THE skull of a Maori which had lain in a Scottish museum for more than 130 years has been given to the Museum of New Zealand to allow it to be returned to its ancestral homeland.

Primary school children from Forres sang Maori songs as representatives from the museum, Te Herekiekie Herewini and Hema Temara – who was moved to tears at times – accepted the skull which had been in the town’s Falconer Museum since the 1880s.

Maori belief is that a spirit cannot rest if part of the body is removed from the Maori homelands.

The skull is from Waikouaita in the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island and was donated to the museum around 1883 or 1884 by John Hugh McKenzie, a man of which very little is known.

It is not thought to have been on public display since Victorian times but instead has been carefully preserved in the museum store. Last summer Moray Council’s museums service contacted the Museum of New Zealand after learning of a New Zealand government initiative to retrieve Maori remains from across the world and return them to their rightful final resting place.

Yesterday Moray Council convener Councillor Allan Wright signed the formal transfer document and the skull can now be taken back to New Zealand. A presentation was also formally opened in the Falconer, its title, “The importance of repatriation of ancestral remains to Maori of New Zealand,” and museum staff hope many local people will come along to find out why the skull was sent back to New Zealand.

The ceremony ended with Councillor Wright being invited to take part in the Maori tradition of ‘hongi’ – a form of greeting in which parties press their foreheads and noses together.

Councillor Wright said: “We are pleased to be able to return these remains to the Maori people where they rightfully belong.

“It may seem strange and perhaps even macabre for any institution to be in possession of human remains from thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.

“But these things have to be seen in a historical context and in those far-off days it was the only opportunity that people had to appreciate and understand objects from other nations and other cultures. However, we now know of and recognise the great importance of these ancestral remains to the Maori people and we warmly welcome the delegation from the Museum of New Zealand who have come all the way to Moray to take possession of the remains and accompany them on their journey home.”

The ancestral remains of around 60 individuals are currently in the process of being repatriated, the vast majority of which are held by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

Museum of New Zealand spokesman Dr Arapata Hakiwai said: “These were dark days when these ancestors were traded, collected and stolen.

“But today we have the opportunity to put right the mistakes of the past and we are very grateful to all the institutions who have shown great sensitivity and respect to reach this milestone with us.”