“Need workers to build new capital city. Apply within.”
It was the basic message that had thousands of people from all over the world flocking to Australia in the early 20th century.
In 1924, Canberra’s population only numbered about 3000 people, just under half of them construction workers. Over the years, the various nationalities formed clubs where they could hang out with their own kind. We ended up with the Austrian Australian Club, Australian Croatian Club, Serbian Club Mawson, Harmonie German Club and more.
Kicking them all off were the Scots with The Burns Club.
“A lot of Scots came out and got work in Canberra helping build the place,” president Athol Chalmers says.
“So they decided they’d form a club to keep their traditions and culture alive.”
The Burns Club was formed in October 1924 as the city’s first official club. Recent research by the Canberra Business Chamber also places it as the second oldest functioning business in Canberra, after Cusack’s Furniture (1918).
Now based in Kambah and perhaps more famous for its all-you-can-eat Star Buffet than anything else, The Burns Club has a year’s worth of 100th birthday celebrations planned for 2024.
The first event kicked off on Thursday, 25 January, when a group gathered on the corner of Canberra Avenue and National Circuit in Forrest to lay a wreath at the feet of the statue of Robert (‘Rabbie’) Burns, who was born on that day in 1759.
To make sure the entirety of the 2603 postcode knew it was happening, there were also bagpipes.
“We do a little ceremony where we lay a couple of wreaths at the statue, I say a few words about Burns and the club, and we play a couple of Burns’ tunes on the bagpipes,” Athol says.
Funded by The Burns Club, the bronze statue of the famous Scottish bard was unveiled on Australia Day in 1935 to a crowd of roughly 1000 people, including then prime minister Joseph Lyons.
In 1957, the first clubhouse opened immediately behind the statue, where the round brutalist-style Burns Centre office building now stands.
“It was a very successful club there for a couple of decades, but fell on some tough times in the late 1970s and early 1980s when there were a lot of demographic changes,” Athol says.
In 1991, the club moved to its current home at 28 Kett Street, Kambah, just when Tuggeranong was booming.
“That was when that part of Canberra was growing rapidly, and the membership expanded really, really quickly. It was a good move.”
Athol has been president for 10 years and says it’s hard to put a finger on the total number of Scots in Canberra, but estimates between 20,000 and 30,000, most of whom are “second-generationers” like himself.
The club’s membership now numbers 35,000, a large portion drawn by the Star Buffet.
“That was a game-changer,” Athol says.
“The club was struggling when I took over, and when we partnered with Star Buffet and let them rent a floor, our membership was 5000. They’ve brought so many people through the door, and on any given weekend, it’s absolutely packed.”
Last year, The Burns Club bought a second venue – the 18-hole Belconnen Magpies Golf Club and clubhouse in Holt.
“That’s another of the fastest-growing areas in Canberra, so that’s a real highlight for us. We think we can do some really good things there.”
Every year in early February, the gathering at the Burns statue is followed by an evening of pipe playing and poetry reading in Kambah.
Over the King’s Birthday long weekend in June, 60 of the world’s best dart players will also converge on the clubhouse as part of the World Darts Federation Championship. This will be followed by a snooker championship in November.
A wider net is cast in October with the Highland Gathering. Bagpipe marches, dancing, caber tossing, stalls selling haggis and tartans, and more all take over the adjacent Kambah Oval for a day of all things Scottish. This will be even bigger in 2024.
The Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) in Civic is also running a three-month-long exhibition on The Burns Club from September.
“The aim by the end of this year is that a large part of Canberra not only knows The Burns Club is 100 years old but also understands what it’s done for our community,” Athol says.
“And that we’re going to be around for a lot longer.”
Visit The Burns Club website for more information about their centenary celebrations.