The arrival of the immigrant ship John Wickliffe is celebrated in Otago as the founding day of the province. The ship and its 97 passengers sailed from Gravesend, England, on 24 November 1847. Three days later the Philip Laing left Greenock, Scotland, with 247 settlers. The first of the Otago Association’s immigrant ships, they carried Scottish settlers who were escaping from an economic depression and an acrimonious split between the Church of Scotland and the Free Church Presbyterians.
In 1831 Sydney’s Weller brothers had established a whaling station at the Ngāi Tahu fishing kāinga of Ōtākou on Otago Peninsula. In 1842 the Scottish architect and politician George Rennie started planning ‘a New Zealand settlement for Scotland’ that would include a ‘new Edinburgh’. Dunedin – the Gaelic form of Edinburgh – was the realisation of these plans, which became feasible once the large Otago block was purchased from Ngāi Tahu by the New Zealand Company in 1844.
Rennie was concerned that the first New Zealand Company settlements in New Zealand had been dominated by the English. His original plan for a Scottish settlement was turned into a Free Church enterprise by John McGlashan, Thomas Burns and William Cargill after a significant split within the Church of Scotland. In 1843, 400 clergy and about one-third of the lay people left the established church in protest against patronage and state control of church affairs. Men like McGlashan, Burns and Cargill saw Otago as a home for the new ‘Free Church’.
Burns and Cargill both came to Otago as settlers, and McGlashan followed them in 1853. Two-thirds of the original Otago settlers were Free Church Presbyterians. The remainder were referred to by Burns as ‘the little enemy’. In August 1848, over half of Otago’s United Kingdom-born population of 403 was Scottish.