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Document about Houliston and Lawson Families' Early History

Document supplied by Michelle Fitzsimons Scott, who prefaced it saying it was told to her by her grandmother - Catherine Jane Higgins - in 1977.

Some pages found in a drawer at Naumai Smith household. They were written by Catherine Janet Smith (nee Higgins) “Kate”, just prior to her death in October 1977. Kate lived with her maternal Grandmother, Catherine Lawson (nee Fairbairn) after her own mother died when she was eight. Kate’s excellent memory reserved this story from her Grandmother.

Copy supplied for this site by Michelle Fitzsimons Scott

Houliston Household Sept 1859, Dovecote Hall, Coburns Path, Berwickshire, Scotland.

It was September at Dovecote “Dovecot Ha” Coburns Path Berwickshire Scotland in the year 1859. It had been a good summer, but now the nights were drawing in, and the chill of autumn in the evening air as in Pathhead Road, Robert Houliston made his way to his cottage on the estate, and as he walked he was thinking. There had been the letter from Ellen, his eldest daughter - married to young Moffat and now away to Australia. They were well and talked go going to New Zealand, where there was plenty opportunity for anyone prepared to work. He thought of his family growing up. What would they be here - shepherds and their sons after them. Samuel was not a strong lad like the others and his mother worried. Jane now, there was a bonny lass. In service at the ‘Hall’ and doing well too. She could turn out a meal with the best of them and sewing, she was capable of that too. Alison, her mother had made sure of that and she didn’t mind either if she milked the kye1 as well, and any small wonder young Rob Fairbairn was often around, he was a fine lad and would go far. His mother Katie had been an Allen and that brought him back to New Zealand again! Young Robert had been on about the Free Kirk2.

When he reached the cottage, the family were all gathered for the evening meal. And after it was finished the younger members were sent away to their beds.

By then Jane had come in from the Hall since it was her night out and Robert Fairbairn had walked along with her. He had been talking about this new country and how he would like to get away over there and own his own ‘bit place’. Too shy to say much, Jane had wished that too, and now she was telling them how just that very day, she had taken ‘tea’ up to the drawing room and one of the young ladies was playing so beautifully on the fine piano. Jane loved music and could sing like a lantie3, so she thought I’ll just leave that door a wee bit open so I can hear in the kitchen. Back down in the kitchen she was humming happily to herself when the drawing room bell rang. Ch! Jane started guiltily and hurried to answer the summons. “Jane, you neglected to close the door! Please remember in future” “Yes Ma’am” Quietly Jane closed the door and returned to her kitchen duties.

There was much talk later that evening among the men of the family. They’re aye sayin it’s grand for the sheep ‘n the new province o’ Otago, gin a man’s able tae a bit clearing o’ the land. Meanwhile mother Alison was reminding them that it was age time for Jeanie tae be awa back tae the Ha, and the others tae their beds.

Young Robert would see Jane ( he always called her that, and the family Jeanie) safe back tae the Ha. As they left father Robert said quietly, Ah weel I’ll be speirin whit I can about this emigration business. I’m thinkin it maud be a guid thing frae us a’4. He and young Robert Fairbairn did their speirin to good effect.

