IN the past few years, the subject of immigration has become a hot topic in Scotland, largely due to the Tory Government imposing its “hostile environment” on this country that actually needs immigrants to come and work here.

As anyone with a smattering of knowledge about Scottish history will tell you, for centuries the problem for Scotland was not immigration but emigration. You only have to mention the words Highland Clearances to show how mass emigration – some, but not all of it – cruelly enforced, has affected Scotland to its core.

Had Scotland’s population in the 20th century kept pace with England’s we would now have close to 10 million people living here, instead of 5.4m.

So many Scots emigrated that it is doubtful if there is a family in Scotland that does not have a relative included in the diaspora – I personally have aunts, uncles and cousins who are now citizens of the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Many of those Scots who left in the 18th to 20th centuries went to England. Many more went further afield, with Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand the preferred destinations.

It was to the latter country that one of the most remarkable single incidences of mass emigration occurred in this week in 1847. It was an unusual but highly significant event which showed how Scots could have a dramatic effect wherever they went.

The emigration – in effect a Christian mission – led by the Rev Thomas Burns changed the face of New Zealand and created a Scottish legacy that is felt in the South Island to this day.

On November 27, 1847, Thomas Burns, his wife, their six children and 232 fellow Scots – some 240 people in all – set sail from Greenock for New Zealand where they had all agreed to help found and develop a new settlement originally called New Edinburgh, but soon renamed Dunedin.

Burns was already 50 when he began his life’s most important work. Born in Ayrshire in 1796, he was the son of Gilbert Burns, brother of our national bard Robert Burns who had died the year before.

Thomas Burns was brought up in relatively comfortable circumstances in East Lothian where Gilbert was latterly the factor of the Lennoxlove estates. While growing up, Burns absorbed many of his father’s farming practices which were ahead of their time.

Though it was not to his liking, Burns studied theology at Edinburgh University and was licensed as a minister in December, 1822. In 1826 he moved to the parish of Ballantrae in his home country of Ayrshire and married Clementina Grant in 1830.

They moved to Monkton where his farming knowledge was much appreciated by the local community. There was trouble brewing, however, for Burns and all of the Church of Scotland.

The two opposing forces within the kirk were split over the issue of whether the national Church of Scotland was ultimately a creation of the state and in 1843 the disruption occurred when 121 ministers – including Burns – and 73 elders walked out of the General Assembly to form the Free Church of Scotland.

Burns and his family went from comfort to hardship overnight. The Free Church quickly set up a committee for the colonies and asked Burns if he would like to be minister of the New Edinburgh settlement in what is now Otago province.

With former army officer turned wine merchant captain William Cargill, Burns formed a lay association to promote the settlement of Otago, and by 1847, they had raised enough money and recruited enough people from across Scotland to set sail on the hazardous five-month journey to New Zealand on the ship Philip Laing, while Cargill went via England on the John Wickliffe.

Burns’ Presbyterianism being of the more rigorous variety, he maintained strong discipline on board until they landed near the new town of Dunedin at the heart of the Otago settlement on April 15, 1848.

With Cargill an able administrator, Dunedin and Otago in general expanded quickly and successfully, and the many place names of Scottish origin.

The Water of Leith, Clutha (Clyde), Bruce county and the now defunct Wallace constituency among them – show how the Scots were determined not to forget home. Even now, Dunedin’s principal rugby club is called The Highlanders.

Burns contented himself at first with looking after the spiritual needs of his flock, but he was also very much of farming stock and led the community in the many agricultural improvements they made. His reputation as an inspirational Christian converting people in the new land grew apace so that in 1861 he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Edinburgh University.

Burns is often characterised as a glowering Old Testament figure who caused sectarian division, but he later relented on his insistence of only Presbyterian people being allowed into Otago, though he condemned non-Presbyterians almost until his last years which gave him a reputation for bigotry that perhaps was undeserved.

He founded churches across the province and helped create schools that survive to this day. The University of Otago was founded by a committee led by Burns in 1869 and he was the foundation chancellor.

Sadly Burns did not live to see the formal opening of what is now one of the world’s top universities, dying on January 23, 1871.

The bard’s nephew Thomas Burns and all his fellow emigres very much left their mark on the Antipodes.