The Horse and the Scotsman: Tales From Early Ashburton

The early days of European settlement were tough, but there was still the odd bit of fun to be had.

Among all the hard work, tragedies and struggles for survival suffered by local European settler families, there was plenty of room for amusement as evidenced by the many stories and tall tales that survive from the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Thanks to historian and author John Brown (1878 – 1940), the life experiences of the Ashburton District’s early residents were preserved for future generations.

Brown’s 1940 opus, ‘History of Ashburton’, or ‘Ashburton, New Zealand: Its Pioneers and Its History’ was a compilation of over three years’ worth of articles that he wrote for the Ashburton Guardian. It is worth mentioning that many of the colourful anecdotes in Brown’s book, while mostly truthful, should be treated with caution as they originate from memory or hearsay often years after the events took place.

Nevertheless, these stories are worth exploring as they are a great record of some of the stranger events from our past.


When Sergeant Sweedland Horneman came to Ashburton in 1867 to keep the peace as Ashburton’s first policeman, he had a good idea of what to expect: dealing with some overindulgent patrons of Turton’s New Inn and intervening in disagreements wherever they arose.

There was one thing that Horneman failed to prepare for, however… a jailbreak!

Sgt. Sweedland Edward Horneman, the first policeman in Ashburton. He served from 1867 to 1871.

This story comes from John Turton, brother of William Turton, Ashburton’s first ferryman and the proprietor of the earliest accommodation house in what would become the Ashburton Township. John recalls that one time, some young men “had been having a jollification, and one had gone just over the mark in rowdiness, and, to cool his ardour, Sergeant Horneman put him into ‘clink.’ ”

Not wanting to keep the drunken young man in captivity for long, Horneman left the other young men to watch the prisoner while he went to fetch Thomas Moorhouse. Thomas was the manager of the Ashburton station and he was also the “only J.P. in the district close handy to the accommodation house, and he attended at ‘Court’ when the necessity arose.” Moorhouse said he would be along shortly and Horneman returned ahead of him only to find that the prisoner was gone!

“The young men in uproarious mood had let the prisoner out of ‘clink’ and were thoroughly enjoying the joke on Horneman, whom they all really greatly liked. But Horneman could not see the joke too clearly.” Horneman explained that Moorhouse knew there was a man to be tried and was on his way, and if he found no prisoner then “there certainly would be a wigging for the sergeant.” The men realised the gravity of the situation, and Mr Andrew McFarlane, “one of the most honoured men in the county,” volunteered to take the prisoner’s place.

He “stood up before the dumbfounded Mr. Moorhouse, who could not understand the sudden lapse of his great friend.”

Andrew McFarlane, the man who saved Horneman’s skin and confused Moorhouse with his confession of guilt.

“However, he did his duty nobly and fined Mr. McFarlane five shillings, which was cheerfully paid; and then all retired to enjoy the joke and relieve the anxiety of the J.P. by a cheerful recital of the fun they had been having, and of the quick-wittedness of their mate.”

A frozen meal

Another short story told by John Turton goes like this: While John was out in the country with Bob Scott, helping to build a hut, they camped at the end of Dog Range. They had killed a sheep for mutton and hung it near their camp. That night, the area was blanketed by two feet of snow and a small snow slip had buried their mutton, which they decided to leave as they made tracks for the Hakatere homestead.

Three months later, the men came back and dug up the sheep only to find that the “cold storage had kept it perfectly, and they thoroughly enjoyed the frozen mutton.”

Troublesome horse

Donald McLean of Lagmhor Estate was a Highland Scot through-and-through. He was born on Coll, one of Scotland’s “Western Isles” with a recent population of only 164 people. The island used to be home to over 1,000 people, before a decline in the kelp trade and the Highland Potato Famine caused half the population to emigrate in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Donald came to New Zealand from Australia in 1862, landed in Bluff and rode all the way up to Canterbury through uncertain country. He was tasked with managing Lagmhor estate: 40,000 acres of country bounded by the Ashburton River to the north, the Hinds to the South, hilly Valetta to the West and swampy Longbeach to the East. He was clearly deemed responsible enough for the job.

Five men in Highland dress, Lagmhor. First from the left is Donald McLean.

John Brown tells us of a unique method Donald used to break in a particularly troublesome horse, which few people would have the stamina to even attempt. This anecdote demonstrates how headstrong Donald really was:

“It was said that one of the horses on the station was ‘hard to catch,’ and the fields were miles long and broad. Mr. McLean’s method of teaching the horse a lesson was a novel one. He kept running round and round the horse in narrowing circles on foot – the horse breaking here and there – till it stopped, sweating and trembling, while its owner slipped the bridle on to its head. It took all day. After that it only wanted a call to make it come when wanted.”

Imagine being that poor horse, getting strafed and chased by an extremely athletic Highlander for hours on end until you have no choice but to give in and let him up on your back; “sweating and trembling” sounds just about right for the scenario!

History of Ashburton

John Brown’s ‘History of Ashburton’ is not all tall tales of course. The book contains a precise history of what became the Ashburton District from approximately 1853 to 1939 and it covers a variety of topics including the Ashburton Road Board, County and Borough Councils, points of interest and of course all the early happenings and juicy bits of early European settlement.

If you are interested in reading John Brown’s book it can be found in the Ashburton Museum’s Research Room and at the Ashburton Public Library.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 14 August 2021.


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