First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland: the signing of the act of separation and deed of demission, May 1843. Painted by David Octavius Hill. It took him 22 years to paint.

The lithograph of the 11ft by 5 ft painting of the 1843 Free Church Disruption and its accompanying Deed of Demission with signatures, created considerable interest among the attendees at the University of the Third Age (U3A) lecture recently.  This is to be expected within a group of retired members of the Dunedin community many of whom can trace their ancestry back to Scotland and in particular the Free Church.   One attendee was very excited to locate the names of three of her great- great grandfathers.  What amazed me were the family links created back in the Scottish Church and carried on into New Zealand Presbyterianism. Among these great-great-grandfathers is the well-known Dr. Alexander Somerville whose image was in the painting along with his signature on the Deed. 

When she paid us a visit bringing two photographs of Alexander Somerville, one in his Free Church of Scotland Moderatorial attire and one with his brother Colin, I had the urge to write about further footprints and traces that come to light in our Presbyterian story.

 Alexander Somerville’s links with Otago are interesting.   His biographer claims that it was through Captain William Cargill, one of the major forces behind the establishment of the Free Church Settlement of Otago in 1848, he became a committed Christian and Presbyterian.  When Cargill retired from the British Indian Army in 1820 he settled back in Scotland near to the Somerville family and Alexander attended school with the Cargill children.  William Cargill apparently kept a close eye on his maturing into manhood and believed he was being prepared for higher things.  With this influence and others Somerville decided to study Theology and joined a class that consisted of future Free Church ‘greats’, including Robert McCheyne and Andrew Bonar; they became life long friends.  Under Thomas Chalmers these young men were trained to be evangelists and foreign and home mission were strong draw cards in their decisions.  Somerville’s first and only parish was Anderston, Glasgow where he could combined his evangelism and mission outreach.  It was located in a developing part of Glasgow where he had a long and extremely fruitful ministry of 52 years. 

Alexander Somerville on left at the age of 70 years with his brother Colin who emigrated to the USA

During these years his evangelising spirit was always to the fore so much so that he was invited by the Glasgow Evangelistic Association to become a world-wide Evangelist ‘to go wherever the English language is spoken’.   That he did and visited New Zealand in May 1878.  His visit to Dunedin was widely acclaimed as he spoke to large audiences over a two week period.  He supported Hon. James Fulton, in raising funds for the newly formed YMCA.   It was on this visit that he re-kindled the Cargill spirit by visiting the Cargill farm and monument.  He notes in a letter that ‘Such a place as this [Dunedin] –thirty years ago a solitude, now a large and flourishing city with grand churches, more thoroughly Scotch than any I have been in’

 His Somerville relatives, John and Janet and their family, who arrived on the Blundell in 1848 and settled in Anderson Bay and further afield no doubt made some connection with him during his visit.   Strong Free Church people the New Zealand Somerville’s and their descendants have influenced the NZ Presbyterian Church in numerous ways over the last 4 generations and continue to do so. 

Alexander Somerville, Moderator, Free Church of Scotland, 1887


Alexander Somerville returned to Scotland after travelling the world to become the Moderator of the Free Church at the General Assembly held in Inverness in 1888;  a rare occasion as they rarely met out side the traditional places of Edinburgh and Glasgow.  An invitation to speak at the Established Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1889 on the Jewish Mission was the first time a Free Church Minister had been given audience since the Disruption.  This would be his last major activity.  He died 17 September 1889.

Another story must be told of a second great-great grandfather whose surname is Knight … but that is for another time.


  1. In this article “Footprints…” about Rev Somerville there is mention of a University of 3rd Age lecture at which a great great grand-daughter of Rev. Somerville attended. I would very much like to make contact with that person. Is there anybody who knows who she was and could pass on my email to her? Many thanks.
    Rod Smith


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