Drama over shocking story from Waipu's pioneer past

By Sandra K Bogart

The home of the Highland Games is facing up to a sad secret in its settler past. The Northland town of Waipu, settled 154 years ago by 1000 Scottish followers of the Rev Norman McLeod, is split over the upcoming production of New Zealand author James McNeish's play, The Rocking Cave and the Waipu Museum's decision to sponsor the show.

The Presbyterian Church has asked them to reconsider, fearing people will leave with the illusion the portrayal of McLeod and the central character are true.

But the show will go on next week.

McLeod led the early settlers to Waipu and today a tight community of 850 households that values its heritage is centred around the museum.

The orginal settler families, evicted during the Highland clearances, left Scotland for Nova Scotia and then - terrified of starvation - followed McLeod to Waipu. Those who liked McLeod call themselves Normanites, others did not.

McNeish wrote his play after producing a radio documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation based on oral interviews with elderly descendants. A throwaway line from the documentary stories - about a woman locked in an attic because she drowned her baby - inspired McNeish and the play first premiered at Auckland's Mercury Theatre in 1973.

But this is the first staging in Waipu.

Production director Lachie McLean, a dairy farmer and "descendant", saw the play back in 1973 and was amazed to find it set two miles down the road from his forebears. He first tried to stage it at home in the 1990s, but the community shut him down.

"I said it would be over my dead body back then," said 86-year-old Normanite, Yvonne (McInnes) Sturgess. "The people could not have got here without Norman and he never took a penny. He had no land, no estate and there was no money to bury him when he died. The play caused a lot of distress to a great deal of people then."

The true skeleton of the play is the story of a mentally unwell woman who had an illegitimate child she drowned and who was then kept home for a couple of years.

Waipu Presbyterian minister Peter Dunn said banishing the woman to her home is shown as punitive punishment and the minister was seen to be censuring her in the play.

"In real life she was kept home for two or three years until she was well enough to go out. The Presbyterian Scottish culture looked for restoration. Under English law in Auckland she would have gone to prison, an asylum or the gallows."

Another modern interpretation is that the reverend might have fathered the child. McNeish says: "Nobody ever suggested to me that McLeod might have fathered an illegitimate child. It never occurred to me and it was not a question I asked anyone. That is not what the play is about."

Waipu Museum chairman Rod MacKay said their goal was to highlight the migration and early settlement. "We are in the unique situation where a play has been written about Waipu with the author still alive and a Waipu personality [Lachie McLean] who can put it on in Waipu."

McNeish, not previously in the country when the play was performed, will see it for the first time, warmly welcomed - by most of Waipu.


* The Rocking Cave, a play by James McNeish, and The Book of Secrets, a novel by Dame Fiona Kidman, are works of fiction inspired by an incident in the life of a woman who lived in Waipu in the 1850s. Both works created great controversy in the small community.

* Eight performances of The Rocking Cave will be held in Waipu between June 21 and 30 as part of the second Winter at Waipu Festival. Tickets are on sale at the Waipu Museum.

* On the web www.waipu.co.nz/winter/rocking-cave.htm

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