Caledonian societies in the Antipodes

Caledonian societies emerged as the primary driver of Scottish ethnic associationalism in the Antipodes, especially so in New Zealand, where the promotion of Caledonian Games was their very raison d’être —many societies were effectively born on the sports ground. Ultimately, the hosting of Games was to exert so significant an influence in colonial New Zealand that they became an integral part of the annual events calendar of many communities, and aided the development of athletics—no mean feat, and a factor that effectively safeguarded not only Scottish culture throughout the country, but also facilitated its very wide permeation. For although pipers clad in Highland costume who played Scottish tunes undoubtedly delighted ‘spectators hailing from the Land o’ Cakes’, Caledonian Games had a much wider appeal and, therefore, emerge as the second principal example—next to the types of patrician benevolence we have already examined—of how Scottish ethnic associational culture effectively transcended its immediate ethnic remit, linking activities directly to wider civic and community life.

In Australia, the consolidation of Caledonian societies from around the 1880s facilitated a recasting of the foundations of Scottish ethnic associationalism, moving beyond the patchy early developments. Part of a wider shift that set the focus on sociability and leisure rather than philanthropy, this recasting finally gave Australian Scots a sound base for formalized Scottish societies. One example of an organization thus established is the South Australian Caledonian Society, which was founded in 1881. Although the Society still retained charity among its wider objectives, the dispensation of aid happened on a comparatively small scale, at times including initiatives in support of Scots in Scotland itself. By and large, however, the South Australian Caledonian Society focused on the provision of entertainment, also by means of a literary club and library. In the late 1890s, the Society’s activities included piping festivals, smoke socials and concerts, as well as the customary annual celebrations. This secured a good membership over time, which tended to range somewhere around the 300 mark until the First World War, rising thereafter to a peak of over 500 in 1926. The Society was also strengthened through a branch system that extended well beyond Adelaide, including branches in Port Adelaide, Gawler, Mount Gambier, Port Augusta, Millicent, Port Pirie and Albert District. New additions to the activities offered, for instance the introduction of so-called ‘Bairns Classes’—dancing classes for children—proved popular, with 160 children taking part in 1904. Smaller gatherings too had ‘welded the bonds of Scottish brotherhood more closely’ since the Society’s inception. The Society’s scrapbook, full of snippets of all of its social and entertainment activities, powerfully underscores their prominence.

To this spirit of sociability and entertainment was connected another wider aim: the provision of leisure activities through the promotion of Caledonian Games, those ‘lusty sports … “stern and wild”’. In the small settlement of Timaru, located about halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin in New Zealand’s South Island, Caledonian Games served, as the local newspaper noted, ‘a much-felt want’ in the community. Estimates of attendance numbers are reflective of this ‘want’: over the 1878–9 New Year holidays, at least 33,000 spectators attended the Caledonian Games held in Wellington, Timaru, Oamaru, Dunedin and Invercargill alone. Comprising Scots and non-Scots alike, this figure provides a clear indication of the Games’ popularity throughout New Zealand, and the story was a very similar one in Australia.


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