Whether hailing from the Lowlands or the Highlands, their national identity was very important for many of the Scottish migrants who had made the journey from Scotland to New Zealand, settling in the British Empire’s farthest outpost. In the mid-nineteenth century, the journey to New Zealand could easily take four months, and life aboard ship was hard, especially for the steerage passengers. Migrants knew that they would probably never return to Scotland nor see family and friends left behind again. This explains why, after arrival in New Zealand, connections with fellow Scots were a real comfort and often helped ease the transition to life in New Zealand. As Bazil Thompson wrote in a letter home to Scotland, life was ‘rough and ready’ in New Zealand, but being with his brothers and having other Scottish friends made things easier in the new world. Such kinship connections were paramount to the Scots in New Zealand and nowhere else were they more pronounced than in the many clubs and societies Scots established throughout the country. The first such society, the Otago Caledonian Society, was set up in Dunedin in 1862, but others followed quickly, including the Turakina Caledonian Society which hosts its 150th Highland Games this year – an opportune moment to explore the Games’ history.
Turakina was one of the first European settlement centres to be established in the Rangitikei in the mid-nineteenth century. Many of the early settlers were Scots who had originally arrived in Wellington on the Blenheim, a ship from the New Zealand Company carrying Scottish settlers that arrived in December 1840. After establishing the small settlement the resident Scots soon began gathering together, but the Caledonian Society was founded only in 1863. In December of that year the Wanganui Chronicle ran advertisements for ‘rural sports’ to be held in the field next to the Ben Nevis Hotel in Turakina, with the events advertised including many a Scottish one, for instance the Highland fling and caber tossing. There was also reference to the chasing of a greased pig. It was also planned that a supper and ball would be held at the Ben Nevis Hotel in the evening. While some of the original plans had to be changed, newspaper reports published after the events praised the activities, noting that ‘a numerous gathering of the inhabitants of Turakina and the neighbourhood’ had gathered for the sports. Thankfully the weather had also been good, and the games were ‘keenly contested’. Of one thing the reporter was certain: that ‘this will be the precursor of numerous happy meetings in future years’. And how right that assessment was!
The Turakina Highland Games have come a long way since the early 1860s and there have been periods of low attendance and problems. But overall the tradition has remained strong – the result in no small part of the fantastic committment of the descendants of the Scots who first settled in Turakina in the 1850s. Even in the early days the games were community events that involved local volunteers. This also ensure that the games retained their Scottish character. For the most part anyway: in the mid-1960s the games included a road race from Wanganui to Turakina, and there was even a Miss Turakina beauty contest. It was also in the 1960s that the Domain, where the games are held today, were made their permanent home.
Thankfully the organisers in Turakina, from the 1990s in particular, reverted to a more traditional Scottish Games, abandoning some of the additions that had been added to the programme in the course of the twentieth century. Now the emphasis was on Scottish events, with a particular emphasis on piping and dancing competitions. This emphasis on the promotion of New Zealand’s Scottish heritage, a return to the Scottish roots as it were, is the main reason why the Turakina Highland Games have continued to go from strength to strength.
Happy 150th Anniversary!
To learn more about the Turakina Caledonian Society, please visit the Society’s website.