Born in Scotland around 1820 McKenzie emigrated to Australia in 1849. He bought himself some bullocks and started to earn a living carrying goods to the gold-digging sites. His plan obviously worked as he was able to save up enough money to get himself to New Zealand, disembarking at Nelson. His aim was to acquire some land to call his own. He worked his way south, buying more bullocks along the way, eventually applying for a land grant in the Mataura District.
It was rumoured that he would travel north to ‘obtain’ stock, and in March 1855 some 1,000 sheep were found to be missing from Levels Station, South Canterbury – they were tracked over the low passes and on to the plains, now known as Mackenzie Country. His pursuers, reportedly a Mr J.H.C. Sidebottom and his two Maori companions, caught up with him on the 4th March, but McKenzie somehow managed to escape. He fled and covered the 100 miles to Lyttelton, before the law caught up with him and he was arrested. In April 1855 he was sentenced to 5 years hard labour, but proved difficult to contain, managing to escape twice, in May and June that year, each time being recaptured within a few days. After another failed escape attempt in September he was placed in irons and monitored closely.
But all was not lost. It is said the Sheriff of Lyttelton, H.J. Tancred, believed there had been a miscarriage of justice, and closer inspection showed significant flaws in the investigation and trial. There was a talk of an ‘unknown man’ who employed James to drive the sheep from Canterbury to Otago. He was eventually pardoned in January 1856 after spending only 9 months in prison. He didn’t stick around and the last we know of his movements are that he paid passage and sailed from Lyttelton to Australia that very month.
Over the years Mckenzie’s story became surrounded by mystery and legend and he became a local hero. He was subject of myths and stories, many of which included his dog, and he was even immortalised in a folk ballad, Mckenzie Song by Mike Harding. More recently, he was the inspiration for the 2008 novel Chandler’s Run, by Denise Muir – a sweeping romantic epic set in New Zealand’s southern mountains, in which the heroine is torn between her dependable consumptive husband, and the swarthy Scottish drover, James McKenzie, and his faithful dog Friday.
The Mackenzie Basin, the area of New Zealand’s South Island that still bears his name, sits between the sprawling plains of Canterbury and the Southern Alps, and is home to beautiful glacial lakes and Aoraki/Mount Cook.