21 May 2024

Highland flair: Canberra's oldest club races towards centenary celebrations

| Dione David
Four men march over a bridge in Scottish kilts, the leader playing bagpipes

Canberra Highland Society and Burns Club president Athol Chalmers (left) will be part of the massed pipe bands performance when the club partners with Canberra Racing Club for its centennial race day. Photo: Burns Club.

That the Canberra Highland Society and Burns Club was formed in 1924, back when the population was about 3000, means two things according to club president Athol Chalmers.

“A large percentage of the migrants that came here to help build the national capital were Scottish, and they were intensely proud of their heritage,” he says.

The club this year celebrates its 100th anniversary, making it “comfortably the oldest club in Canberra”. Today club membership sits at 36,000, and though the percentage of Scots in the Canberra population may have dwindled, passion for the culture is alive and well.

Highlights of the club’s busy social calendar include the impressive spectacle of the annual Canberra Highland Gathering and Robert Burns Night celebrations honouring the man who penned Auld Lang Syne. But in its centenary year, it’s fitting that a special race day at Thoroughbred Park joins the string of celebrations.

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In 1946 the Burns club sponsored the initial meeting of what was then the Canberra Racing and Trotting Club – a sponsorship maintained for almost a decade. The then club president and secretary also became president and secretary of the racing club.

“Many people don’t know that the Burns club was instrumental in the formation of the Canberra Racing Club,” Athol says.

“When the CEO of Canberra Racing Club found out, he said ‘We can’t let this go without a celebration.’ And we won’t.”

The Canberra Highland Society and Burns Club Centenary Race Day is one of three headline events for the club this year marking a profound, century-long commitment to maintaining, preserving and promoting Scottish culture and activities in the Canberra community.

Fittingly, the Scottish-themed race day on Saturday 1 June will have something for everyone. The whole-of-community event will also have free entry.

Celebrating all things highland culture, punters can expect mass bagpipe performances, highland dancing and scotch whisky tastings. Kilts will be a prominent part of race day fashion, and there’ll also be a “kilted dash” – though Athol says the rules will be a lot more relaxed than the kilted dashes traditionally seen at highland events.

“If you have so much as a tartan scarf on, you can enter a sprint and win a prize,” he says.

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Emphasising the family-friendly aspect, the day includes face painting, a jumping castle, a glitter tattooist, live music and more to ensure kids have a blast.

“A lot can happen in a century. This club has survived the Great Depression and World War II and gone on to become the oldest club in Canberra and apparently the second oldest business in Canberra. In that time we’ve not only kept Scottish traditions alive but have made many contributions to the wider community,” Athol says.

“We’re taking this opportunity to shout it from the rooftops, and we hope all of Canberra will hear and join the celebration.

“Even if you’re not into racing, come for the celebration and bring the kids along.”

Canberra Racing Club chief executive Darren Pearce says it’s an honour to help the Canberra Highland Society and Burns Club celebrate “such a momentous occasion”.

“One hundred years is a remarkable achievement and is testament to their commitment and connection to the Canberra community,” he says.

“In partnership with the Burns club, we will put on a special and fun-filled day worthy of a 100-year celebration.”

For more information about the Burns Centennial Race Day, visit Thoroughbred Park.

Original Article published by Dione David on Riotact.

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