The iconic Dunedin Railway Station. © Arvid Olsen

Dunedin City: Edinburgh of the south

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‘Dunedin’ is an ancient name for Edinburgh and the resemblance doesn’t stop at the names.

When their ship hove into Otago Harbour (‘Otago’ is a corruption of the Māori name, Ōtakou), the site of their future town must have warmed the cockles of the hearts of Dunedin’s founders, Captain William Cargill and Thomas Burns, a nephew of that most Scots of Scotsmen, Robbie.

Aye, they crooned. Noo we’re talkin’. The leaden skies. The cauld rocky foreshore. The drivin’ sleet...

They and the rest of the first settlers were Presbyterians, and thus they took to the rigours of the locale as readily as possums were elsewhere taking to the New Zealand rainforest. They founded a flourishing town on the shores of the fine harbour.

Flourishing was one thing, but they were staunchly disapproving when the gold rushes came along to enrich everybody and place Dunedin’s entire population in danger of being able to live it up and have some fun for a change.

Which makes you wonder what those dour Free Churchmen would have made of present-day Dunedin, and in particular the non-stop bacchanalian round of the modern Otago University student’s day.

They would have been gratified to see how much of the original graceful, Gothic stone architecture has been preserved – the First Church, Knox Cathedral, the town hall and the agreeably bleak Law Courts. They would have nodded approvingly when they learned the city’s stadium was popularly known as the ‘House of Pain’, but they would have been concerned at how much the townsfolk seem to enjoy themselves in there.

They would have declared themselves to be the last to cast aspersions on the fine products issuing from Mr Speight’s brewery, but they would have deplored the sheer volume of it consumed in the course of scarfie revels. You can just picture the furrows on their brows, high-lit by the orange glow of burning sofas.

For those who don’t share the narrow sensibilities of the city’s founding fathers, the time to visit Dunedin is when the scarfies are in residence, as that’s when the city is at its most vibrant.

Drop into the Two Bears or one of the other scarfie haunts for a jug – if you dare. Or visit one of the many streets where palatial Edwardian residences now house flat-loads of students. What you see may shock you – particularly if you can’t abide cruelty to furniture – but it’s all part of the atmosphere of the Edinburgh of the South.

After all, Dunedin is a pretty spot, but it’s the people – and especially the youth of the student body – that gives all that old stone its soul.

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