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Friday 1 November 2013 12:33pm

The remarkable life of Alexander McKay, geologist

Graham Bishop


The book

The Scot Alexander McKay arrived in New Zealand in 1863 at the age of 26 with just two full years of schooling. Seeking his fortune on the goldfields of the South Island, he developed an eye for the structure and history of the land. Ten years later, he attracted the interest of the pioneer geologist Julius Haast, founder of the Canterbury Museum, who offered him his first job in geology, as a field assistant and collector of fossils for the displays of the fledgling museum.

McKay eventually became the leading geologist in the country and made over 100,000 fossil collections. He explored and reported on many regions and was the first to document horizontal movement during an earthquake (Glynn Wye 1889), which won him a place in geological history. His ideas about mountain-building laid the foundations for new thinking by the next generation and the birth of neo-tectonics.

As a keen photographer, McKay developed the world's first telephoto lens. The legend is he also liked whisky with his porridge.

The author

As Regional Geologist with the New Zealand Geological Survey, GRAHAM BISHOP spent much of his career in the footsteps of Alexander McKay, who always seemed to have been there first, notably in Fiordland, the Routeburn and Matukituki and South and Central Otago. He has a strong interest in environmental issues, and has been a member of the Mt Aspiring National Park Board and the Kawarau River Conservation Tribunal.. Formerly a leading mountaineer, he still enjoys walking and visiting the mountains when possible. As well as many scientific papers and much non-fiction, he has written poetry and fiction. This is his seventh book.


'Bishop's scholarship is excellent, including a good balance of explanation, photographs and quotes from the period. It is also very readable. This book will appeal to history buffs but I hope it attracts a wider audience. 10 out of 10 for remarkable and cranky old Scotsmen. Where would we be without them?' – Southland Times, July 2009

'Graham Bishop sees McKay's studies of Earth processes as underpinning contemporary neo-tectonics. He produces plenty of evidence and narratives to support the claim. He offers a nice blend of anecdote and scientific context … It's a respectful and attentive life story; McKay would probably have given an approving grunt.' – NZ Books, Winter 2009

'This is an exceptional book that will be enjoyed by all readers with interests in geology, exploration or history … That McKay was a giant of 19th-century New Zealand geological science has always been sensed, but never has it been so well described and accounted for as it is in Graham Bishop's delightful new book.' – Australian Geologist, April 2009

'... this book is a great deal more than the facts of science. Well illustrated, it is packed with tales of adventures, humour and poems written by McKay who, even as a young boy, fancied himself as the teenage successor to Robbie Burns.' Heritage Matters, Autumn 2009

Publication details

Paperback, 235 x 155 mm, 256 pages, illustrated, ISBN 978 1 877372 22 3, $45
Out of print

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