Forfarshire at dock in Dundee, Scotland.

Without correspondence or diaries it is very hard to imagine how a twelve-week sea voyage in 1883 would appear to an eleven year old girl embarking from the Orkney Islands to a new life in the colony of New Zealand.

We are fortunate that Jessie Ann Kirkness was gifted a Birthday register, ‘with daily verse’, and some very interesting recycled papers to take on this very journey. In addition to the Victorian trend for collecting the names in the birthday register, of those that she met aboard the ship, the decision was also made to include the name of the vessel Forfarshire with each entry. This confirms the sense of comradeship developed on these early journeys to the colonies.

The stationary provided as entertainment, or to maintain scholarly standards on the journey, bears headlines of Dunfermline Abbey, Lamentations and Remuneration. The titles poignantly confirming the culture left behind almost as much as the poetry created beneath them by young Jessie and her companions on the journey to New Zealand.

Our good ship sailed from Princes Pier 
In March eighteen – eighty – three 
Manned by a brave & gallant 
Captain As ever sailed the sea

(Mary McLaughlin Forfarshire 1883)

Some of the work contains direct reference to the voyage, indicating original compositions, whereas others appear to be transcriptions of popular literature and songs of the day. Jessie Ann recites song verses dedicated to the perils of being betrothed to older men and over hearing discussions regarding romance. She retains her young modesty however by reciting the end of each verse, “It has nothing to do with me.”

James Kirkness, brother of Jessie who kept the Birthday book.

Jessie became part of the South Otago community living on the Delta in the Clutha River known as Inch Clutha. She later married a Mr Duncan and moved to the adjoining railway village of Stirling, where she lived to the good age of 86. Jessie Ann Duncan is buried in the old Balclutha cemetery where she is recorded as being a ‘native of the Orkney Islands’.

The Birthday book appears to have been used throughout the early days of the young Jessie Ann Kirknesses life in New Zealand after her own twelfth birthday. It is filled with not only the names of the passengers on the Forfarshire, that lived many different lives all over a young New Zealand, but also those from the community developing around her.

-Gary Ross
South Otago Museum

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