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McLeod of Waipu

The Story of the Waipu Settlement, North Auckland

Waipu passenger lists are at the foot of this story.

The Rev. Norman McLeod preached a harsh gospel in which mercy and tolerance had no place. But his followers in Scotland, Canada and New Zealand regarded him as their saviour.

He was know as the minister and he thought he was God. To many, he was God. In Nova Scotia a man sealed up the door to his house, last used by the minister on a farewell visit, so that it should never be undefiled by another's hand. In New Zealand, where he died at the age of 85, disciples quarrelled over the right to carry his bier and no man was thought worthy to his pulpit, which stayed empty for years.

Because of the myth surrounding the Rev. Norman McLeod (1780 - 1866) it is impossible, from the books written about him by admirers, to discover what the man was really like. He was brave, virile, tough, a born leader and a tremendous moral torch for the lost and frail; he was also cruel, bigoted, vindictive, and so nasty to women that one can only suppose he was horribly attracted by them. Herein perhaps lies his tragedy.

His courage showed when he carried his first child 50 miles over highland bog to be baptised,and 50 miles home again, because the parish minister, a Dr. Ross, refused to officiate. He had grown up poor, son of a fisherman, in a village in Assynt, Sutherlandshire, when the Highlands were ruled by the Established Church of Scotland, during the period of famine and grief which accompanied the Clearances when whole families had their cottages pulled down over their heads and were driven to emigrate. McLeod would be driven out too, though not by clearances.

"My father had books", he wrote, "and I devoured those books." Books of theology and straight living. At Aberdeen University, where he was a contemporary of Thomas Carlyle, he devoured more books; took a fine degree in moral philosophy at Edinburgh and then, with a typical show of nerve, disgraced himself - he criticised his professor of divinity for "loose living" and was dismissed.From this point on the Established Church was closed to him.

He had been converted at 26. He was now 34. Reduced to teaching (salary 8 per annum), he found himself in Ullapool. Earlier, seeking to reform what he called the "moral laxity" of the Church, he had come to worship a theatrical, peculiarly Highland form of orator. These were the gifted informal preachers, sometimes greasy, with long billowing capes, who were tolerated to stand up on the open hillsides after Sunday service and debate in their hot Gaelic the texts of the day. They were good at their job, so good they often showed the minister up. In Ullapool, Norman McLeod  - tall, bespectacled, his craggy schoolmaster's frame bent over the congregation like some dire bird of prey - sought to emulate them. He was quite successful. He called his parish minister, Dr. Ross, flabby and the Church a harlot; he tore conformist beliefs to shreds and substituted his own watchword: moral purity. He was vindictive (it was the same Dr Ross who had refused to baptise Norman's child) but he was convincing. The air was ripe for rebellion and McLeod's invective spellbinding. "Whosoever will not follow me is not a Christian!" he declared. He was a handsome man, with eyes that caught and held glances. He preached illegally, disregarding threats to his livelihood. This made his attraction the greater.

Very soon he had a following, and a minor church of his own. In this way he anticipated the Disruption of 1843 by nearly 40 years. When Dr Ross forbade the villagers to attend his meetings, they flocked to him all the more.Some said he had had a vision (here the legend begins); others coined the term, Normanism. Dr Ross, faced with an upstart schoolmaster and a diminishing congregation, acted. He had McLeod summoned before the Church session where he was rated for stealing the minister's flock and given an ultimatum: either he would cease preaching or he would be dismissed as schoolmaster. He was given 20 days in which to relent. He did not relent. After 20 days Dr Ross locked the school and pocketed the key. The following year, 1817, with his wife and small child, Norman McLeod sailed for Canada."I would never have left Ullapool, had it not been for the persecution of that man (Dr Ross) ", he wrote later. Still, it is not hard to believe that he did not welcome exile. In Canada he sought and found the religious freedom that he craved. It sounds simple in the telling - enter a new world, start afresh. but consider the route. Halfway over the Atlantic, McLeod's ship began to leak (passengers could pick bits off the hull with their nails) . The captain panicked and tried to turn back. McLeod overruled him, demonstrated that they were nearer Canada than Scotland, had the passengers man the pumps and stuff the leak with blankets, and they sailed on. Five weeks later they landed at Pictou.

