The Lady of the Heather

By Paul Charman

During a voyage to Campbell Island in December these eco tourists were forced to skirt a near-half-tonne New Zealand sea lion.
During a voyage to Campbell Island in December these eco tourists were forced to skirt a near-half-tonne New Zealand sea lion.

'The Lady of the Heather' was a Jacobite princess - the illegitimate grand daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She was kidnapped from France about 200 years ago, carried off to New Zealand and abandoned on remote Campbell Island. She lived for months, or years, in a hut at Camp Cove, one provided with lace curtains and even a garden, which included heather.

Though seen by sealers who visited the island intermittently, the lady apparently died in her hut, a sad and solitary castaway.

Well, anyway this is what a cunningly-woven Kiwi legend says. The story has struck a chord with New Zealanders for at least 120 years, and why not?

In my view, when it comes to indigenous myths and legends we Pakeha New Zealanders have little besides 'The Lady' to whisper to our grandchildren . . . No "Headless Horseman", no "Rip Van Winkle", not even a "Johnny Appleseed".

Over in America Washington Irving wove fairytales from the old country into entirely new settings, and these have long come in handy when there's young kids to entertain.

Kiwiland missed out a genius like Irving, but we did once have a shady journalist named Robert Carrick, who visited Campbell Island in the government steamer Hinemoa in 1891.

Carrick, who may have heard the story from an old Tasmanian sea captain, almost certainly started the Lady of the Heather yarn going, says Campbell Island expert Norm Judd.

Judd has visited the Sub-Antarctic island nine times since leading an expedition there in 1975 and one of his jobs has been to survey all known archaeological sites.

The Auckland resident wants DOC to fund an expedition next summer to preserve the sod hut where "The Lady of the Heather" is supposed to have lived.

If the 'The Lady of the Heather' existed, she'd have been a contemporary of this woman. Marie-Victoire, Princess de Rohan was Bonnie Prince Charlie's "secret grand daughter". Photo / Supplied

Personally, he says he doesn't believe the legend. "But the fact that so many people have believed it over the years, earns it a special place in the rather complex and still poorly understood history of the island."

And in any case, says Judd, the hut site where "The Lady" is supposed to have lived may have a history equally mysterious.

It's possibly the site of an encampment where several marooned sealers, including a woman, survived for a couple of years while awaiting rescue.

Judd became increasingly concerned that scrub is rapidly over-growing this and other sites of early encampment on Campbell Island.

Feral sheep, which once ranged free on the island, used to keep the scrub down but they were removed in 1991.

"Once the scrub tree invades a site its roots can penetrate to a depth that makes it extremely hard for archaeologists to investigate," says Judd.

"Heavy seals probably bulldozed down the remnants of other sod huts where we think sealers and castaways once lived. Unless I can persuade DOC to fund a summer expedition for 2014/2015, to clear-off and fence these ancient encampments, little will be left for future archaeologists to work with."

But what about that legend?

Carrick cleverly described it as "a romantic if not stirring episode", which had been passed on to him. He was cunning enough to distance himself from what he claimed he'd been told by others.

The legend states that during the 1820s, the illegitimate granddaughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie was kidnapped and taken as far from Europe as possible.

Apparently she had fallen out with the people surrounding Charles Edward Stuart during his exile in France. Captain Stewart, the discoverer of Stewart Island, is supposed to have had connections with the Jacobites and agreed to carry her far away. And once in New Zealand he is supposed to have sold the woman to a sealing crew, headed for Campbell Island.

The kidnappers are supposed to have provided the hut with a few comforts, incling the lace curtains. They apparently planted flax and heather, and built a cobble-stone path leading from the hut to the water.

The hut, path and grave really do exist, Judd points out.

"Flax, which is not native to the island, still grows at the site and there are reliable reports heather grew there, till it was destroyed by seals."

Some versions say the woman lived a year in the hut before dying of starvation and was later buried in a grave nearby.

The romantic tale engaged tourists who travelled to Campbell Island aboard several ships which called in during the early 20th Century. These folk had themselves photographed searching the site of the Lady's hut and grave at Camp Cove.

In 1945, a Mills and Boon version of the yarn became the subject of a romantic novel by Will Lawson.

This novel isn't great, but does provide the one ingredient the legend had lacked up till then. It has a happy ending, which sees the lady rescued and carried back to civilisation.

The tale certainly captured the public imagination after featuring in New Zealand newspapers early last century.

It was even "backed up" by a 1950 article in the Dominion by Lawson.

The author said he'd met a sea captain in Hobart in 1936 who had spent a long time whaling in the Souther Ocean.

"He told me he knew men well who had seen this woman - but she was dead when he first went there (to Campbell Island)".

Sailors from the sealing era are also supposed to have seen a ghostly visions of "The Lady" out walking in the moonlight, wearing her Stuart tartans.

"Obviously somebody once lived in [the hut] and somebody was buried in the grave. Ideally, archaeologists will get to explore the site and find out more," says Judd.

It all leaves some of us wondering whether there's some core of truth to the legend.

After all, many men and a few women were abandoned on remote New Zealand islands and coastlines during the sealing era.

That "Global Fur Rush" took place when life was cheap, the rule of law negligible and vast fortunes could be made by sometimes shady sea captains.

Example: In 1775 fur seal pelts landed in Canton could sell for $155 each in today's money.

By 1798 just one ship, the Betsy commanded by Capt Edmund Fanning, apparently sold 100,000 of these. But the pay day was even more than you'd expect.

Fanning and his ilk made a killing by loading up Chinese goods for export to the west.

Pelts were also taken directly to Europe and used in hats, coats, waistcoats and boots and seal oil was prized for use in lighting, lubrication and manufacturing.

At about the time Napoleon was marching into Russia and Byron was making a maiden speech in the House of Lords, southern New Zealand was a favourite haunt for sealers ready to risk drowning, scurvy and getting stranded on remote coastlines and islands.

In my view, if a woman lived at Camp Cove almost 200 years ago she was more likely a ship girl than a kidnapped princess.

But why hang back wondering who she was, while nature destroys what's left of the mystery.

Let's hope DoC will support Norm Judd's proposal for an expedition, which aims to visit these sites next year to preserve them for future investigation.

* Correction: The print version of this story wrongly suggested that great white sharks can be fished by sports fishers. But great white sharks are, of course, a protected species.

- NZ Herald

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