Republished from Steve Landells at Athletics NZ
One of New Zealand’s most distinguished clubs, Wellington Scottish, celebrates its centenary at the end of the month. Steve Landells takes a trip down memory lane to look back on 100 eventful years.
“To be the best club in New Zealand” has proudly been the long-held vision held by those at Wellington Scottish.
And while defining ‘best club’ can lead to much debate, there is little doubt that a combination of those very Scottish traits of tenacity, a willingness to get things done and, on occasion, challenge authority, have allowed the club to flourish into one of the country’s finest.
Formed on March 10, 1915 in the Wellington Scottish Society rooms in Cuba Street, it is little surprise that its founding father, Walter ‘Pop’ Ballantyne was a Scot, hailing from Galashiels in the Scottish Borders region.
The club organised its very first club run on April 24 – coincidentally just one day before the Gallipoli Landings in the First World War – although the early years of the club were hindered by war and “internal bickering,” according to club historian Grant McLean.
It was not until the 1930s when club membership started to rise and performances improved under the inspirational leadership of the three “S” Fred Silver, Les Sinclair and Alf Stevens did Scottish embark on its first ‘golden era’.
It was Alf who formed the beginnings of the remarkable Stevens dynasty, which for almost 90 years has been the bedrock of Scottish’s success.
“Alf was a great organiser, who formed the backbone to the club,” adds McLean of the former New Zealand cross country captain. “He really started to grow the club through his administrative and recruitment capability.”
Next in the Stevens dynasty was Alan, former club president and now club patron of Wellington Scottish. Now aged 78 and a member since 1948, he has enjoyed an unbroken 67-year affiliation with the club which has formed a central part of his life.
“Dad liked sorting papers in his office and organising things,” explains Alan of his father, Alf. “I don’t know what it is (about why the Stevens have embraced administration at the club) it must be in the genes.”
Alan, a former Athletics New Zealand President and IAAF technical delegate who was a major player in securing the 1988 IAAF World Cross Country Championships for Auckland, insists one of the strengths of the club has been its strong social element.
“We’ve always travelled around the country on trips and we’ve been to virtually every relay that ever existed in New Zealand,” he explains. “This social side to the club has always been important.”
Scottish has also been an innovative forward-thinking club. After moving to their current clubrooms at Prince of Wales Park in 1970 they smartly responded to the needs of the local community by building squash courts at the facility, which became a key “revenue earner” for the club.
“We have always been quite astute,” adds McLean. “But we have evolved. We found over time there was less need for the squash courts and we now have a karate club as a long-term tenant.”
Women may have only been admitted to Scottish harrier section for the first time (women joined the track section from 1934) in the 1970s, but thanks to the achievements of the likes of two-time former World Mountain Running champion Melissa Moon and three-time former Rotorua Marathon champion Bernie Portenski and her sister Michele Allison women have made a huge mark on the club’s more recent history.
In 1999 Wellington Scottish secured their maiden men’s National Road Relay title with next in the Stevens line – Todd – helping strategise a famous victory over the mighty North Harbour Bays Club.
In many ways the annual New Zealand Road Relays have come to define Wellington Scottish, who regularly send a team in excess of 100 athletes to the event and have won multiple titles.
Yet in challenging times for the sport, why is it that Scottish have managed to flourish while many other clubs have withered and struggled to retain numbers?
“We try to be as flexible as possible with membership and explain the value proposition,” explains McLean. “We are competing with many other attractions, but if you pay your $175 maximum fee a year we make clear that you are getting all this level of expertise for a fraction of the cost of joining a gym.”
Alan says in a crowded marketplace for people’s leisure time, Scottish have worked hard at retaining membership at an around 300. The club “jealously preserves” the pack runs “at the heart of the harrier tradition” and Scottish boast a crèche in their clubrooms designed to support any young families keen to be involved.
More latterly, Alan’s son, Todd, has been at the centre of the club’s success. A former winner of the Rotorua Marathon, the Wellington Scottish programme co-ordinator has helped shape the current strength of the club and Todd insists it is the feeling of “community” which resonates with Scottish members and turns an individual sport into a broader team-based activity.
“Running becomes so much more enjoyable when it is done with a group of like-minded people,” explains Todd. “When in a race, the motivation and determination is so much greater when the Scottish singlet is on. There is a genuine sense of pride to be representing Scottish. The success of members is shared by all members. When Hamish Carson (four-time national 1500m champion) wins a race, all members feel like they have won. Scottish has become so much more than a club where people run together. It’s become the central point for what happens in members’ lives well beyond running.”