McLeod, with a few parishioners who had stuck with him, had been bent on withdrawing from the world of vice. Instead, he had landed in "a branch of Sodom". Pictou. was a boom town. There was grog, timber, easy money, yet he had to get them out. He built himself an ark and sailed north, as he thought for Ohio; rounding Cape Breton Island, he was driven to shelter. Here was a bay wooded in spruce and larch. So he built a church and stayed. This was St. Ann's Bay. Those left behind at Pictou. built seven small ships and joined him. St. Ann's, his Nova Scotian community, was to carry his name across the world. It lasted 33 years. Ten years after it began, McLeod had a following of 500. Whole families now sailed to him from the Highlands and the outer Hebrides. They found a church where only the men sat (on forms round the sides - the women stood on a floor of bare earth in the middle), and they found a man no longer a priest but a demagogue. For McLeod, who was his own theologian in the community, had appointed himself magistrate as well: there is little doubt that if his flock stood at St. Ann's  in the fear of God their fear of God's minister was some what greater.

There is the story of the young couple who walked to St. Ann's from Big Baddeck, quite a long walk through the woods, to get the minister to marry them.
"How did you get here?" McLeod said.
"We walked". "
All the way from Big Baddeck?"
"All the way sir"
"Alone?"
"Alone, just the two of us."
"In that case", McLeod said, "I cannot perform the marriage ceremony for nine months".

It made little difference that he was not ordained (he was, eventually - by the Established Church, which he had sworn never to enter): he married, buried, prohibited, judged. He taught school - but not without charge, as it is commonly supposed. His parishioners paid the debt by working his model farm. McLeod, with his wife and family - eight children, six of them sons - lived well in an airy three storied house; he ruled through a council of silk-hatted elders; and as he went about the settlement and into the people's log homes, his striding black-cloaked figure was deferred to in the days of the Conqueror.

McLeod's punishment, however, was more subtle than medieval chastisement. If a parishioner didn't behave, or their zeal lapsed, or they broke the McLeod law of "no entertainment" - that is no dancing or singing in the home - they were forbidden to attend church. Their absence was noted and thus they were ridiculed by the rest of the community. Social ostracism of this kind was McLeod's most effective weapon.

Nova Scotian descendants recall how their grandparents would walk three hours through waist-high snow to hear the minister preach a four-hour sermon; how two boys who once skated to church were ordered by McLeod to dig a hole in the ice and drop the offending skates through; how McLeod's own wife, a gentle creature called Mary, was called out from the pulpit, publicly, by her husband and ridiculed for wearing a crinoline to church. His special wrath (both in Nova Scotia and later in New Zealand) was saved for women. It was the women who termed him "commanding", who defied and tempted - and perhaps relished ?- his wrath. They did this by displaying their femininity in church - flowing sleeves, beribboned bonnets - very archly, very modestly done. All the same it was enough to drive McLeod to a frenzy. "The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair", he ranted, "immodestly dressed to tempt and tease the carnal passions of their fickle and foolish spectators!. Words like "carnal" and "fleshy" were ever on his lips. Most of the anecdotes about him concern women. Few are quite as obsessed by sex as a fanatical puritan; and McLeod's sabbatical outpourings against women would seem to put him in this category. Sex was for him a dilemma, real and Poignant. His obsession with sex, and his raving denial of it, lasted a full half century. Inevitably, feeling for and against him grew strong. Rival clergy had appeared ("this pest of beings", he called them) and one clergyman, the Rev. Mr Fraser, of Bouladerie, drew some of McLeod's people from him.

