McKay arrived in New Zealand in 1863 and tried his hand at gold mining, including across the Tasman on the goldfields of New South Wales and Queensland. In about 1871 he met Julius von Haast who at the time was the Canterbury provincial geologist, and started working for him. He later also met James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum and Geological Survey of New Zealand, and therefore had key relationships with two of New Zealand’s outstanding scientists. With a fierce independence of spirit, McKay was unafraid to question the views of his more highly educated colleagues, which led at times to some bitter conflicts between them.
“On several occasions he showed quite exceptional creative insight and inspiration. This ability, together with the perceptiveness and reliability of his field observations and his flair for finding fossils, made him a legend in his own time among geologists. Having had no formal education in science he was not constrained by many of the conventions in geological thought as were his European-trained colleagues; and he had confidence in his own judgement. Several of his most important field observations and conclusions, which were to be verified by subsequent investigation, were quite controversial at the time they were proposed, some not until more than 20 years after his death in 1917.“ (extracted from http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2m12/mckay-alexander)
In his private life McKay married Susannah Barnes in Dunedin on 24 August 1868, and they had two sons, William Alexander in 1869, and John Henry in 1872. Susannah was six years older than Alexander and little is known about her or her background. She was 71 years old when she died in May 1906 and was interred in Plot 56K in the first Anglican section of Karori Cemetery.
13 months later Alexander married his housekeeper Adelaide Dootson, who was 45 years old and may have been working for McKay and his late wife as a housekeeper or in some other domestic role. The marriage may not have found much favour with Mckays sons and their families, but was supported by Adelaide’s family. While the second marriage may have been one of convenience and for social decorum, it had the advantage of ensuring McKay was able to continue his many scientific interests until his death in July 1917, Adelaide providing the domestic security needed.
McKay was cremated at the Karori Cemetery crematorium which had opened in 1909, one of the earliest to do so in Australasia. His ashes were interred in the plot where Susannah had been buried.
Adelaide too was cremated when she died in 1927, and her ashes too were interred in the McKay plot, though there is no reference to her on the headstone. The inscription reads:
Sacred to the Memory of
Born April 22nd, 1835 Died May 14th 1906
And Alexander McKay, F.G.S.
Late Government Geologist
Born April 11th 1841 Died July 8th 1917
Fittingly the headstone is a lump of rock with a flat ground face into which the lettering has been inscribed. The lettering remains clear but is un-enhanced by paint or lead inserts so appears to be illegible, though this is not the case.
McKay’s name is perpetuated in the Alexander McKay Falls on a tributary of the Shotover River, Otago; in the Alexander McKay Cliffs, Antarctica; in the McKay Building at the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, Gracefield, Lower Hutt; in the McKay Geology Museum at Victoria University, Wellington, and in the McKay Hammer Award of the Geological Society of New Zealand.
A biography of McKay was written by Graham Bishop and published by Otago University Press in 2008: The Real McKay; The Remarkable Life of Alexander Mckay, geologist.