Off the coast of the Shetland Islands, early 19th century

A good many years earlier than all this a daring resourceful young Dane Frederick Larsen was at the wheel of his small cargo vessel, his course set for the Shetland Islands away the north of Scotland. He had realigned his early ambition to go to sea and command his own ship although the way up had been hard and full of danger in those far northern seas, but he had “made it” as we say today, and now here he was with a cargo of timber from the forests of Scandinavia for the tree less Shetland Islands. He had made more than one successful run this summer, but now it was late in the year and this trip was a risk he had decided to take. Any time now those terrible winter storms might sweep down from the Arctic in all their fury. He studied the darkening sky and felt a slight unease as he thought he could see a faint greyness in the north. Handing over the wheel to the next in command he went below to check the barometer reading, It was falling already, and as he emerged from the hatch back up on deck, he was sure the wind had begun to rise slightly, and there was an ominous swell. It seemed they were in for a good blow after all, well the next day would have seen them safely at Lerwick, they would give it good try anyway. Quickly he gave orders to reduce sail and batten down all hatches securely. By now it was blowing almost a gale, the wind whistling ominously, through the rigging. It was a dreadful night of storm and icy rain, and then in the first grey light of dawn the look out suddenly called “Land dead ahead” It was too late, the fury of wind and waves was too much, the brave little vessel was carried on to the rocks of that rugged Shetland Coast, battered and broken. Frederick survived but his boat was lost, so he decided to stay on the Islands and make a living somehow. He soon found occupation, and before long the name was changed from Larsen to Lawson. It wasn’t too long before he met and married Isabella Davidson. In time they had a son Frederick and three daughters. Bruce (Bolt) the eldest, then Ann (Busby), and Barbara (Morrison). All seemed well with them until Isabella sickened and then died. They needed a housekeeper and there was Agnes Talloch willing to give it a trial. After a time Frederick married her and in due course the family grew. Two more daughters, Margaret - Maggie (Russell), Elizabeth-Libbey (Robertson). Then there was little Arthur whose stay on this earth was brief indeed. Whooping Cough was too much for a tiny baby, and Arthur succumbed. Another son George, was the next. A friend of the family happened to come to the house the day he was born, and the new son was given his names, all four of them - “George Husband Baird Hay” and no doubt was duly registered, but he never ever called himself or signed his name other than George Lawson. Then came the youngest Agnes (Russell). The older family were fast growing up. Young Fred away to sea, Bruce looking forward to marriage to William Bolt from Caster. His father was a blacksmith as had been his father before him for may generations. Young William however was anxious to break away and talked of sailing to New Zealand. Ann had the offer of a situation as a ‘lady’s maid’. All were expert knitters, the younger girls too. Agnes had her spinning wheel and would often obtain wool by plucking from a dead sheep, if unable to obtain it any other way. Age was taking it’s toll of Frederick, and that combined with the endless battle against nature to exist in that harsh north land had left it’s mark. In 1859 when George was just four years old, Agnes was left a widow. They had left Lerwick and were now living in Scalloway, a few miles further inland. Then can another blow, news reached them that young Fred had fallen from the mast of his boat to the deck and had been killed. Those were difficult days, but they kept going.

George still young was the only man in the family, and it would be his responsibility to provide for his mother and his sisters. I have since often heard him tell how when he was about six years old he had earned a few pence for carrying peat, and how proudly he had brought his earnings home to his mother. When the Houlistons were toiling to make their way to New Zealand he would have been trying to earn what he could to help the widowed Agnes.