There were now two camps. The anti McLeod faction intensified after an incident involving a boy accused of theft. McLeod had the boy's ear, or part of the ear (accounts vary), cut off to mark his guilt - a punishment favoured by magistrates in 18th century England. The boy was innocent so it turned out. For all this McLeod's hold was so strong that the boy's father refused to prosecute; McLeod's new church, built for 1,200, continued to overflow; and when on October 28 1851, the minister packed his bags, his books, his factotum and 136 followers into a small ship and sailed for Australia, so many came to his farewell service they couldn't get into the church : the service was held out of doors.

They were farmers, McLeod's flock, common folk, Gaelic-speaking, unskilled. Their loyalty divided. Yet in the next few years even McLeod's enemies packed up and followed on. Having once crossed the world from east to west, they now, a whole community, built five more ships and recrossed it in the other direction. They followed the man almost literally to the end of the earth. For the minister had reached Australia only to leave it again and sail on to New Zealand. "A Modern Moses" - it is at this point that the epic comparison begin, and rightly; at this point one's distaste for McLeod the tyrant is tempered by admiration for McLeod the leader. He was best served when he led well, and from the day he left St. Ann's he never led better. He had been "called" to the warmer south by a letter from a son in Australia. But in Australia, neither in Adelaide nor in Melbourne, was McLeod's son waiting to greet him: instead there was dysentery and gold fever. Typhoid struck. Within six weeks the minister's three youngest sons were dead. McLeod was an old man by now, he was 72, and he was afraid. His vessel was sold, his resources done, his flock scattered to the gold camps. He had never been one to question the rightness of his actions and he did not question them now. He sailed on.

On September 21 1853 a newspaper in Auckland reported: "A schooner has arrived with a number of immigrants. They are originally from the north of Scotland....... ". By 1860 all the ships from Nova Scotia were here, 883 people, representing 19 clans; and a robust community of Gaelic farmers established 100 miles north of Auckland at Waipu. They brought with them their customs, their factions, the habit of eating corn porridge, their songs; they brought a remarkable cheerfulness in adversity, for their trials had not ended. Once again from scratch they had to hack homes from the bush. But they had the sea again, which they loved, and they were self-supporting, which was the key. The story is told of their self-help when one family was burned out, communal labour rebuilt the cottage and had the family housed again by the next night. Tradition has it that McLeod had mellowed by the time he reached Waipu. Hardly. He still censored songs, ardent spirits, tobacco, sport and refused to dispense the sacraments, whatever the piety of the parishioner, until they were past 70 or thereabouts. This parish was 10 miles by 30 miles. He would travel around it by sea, horse and foot every Sunday, preaching four times in the day, twice in English, twice in Gaelic: his zeal had not lessened, nor the moral force of his leadership, the look in his eye, the abuse of women.

It is related that at Waipu a young women conceived a child out of wedlock; as punishment McLeod had her locked up in her room for, if not the rest of her life, certainly for many years. The child did not live - either from terror or compulsion the mother is said to have done away with it. The story lay hidden until it was told in a broadcast documentary. There has been no disclaimer so it may be supposed that it is, like the incident of the ear, essentially true.

The legend of Norman McLeod in New Zealand is that of a patriarch, a pastor and a "loving father". It is doubtful if anyone loved him; certainly his wife and sons did not. What he inspired was not love, but a certain doglike devotion. The man has to be judged on two levels. As a pastor, he deified the Law - the letter, not the spirit of Christianity - and forgave not. In practical terms he preached the denial of human love and human relationships. And, since many believed in him, his influence in a social sense would appear a pernicious one. As a colonial founder and leader, he is something else. His stature, here and in Nova Scotia, is deservedly great. Descendants from his migration reflect his gift for language and learning and the fibre of his jack-tar toughness. There are over 100,000 of them scattered over the globe and they are, to an exceptional degree, scholars, writers, teachers, sea captains.

"He who can, does", Shaw said. "He who cannot, teaches." Shaw meant something else, but we can apply the saying nonetheless. The Rev. Norman McLeod could not love. Instead, he taught. This is his true legacy.
Source: New Zealand's Heritage

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