The lusty sports of “Caledonia, stern and wild” have been celebrated in prose and verse by the greatest masters of both. They have a peculiar charm of their own. The combination of massive strength with deerlike agility, which is characteristic of the proficient Highland athlete, is seldom to be found in the athletes of other countries. . . . Scotchmen are the only people who, in these modern degenerate days . . . appear to attach the same importance to athletic sports as the classical nations of old did.’ (Evening Post, 2 January 1880 – click here to download an image of the newspaper page).
At the outset, Caledonian Games were ‘purely Scottish sports’ indeed, athletic feats being merged with the familiar tunes and dances ‘dear to the heart of Scotchmen’. First held in Scotland at St Fillans in 1819, the Games were soon exported by Scottish migrants, spreading quickly throughout North America in the first half of the nineteenth century (click here for an image of Caledonian Games held in New York City in 1867). Similar evidence of their popularity can be traced all over the world, including in South Africa and Australia, tossing the caber and all.
In New Zealand, however, the Games were of particular importance – not least because sport is so central to the fabric of New Zealand society, emerging as a key force in the shaping of the country’s national identity long before rugby and the All Blacks. In fact, outdoor pursuits and sports meets formed part of local life within a short time of the first migrant foot-fall in many of the country’s settlements. When Wellington’s first settlers gathered, at the end of January 1841, to celebrate the anniversary of their arrival, sporting pursuits were at the heart of the celebrations. From the late 1840s, many a sports’ gathering was held on provincial anniversaries, or as part of the Christmas and New Year holidays. It was the Scots, however, who, with their Caledonian Games, provided the most effective framework for the hosting of organised sports from the early 1860s. Held from Waipu in the north of the North Island to Invercargill at the tip of the South Island, newspaper reportage supplies neat evidence of the Games’ immense popularity in communities both urban and rural, large and small. Attendance estimates for the 1887–8 Christmas and New Year holiday period suggest, for example, that a good 60,000 people participated in or visited Caledonian Games throughout New Zealand.
First evidence of their existence in New Zealand can be traced to the diary of prominent New Zealand Scot, Sir Donald McLean. A keen converser in Gaelic, McLean enjoyed meeting fellow Highland settlers, ‘swapping stories and songs’. As much is indeed in evidence in McLean’s diary entry that relates to his engagement with Highland sports at Kaiwarra, Wellington in 1848. With a good many other Highlanders present, the Games were well conducted, displaying neither strife nor enmity, as ‘all in perfect unison played their part with animation and cheerfulness – the bag pipes playing at the end of each game’. While pursued by a group of émigré Highlanders in 1848, the promotion of Scottish Games became the primary object, of New Zealand’s Caledonian societies rather than their Highland counterparts. Thus commonly referred to as Caledonian rather than Highland Games, it took until the early 1860s for them to become a regular fixture in New Zealand, proliferating in connection with the Caledonian societies then established. In keeping with the emerging tradition of holding sport meets over Christmas and New Year, and as a result of reversed seasons, Caledonian societies in New Zealand held their Games during the southern hemisphere summer. There was, among the large societies, a strong preference for New Year’s Day, Scottish migrants thus contributing to making New Year, rather than Christmas, the foremost holiday in the colony. This was an important development given the role Hogmanay has traditionally played in Scottish society: the connection between sports and New Year is a distinct contribution of southern hemisphere Scots.