Dovecote ‘Ha’ May 1860

There was indeed a flurry and bustle afoot at the stone cottage on Pathhead Road. The Houliston family and young Rob Fairbairn were booked to sail on the “Robert Henderson” on June Third 1860 from Glasgow. It was a lovely springtime in Berwickshire. Violets, primroses and bluebells, under rowans5 and the snow was going from the Lammermuir Hills. Lambing was going well and the new shepherd settling into his work well. Looking out across the Channel, the sea was deep blue and shining in the morning sunshine. Agnes had left her job as milkmaid for the Duchess of Roxburgh and the extra pair of hands were more than welcome when it came to the packing of trunks and “kists”. However Alison’s heart was heavy those days, little baby Helen just nine months now, had been ailing for quite a time and it seemed to Alison that she was slipping away from them. Not hungry and all the coughing. However the last days just flew by and soon all farewells had been said and they were on their way to Glasgow. First Auld Reekie and then into the Midlowthian, Airdie6, and Coatbridge on the outskirts of Glasgow, then the city itself. The Clyde bank with all it’s busy ship yards. Then when the time for embarkment came and found themselves at the Glasgow docks - vessels from al parts of the world seemed to be there and an absolute forest of towering masts. Some were already moving out slowly from their berths under full sail. However there was no time for looking now, each had their own bags to look after, the big trunks were already down in the hold. Agnes, Margaret and Jane had to travel among the single women, who were accommodated at one end of the ship, married couples and families amidship, and single men at the other end. Already the seamen were swarming up the rigging, letting out the sails under the curt orders of Capt. Logan and very soon it seemed they were sailing down Clyde and there was Arran and then the tiny island of Ailsa Craig. It was interesting for them all seeing all the interesting places as they travelled down the Irish Sea. Soon it was time to get settled into bunks for the night. There was little room and some were already all too aware of the motion of the boat, but after a day or so the hardier ones were out on the deck. However on their second day out a message was brought to the girls that little Helen had passed away from this world and they joined with others of the family for that solemn rite, a burial at sea. They soon moved south to warmer latitudes, where the heat was almost unbearable. Then came the scarlet fever, which soon spread all over the ship resulting in four deaths. They had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and it was the long sail across the Indian Ocean. In spite of all they were making good time, at last on September 3rd they berthed at Port Chalmers, and then they were quarantined at Deborah Bay. Everything had to be washed and it was all hands to the task. The weather was kind and by the 13th they were free to move on. The family first went to Powder Hill on Mt. Allan, Having just a small cottage high on the hillside. They didn’t remain there very long. Robert bought land at Te Houka near Balclutha. It was called Alleybank and at last he had a ‘skalp’ of land that was his own, and his lads growing up to work it with him. The Moffats came over from Australia and eventually took up Allenslea at Te Houka, and then Maggie and her husband Gilbert McKay took Maggiesdale also at Te Houka . Jane had seen Robert Fairbairn on the voyage out, however after they had landed went different ways. Robert looked Jane out and they agreed to keep in touch. Robert went to work for the Allan’s who had ‘Hope Hill’ on the chain hills about fifteen miles south of Dunedin. Jane had different positions, and then went into service with the Fulters of West Taieri. It was a very pretty little spot right at the foot of Maungatua, a Maori name meaning Mount of God or Abode of Spirits. A very beautiful Kirk7 had been built there and it was right on the route to the Dunstan gold diggings. It didn’t take young Robert too long to try his hand at different jobs, this time driving bullock wagons over to the Dunstan. On one occasion Robert had called in and as it was Jane’s free night, she was permitted to walk out with him, but alack and alas, when they returned to the homestead, all was locked up for the night, so seeing Robert wouldn’t leave her to be on her own at night it was a case of sit it out till morning. Poor Jane. However he was a hard worker and a good saver and by 1864 he was able to buy his own farm at Akatore on the coast about 15 miles south of Dunedin. He called it ‘Ferndale’ and sit about building a sod cottage of two rooms. Just a butt and box, not much by modern standards, but he had somewhere to bring his Jane. In 1864 they were married and both worked hard with cows, fowls and a few very precious ewes.

The Lawsons

We left the Lawson family growing up and working hard to survive, in the Shetlands. Bruce had married William Bolt and they immigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand. Ann married Samuel Busby, a professional gardener and they too settled in Dunedin. Barbara married William Morrison, they also settled in Dunedin. So too did Maggie who had married John Russell, a cooper by trade. George by now was 13 and decided to follow in his fathers footsteps and go to the fishing. The fleet set out, but ran into a terrible storm. All the vessels except the one George was in made it safely back to harbour. For quite some time there was no news and the vessel was given up as lost. Poor Agnes was dreadfully upset and then at last one day a lone battered fishing ship pulled into port. Mr Nicholson the local shopkeeper who had been a great help to Agnes said the George was not to go to8 sea again, but that he would employ him in his shop.


1. ‘Kye’ / Cow - possibly came from the word ‘kyloe’, one of a small breed of long horned Scotch cattle. Ref The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 1951.

2. ‘Kirk’ = Church. Specifically Church of Scotland, as opposed to Church of England

3. ‘Lantie’ seems to be a type of bird

4. Written phonetically, to display the family’s accent.

5. rowan - (Sc. and north) Scarlet berry of mountain ash tree. Ref. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 1951.

6. Actually ‘Airdrie’. “A large industrial burgh (chartered town), county of Lanark, Scotland, on the eastern periphery of the city of Glasgow. Ref. Encyclopaedia Brittanica Fifteenth Edition.

7. See footnote 2

8. The rest of this sentence was supplied by Annette Gandar (nee Smith). The story stopped in mid sentence. No more pages were found.


Linked toDocument about Houliston and Lawson Families’ Early History; Catharine Allan; William Bolt; Samuel Busby; Isabella Davidson; Catherine Fairbairn; Robert Allen Fairbairn; Living; Agnes Houliston; Ellen Shiels Houliston; Helen Houliston; Jane Houliston; Margaret Houliston; Robert Houliston; Samuel Houliston; Agnes Lawson; Ann Lawson; Arthur Lawson; Barbara Lawson; Bruce Lawson; Elizabeth Lawson; Frederick Lawson; Frederick Lawson; George Lawson; Margaret Lawson; Gilbert McKay; William Moffat; William Morrison; John Russell; Agnes Tulloch; Alice Wright

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