart Island, New Zealand, by way of Australia.


[1] Image: Photograph. Captain Robert Scollay. Date unknown. Photographer: Robinson & Thompson. From the family collection of Anita McLean.

[2] History.

[3] A Brief History of Shetland. Saxa Vord.

[4] About Shetland. Fish and Trade.

Image: Photograph. Sixareens moored. Date 1890/92. Photographer: J.D. Rattar. Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo number: R00668.

[6] Research Tips. Shetland Family History Society.

[7] A Brief History of Shetland. Op. cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Image: Photograph. A Shetland Crofter. Date and photographer unknown.

[10] Image: Photograph. Lerwick and Upper Sound crofts. Date: 1888. Photographer unknown.

[11] Bueltmann, Tanja. (2011) Scottish ethnicity and the making of New Zealand society, 1850 to 1930. Scottish historical review monographs series Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

[12] A Brief History of Shetland. Op. cit.

[13] Lenihen, Rebecca A. (2010) From Alba to Aotearoa: Profiling New Zealand’s Scots Migrants, 1840-1920. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. P. 5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hocken, Thomas Morland. (1898) Contributions to the Early History of New Zealand. London: Sampson Low, Marston, and Company.

[17] Lenihen, Rebecca A. (2010) Op. cit.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Regional origins of Scottish immigrants.

[21] Phillips, Jock. (2014) Op. cit

[22] Ibid.

[23] Lenihen, Rebecca A. (2010) Op. cit.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.