5 March 2024

Riverina Rewind: The celebrating Scots who 'tripped the light fantastic' in Wagga

| Chris Roe
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old photo of a group of men in suits

Members of the Wagga Wagga District Caledonian Society. Photo: CSU Regional Archives collection.

Back in June 1901, a handful of Scotsmen from across the district assembled at Wagga’s Protestant Hall to discuss the formation of a Highland or Caledonian Society.

According to the Wagga Express, it was agreed that “natives of Scotland, or descendants of Scots, were eligible for membership” and a list of all the local Scots was drawn up.

It proved to be a popular move, not only with those of Scottish heritage but with the wider community who joined the regular celebrations and events that the club would initiate over the years.

Caledonian clubs were formed across the world by Scottish emigrants who gathered to celebrate their culture and traditions.

The name ”Caledonia” comes from the old Roman word for Britain’s wild north and is thought to have originally belonged to a border tribe.

In the ancient British tongue, the name means ”possessing hard feet”, perhaps in reference to the tough peoples who walked a wild and rocky land.

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In Wagga, meantime, plans for the society were afoot and a meeting in August agreed that the Melbourne Society’s rules would be adopted, a subscription fixed at 10s 6d per annum and a musical evening was planned for the inauguration.

The Wagga Wagga District Caledonian Society was officially inaugurated in December 1901 with a Scottish concert.

“The Protestant Hall last night accommodated one of the largest gatherings ever assembled within its doors,” reported the Express.

“From the opening to the conclusion in the small hours of the morning, the greatest enthusiasm marked the proceedings.”

Hundreds attended and were treated to flings, reels, pipes and Scottish airs including Cock o’ the North, The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, Blue Bonnets over the Border, Annie Laurie and Ye Banks and Braes.

“At the conclusion of the concert a dance was held, and a large number seized the opportunity to trip the light fantastic until an early hour this morning,” concluded the Express.

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By 1903, the society boasted 71 members and it was decided to open the doors a tad wider, and new by-laws were drafted to allow gentlemen of any nationality to become members.

In 1906, the Express noted the ongoing popularity of the society and its reputation for outstanding entertainment.

When a large crowd braved wild weather to attend an event in October, it reported that “the members and friends of the society turned up in large numbers, affording one more proof of the popularity of the society, and the legion of friends which it has always at command”.

Each year in February, the society held Highland Games at the Wagga Wagga Showgrounds.

In 1905, a reporter noted the contrast between the Australian and Scottish summers: “Whilst Scotch mists and the cold breezes off the Highland heather are all very well in their way, and even cherished by many Scotsmen, still there is no gainsaying the fact that a mild dose of Australian sunshine and a cool breeze are not to be beaten when folks want to enjoy outdoor sports.”

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