Dunedin, NZ - Edinburgh of the south

American author and humourist Mark Twain once said of Dunedin: “The people are Scotch. They stopped here on their way from home to heaven thinking they had arrived.”

Two centuries further on, Scottish travellers arriving on the shores of the Otago Harbour will still find an urban landscape and culture that’s curiously familiar.

Dunedin – Edinburgh’s southern sister city – owes its existence to the boatloads of brave19th century Scots pioneers who settled the shores of Otago Harbour, establishing a hub of enterprise and learning that laid the foundations for a modern city that still reflects strong Scottish roots.

For the early arrivals, who had spent months on board sailing halfway round the world in demanding conditions, the Otago coastline must have looked like heaven on earth. Sheltered in the arms of a long dormant volcanic cone, Otago Harbour is surrounded by the spectacular beaches and inlets of the rugged Otago Peninsula – then, and now, a sanctuary for diverse and prolific wildlife.

Today’s Dunedin is an endearing city of fine unspoiled Edwardian and Victorian architecture that prides itself as a centre for learning, heritage, arts and culture - one of the world’s great small cities.

As the commercial hub for the Otago region, Dunedin has a vibrant compact city centre with restaurants, cafes, hotels and accommodation within walking distance and a city rise that reveals stunning views.

Scottish forebears

Dunedin is the Gaelic rendition of Edinburgh with which it shares a sister city relationship that will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2015. A statue of the Scottish poet Robbie Burns – gifted to the city by a local family related to Burns – stands proudly in a central city location.

A significant proportion of Dunedin’s population is descended from Scottish forebears as demonstrated by the telephone directory listing for names beginning with ‘Mac’.  It’s probably more unusual to find Dunedin citizens with no Scottish ancestry.  

Dress – or the wearing of tartan – is one of the ways in which Scottish heritage is visible in Dunedin. There are specific tartans representing Dunedin and the province of Otago, and many school uniforms are based on tartan. It is quite common for Dunedin men to wear kilts for a wedding ceremony or university graduation. 

Education has played a big part in that heritage. Dunedin’s early Scottish settlers placed great importance on education, establishing the Southern Hemisphere’s first secondary school for girls; and founding New Zealand’s first university – University of Otago – which included the country’s first medical and dental schools. 

Social Scots

Pipes and Scottish music are the liveliest of all the Scottish cultural traditions in Dunedin life. There are several local venues that have regular ‘sessions’ of traditional Irish and Scottish music, notably the Scottish-themed Albar in Stuart Street. 

The New Edinburgh Folk Club holds weekly meetings where members and visiting guests perform. The ‘folk’ focus often draws on Scottish musical traditions.  

The skirl of the bagpipes kicks off many official events, including civic functions, school prize-givings and rugby games featuring the local regional rugby team which is called – no surprise – the Highlanders.  

There are three active pipe bands and many solo pipers who compete in annual competitions organised by the Pipers and Dancers Association. The University of Otago even offers piping and drumming scholarships as part of its musical performance programmes.  

Scottish celebrations

Dunedin’s regular Scottish celebrations include the annual Burns Supper honouring the poet, and the Highland Games organised by The Caledonian Society. 

Many groups – including a heritage council, highland and country dancing clubs, and clan organisations – work to sustain Dunedin’s Scottish heritage. The Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago holds public events and programmes, often hosting visiting Scottish scholars or writers, and sponsors a Scottish writers’ fellowship.  

The Dunedin Burns Club, among the oldest of such clubs in the world, runs poetry and singing competitions, and the celebration of Robert Burns’ birthday on 25 January.  

The Dunedin Scottish Shop in the main shopping street also supports Scottish cultural life by providing traditional and contemporary Scottish wares, including clothing, music and of course tartan.  

Exploring Dunedin’s Scottish heritage

Much of Dunedin’s impressive central city architecture has Scottish characteristics, while many of the street names are taken from Edinburgh streets. 

The statue of Robbie Burns in the Octagon is a major statement of Dunedin’s Scottish identity, as are the many impressive Presbyterian churches in the city.  

The First Church, Knox Church, Municipal Chambers and many other fine stone buildings were designed by prominent Scottish architect Robert Arthur Lawson.

Toitū Otago Settlers Museum has poignant collections of Scottish artefacts, including items associated with Robert Burns, relics from the Scots pioneers and cultural organisations.  

Albar in Stuart Street is a specifically Scottish-themed bar that offers Scottish themed tapas; deep fried haggis balls a speciality. It is also a venue for Scottish and themed folk music events.

Scotia Bar and Bistro - located in a Terrace House in upper Stuart Street - is a contemporary Scottish restaurant. Upstairs, the Doon Bar is an international award winning whiskey bar with a choice of over 300 whiskeys from around the world.  

The Robbie Burns pub in George Street - one of the oldest hotels in the city - plays on its Scottish connections with music and fare.