The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (December 1, 1933)
Dunedin — How it got its Name
When the streets of high Dunedin
Saw the lance gleam and falchions redden,
And heard the slogans’ deadly yell,
Then the chief of Branksome fell.
Approximately ninety years ago, the principal city of the Otago Settlement was christened “Dunedin.” Most people are aware of the origin of the name. It was the Gaelic for Edinburgh, “Auld Reekie,” which occupied so tender a place in the hearts of the early settlers that many of them wanted to call their southern find “New Reekie.” How the name Dunedin came to be suggested, however, is another matter. It is not generally known that the Scottish writer and publisher, William Chambers, was directly responsible.
In 1843—five years before the arrival of the first emigrant ships “John Wickliffe” and “Philip Laing”—when the New Zealand Company was drawing up the prospectus for the new settlement, there was considerable discussion on the choice of a name for it. Already it was being called fairly generally “New Edinburgh;” the prospectus, when issued, described “Mr. Rennie's Project,” “The Scotch Colony,” and “New Edinburgh;” and other widely discussed suggestions were “Ossian,” “New Reekie,” “Edina,” “Wallacetown,” “Burns,” “Duncantown,” “Holyroodtown,’ and “Bruce.” “New Edinburgh” was by far the most popular, until somebody discovered that one of the unhappy settlements in the Isthmus of Darien had been called by the same name.
About this time William Chambers, one of the two brothers who had started the famous journal in Edinburgh, was given a copy of the Company's prospectus. As a result he wrote the following letter to the “New Zealand Journal”:—Edinburgh, Oct. 30, 1843.
Sir,—If not finally resolved upon, I should strongly recommend a reconsideration of the name, New Edinburgh, and the adoption of another, infinitely superior and yet equally allied to old Edinburgh. I mean the assumption of the name Dunedin, which is the ancient Celtic appellation of Edinburgh, and is now occasionally applied in poetic compositions and otherwise to the northern metropolis. I would at all events hope that names of places with the prefix “new” should be sparingly had recourse to. The “news” in North America are an utter abomination, which it has been lately proposed to sweep out of the country. It will be a matter for regret if the New Zealand Company help to carry the nuisance to the territories with which it is concerned.—W. Chambers.
The happy suggestion appealed to settlers, and the Company alike. The name was not given official recognisance until 1846; but Dunedin was christened when Chambers wrote his letter.
The author of the name was a remarkable man, who might be designated the founder of the encyclopedia as we know it to-day, and as the father of the modern type of “knowledge for all” book.
Towards the end of his life, Chambers was honoured with the degree of LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh, and was knighted.
In 1882 he followed up the interest he had always taken in the Otago Settlement by sending out a portrait of himself as a presentation to the City of Dunedin—which was hung, incidentally, in the Council Chambers. So citizens of Dunedin, if they wish, can pay homage to the man who provided their fair “Edinburgh of the South” with its true Gaelic name.
“I hae made me a hame i’ the stranger lan';
I hae gathered roun’ me hearts couthie and true;
And Otago's bonnie banks and braes
Hae heartfelt ties to bind me noo….”