St Andrew’s Day in the Australian colonies

Today is #StAndrewsDay! Saint Andrew was a Christian Apostle and the brother of Simon Peter, and is the patron saint of Scotland, of course, along with Greece, Romania, Russia, the Ukraine and many more. Every year, Scots around the world celebrate St Andrew’s Day. Tanja Bueltmann at the Scottish Diaspora Blog observes:

At the helm of organising balls and other St Andrew’s Day events …  were a plethora of Scottish ethnic associations, most notably St Andrew’s societies. The Scots spearheaded the development of these ethnic associations world-wide. In North America, St Andrew’s societies were established as wide-ranging benevolent societies in the eighteenth century, giving support to new immigrants, while, in New Zealand, the Scots exercised remarkable influence through their Caledonian societies and the promotion of sports.

I had a look around to see if I could locate the earliest instances of St Andrew’s Day celebrations in Australia. I started with newspapers.

The first (digitised) reference I could find was from the Sydney Gazette on December 2, 1804 – a short poem was published:

After this, St Andrew’s celebrations appear more often. Perhaps the first widely reported was in 1820 in the Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser on December 7 of that year:

There are reports of celebrations  in Van Diemen’s Land again in 1822, and then in 1824 the Hobart Town Magazine observed:

We have pleasure in noticing the revival of the festival (in this Colony) of St. Andrew’s Day. Any thing which can remind us of ‘dear native land,’ is pleasing; and if we had our will not one national fete day should be allowed to pass without being properly noticed.” The St Andrew’s Day festivities would include a dinner at the Commercial Hotel, and the magazine noted that “all who can afford it, that come north of Yorkshire, will dine there, and most probably, many Southerners will be there also.

St Andrew’s celebrations seem to have grown in popularity from the 1820s onwards. Indeed, if we take a look at newspaper coverage, we can see a spike in mentions of of St Andrew’s Day during this decade . Gradually, though, the proportion of newspaper articles covering Scotland’s national day decreases over the next 100 years (this graph shows the percentage of all newspaper articles featuring the phrase “St Andrews Day” – it’s not perfect, but it’s a good start):

Why didn’t St Andrew’s celebrations gain momentum until the 1820s when Scots had been arriving since the first days of European settlement? In 1829 Henry Widowson, agent to the Van Diemen’s Land Agricultural Establishment, hinted at the answer when he wrote

The Scotch gentlemen of the colony have established a club for the benefit of decayed or distressed country-men, under the denomination of ‘The St. Andrew’s Charitable Institution; but to the honour of the land o’ cakes,’ be it recorded that very few of Scotia’s sons are to be found among the convicts. and those who come free, except from accident or unforeseen casualty, rarely require eleemosynary assistance, the ruling principle of their country, perseverance and industry, invariably directing them to the attainment of an honest livelihood. The anniversary of the tutelary Saint day, is uniformly observed by the sober enjoyment of an excellent dinner and jovial reciprocity – Dr Scott is the president, and Dr Hood the vice-president of the institution.

Indeed, there were just not that many Scots around to form organisations and to celebrate St Andrew’s Day — at least until the 1820s, when there was a migration boom (which you can read about here) and Widowson was probably fairly accurate when he noted that the charitable activities of the St Andrew’s organisation in Van Diemen’s Land were limited in their usefulness. There were indeed very few Scottish convicts and emancipists. Even into the late-19th century, Australian populations were relatively transient, particular those migrant groups who came to Australia during goldrushes and those who came to undertake seasonal work on pastoral properties. Apart from a more recent bloom in Scottish organisations, events, and identification, Scottish cultural activity in Australia hit its peak in the late 1880s and early 1900s, when Caledonian societies and Highland games took prominence.


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