Those miserable Scots

Posted by Jennifer Lawn on September 30, 2008 in Dr Jennifer Lawn, Guest Blog tagged with


The question I want to raise for discussion in this posting is whether we can blame the Scots for the predominant characteristics of Kiwi gothic. I’ll start with a small rant about the art of miserableness in these parts . . .

We seem to suffer more than the usual quantum of miserableness in these southern climes .  Perhaps it’s just all the rain we’ve had lately.  (To give you some idea, in July this year Auckland had 24.9 cm of rain. Edinburgh in its rainiest month averages only 10.2 cm).  But others seem to share the mood too.  Kiwi actor Sam Neill calls New Zealanders “miserable” in contrast to the “nice” and “generous” Australians.  “Their foreign policy is dreadful, their immigration policy is disgraceful, and race relations is a mess but it’s a place that fosters and encourages people and we [New Zealanders] are not good at that.”  (We Kiwis like to compare ourselves to the Lucky Country; it makes us feel even more profoundly miserable).

Miserableness is a life-denying, flat, cautious, ungenerous orientation to the world. Unlike misery, which seems to me a more abject, more extreme threat to subjective integrity, miserableness is an inveterate condition which can be perversely enjoyed. 

Journalist Rose Hoare lists “unease, loneliness, guilt, self-loathing” as “just a few of our nation’s traits, according to most of our art.”  Fashion designer Karen Walker speaks of “a heavy, ominous, slightly restrained kind of feel … that comes from our culture and our landscape and just the personality of the country. There’s a heaviness to it.”  American literary commentator William Schafer deems a sense of “sinister and unseen forces” to be endemic in modern New Zealand culture.

Even New Zealand’s history of cultural nationalism bears a strong strain of miserableness.  You’d think that nationalists would celebrate their nation, but not this particular breed.  Mid-twentieth century literary nationalists were fond of representing their land and its people as uncultured, inarticulate, derivative, anxious yet complacent, and quietly desperate.

Perhaps you’ve had a different experience of New Zealanders, and you are just about to reply to this blog and say how resourceful and outgoing Kiwis are. But don’t forget that the ones you meet in the UK had the initiative to escape from this country!

It seems to me that miserableness also infects Kiwi gothic.  Apart from children’s literature, Kiwi gothic makes pays virtually no interest in the supernatural, the fantastic, or the marvellous.  Instead we have a large cast of abused or traumatised children and isolated, unhappy families.  It’s a very Protestant, Calvinist form of gothic, one which denies the miraculous unless it is in the key of irony.

The Scots are credited with many aspects of the New Zealand character: egalitarianism, respect for education, support for female achievement in public life, an ambivalent attitude to heavy alcohol consumption.  Although they numbered just 21% of British immigrants in the 19th century — less than half the proportion of English — the Scots have shaped New Zealand settler society profoundly. 

Can we blame the Scots for Kiwi miserableness too, or is that just too cheap a shot?

Two famous Kiwis of Scottish extraction:

<< Kate Sheppard, women’s suffrage campaigner

Peter Fraser,              Former Prime Minister >> 

Tom Nairn has called the Scots “the least home-bound population on earth.”  In the same article, he quotes Michael Russell’s view that wherever you go in the world, you find that "insecurity is part of the Scottish condition.  We come from somewhere else, and settle where we feel least uncomfortable.  We belong to places that we only visit, yet we are visitors in the place where we live.”

I’d recommend Robert Sarkie’s low-budget film Scarfies (1999) as a test case in the Scottish-Kiwi gothic connection.  It’s set in New Zealand most Scottish city, Dunedin.  The lead characters are students (“scarfies”) at the University of Otago.  They’re not a family in the intergenerational biological sense, but they do live together as flatmates (and break the flatting “incest” taboo by sleeping with each other).  They camp out in a chilly hovel because it has free electricity.  Then they find a crop of marijuana growing in their basement.  Then they meet the owner of the dope, and their comic dilemma turns around a kind of allegory of Calvinism’s internally contradictory class politics of self-help, predetermination, and free enterprise.  Scarfies is a fun take on what I’m mooting here as a more pervasive cultural tone to much Kiwi gothic.

Miserableness may be on the way out, though. It is hardly the image that the New Zealand government seeks to portray in its tourism and immigration campaigns.  And the film industry has realised that diversification in genre is necessary to capture greater profits.  Films like The Piano and Heavenly Creatures are great artistic successes, but they don’t haul in the more lucrative gaming and merchandising markets (what could be merchandised in association with The Piano, for example?  A model severed finger?).  Horror, on the other hand, is a globally popular mode.  So maybe we’ll see less gothic and more horror?  Less brood, and more blood?


Fitzgerald, Michael. “Southern Gothic: Karen Walker’s Edgy Designs Reflect the Darker Tones of her Native New Zealand.” Time South Pacific 24 May 1999, p. 60.

Hoare, Rose. “Art of Darkness.” Sunday Star-Times [supplement] 12 Nov. 2006, pp. 16-21.

Nairn, Tom. “Globalization and Nationalism: The New Deal?” The Edinburgh Lectures. 4 March 2008. [accessed 27 Aug. 2008]

Saker, John.  “Pakeha Kilt.” New Zealand Herald [supplement] 23 Sept. 2006, pp. 18-21.

Schafer, William. Mapping the Godzone. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998, p. 137.

Wall, Tony. “Neill calls Kiwis ‘miserable’ and Aussies ‘generous’.” Sunday Star Times, 13 June 2004, p. A4.

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