The Highlands of Tasmania

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

Now according to Wikipedia the Highlands of Scotland are:

“…north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, although the exact boundaries are not clearly defined, particularly to the east. The Great Glen divides the Grampian Mountains to the southeast from the Northwest Highlands. The Scottish Gaelic name of A’ Ghàidhealtachd literally means “the place of the Gaels” and traditionally, from a Gaelic-speaking point of view, includes both the Western Isles and the Highlands.”

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

The other day I knew that I was in the Georgian Town of Richmond in Tasmania, Australia, but you could be forgiven for looking out over the Coal River Valley at the distant hills and imagining that you had suddenly been transported 17,324 km (10764 miles) to the Scottish Highlands. This was particularly reinforced when the skirl of the pipes was to be heard floating across the valley. The reality was not that I had been suddenly swept up in Gaelic daydream and astral planed to a far off land but I was at the St Andrews Richmond Highland Gathering where all things Scottish were being celebrated. According to their Facebook page:

“The St Andrew Society Hobart Incorporated was formed in 1960 by a group of people who wanted to keep alive the traditions, dancing, music, sports and literature of Scotland. The motto of the Society is “Cairdeas”, a Gaelic word meaning “Friendship”. Membership of the Society is open to persons who are interested in fostering the objectives of the Society. “

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

The Scots are the third largest migrant group in Tasmania and they were numerous among the early settlers lured across by the prospect of farming in the Midlands of Tasmania which reminded them of their homelands. Prior to 1830 most Scots who migrated were farmers and landowners who were trying to escape the economic recession of the 1820’s. Other Scots came because they had served in the British Colonial forces and they stayed on when their term of service ended. From the 1830’s onwards the working poor joined the diaspora and they headed for Hobart to work in the industries there. This rate of migration has remained steady throughout the Twentieth Century and into the Twenty First.

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

So it was no wonder that as we pulled up in Richmond that the town was positively heaving with visitors. Now Richmond is well and truly on tourist route number 1 in Tasmania and can be busy throughout most of the year, especially so in summer. But nothing prepared us for this. I struggled to find a parking space, but luckily after a slow lap of the town I found a spot down by the Coal River and just a short walk from the village green where the action was happening.

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

At this point I feel compelled to make a public disclosure. When I was a young lad I had been exposed to the bagpipes through attending things like the The Royal Tournament at Earls Court in London. At that point I was fairly bagpipe neutral – I neither liked or disliked them. Then in December of 1987 we were in Kathmandu, Nepal, during the wedding season. Part of the wedding ceremony is to have a procession through the streets which is led by a marching (and I use the term loosely here as most seemed rather shambolic) band. Here I was subjected to bag pipe-playing of the most hideous nature. There are not words in the English language that adequately describe how bloody awful it was. The nearest I can get is to imagine a cat with a soprano voice being fed through a mangle while gargling on razor blades whilst having its nether regions probed by red-hot pokers and that doesn’t nearly describe the aural torture that I experienced. Ever since then I would rather slide down a banister rail made out of razor blades using my testicles as brakes rather than listen to bagpipes. It was, then, with some trepidation that I approached the green. The first thing I saw was the Scottish dancing with young tartan clad girls deftly defying gravity as they leapt and pranced on the stage. A walk around the perimeter of the green found a plethora of stalls selling on manner of Scottish items ranging from Celtic crosses to your clan’s genealogy. In the centre of the green there were competitions for the best pipe band, the best piper, the best pipe major, the best dressed band, demonstrations of Scottish country dancing and a choir. The strange thing was that I really enjoyed it. There was no sound of screaming mangled cats – it was all a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

 

So if you ever find your self in Southern Tasmania in February nip up to Richmond for the Highland Gathering its a fun day out.

 

ST ANDREWS RICHMOND HIGHLAND GATHERING

Thylacine Sighted In Richmond

I went to the touristy olde world town of Richmond a little while ago and saw a Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine. It had been turned into a garden ornament – “gnomified” if you like, just like the Buddha has been.

Tasmanian Tiger, aka the thylacine, spotted in a front garden in Tasmania’s historic town of Richmond.

Tasmanians have a very complicated relationship with the Tassie Tiger. Images of the thylacine can be seen everywhere, it’s on beer labels, the state coat of arms, the coat of arms for Launceston, the logo for Tourism Tasmania. In fact it is everywhere. You might, therefore, come to the conclusion that it is a much-loved animal. In a way it is, but the truth is it wasn’t.

The Tasmanian Tiger roams in Salamanca, Hobart, Tasmania.

The Thylacine was a shy reclusive animal, the last of its kind – a carnivorous marsupial that was an apex predator and whose relatives went back into the mists of the mammalian era some 5 to 23 million years ago (the Miocene). Computer modelling has shown that the thylacine was not a very strong animal and would have been incapable of handling anything larger than 5Kg and it is now widely believed that they were ambush predators who preyed on small animals such as bandicoots and possums. When the first aboriginal people crossed to the Australian Continent via a land bridge some 40,000 years they brought with them the first dogs, the descendants of what we now call the dingo. The dog was simply a much better and more adaptable predator than the thylacine and by the time British colonisation started they were already extinct on the mainland. When the first settlers in Tasmania saw the thylacine they named it the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. There was an apocryphal tale appealing to Victorian gothic drama that can be traced back to just one source that the Thylacine was a blood drinker which preyed on sheep and poultry. That sealed its fate and a bounty was placed upon it and it was hunted vigorously.

A particularly moth eaten stuffed thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, in the Tasmanian state museum.

The bounty of £1 for a dead adult and 10 shillings for a dead pup meant that by the 1920’s it was rare to see a thylacine in the wild. In 1930 a farmer by the name of Wilf Batty shot the last wild one. This was bad enough but the tale takes a more tragic turn. In 1933 the Hobart Zoo acquired a thylacine, which was later referred to as Benjamin, which lived there for three years. Inevitably the animal died not of old age but because it was locked out of its shelter on a very cold Tasmanian night. In effect killed by neglect. The last of a species going back millions of years killed because somebody couldn’t be bothered to make sure it was sheltered safely for the night.  So after 133 years of settlement, thirty years after a conservation movement was founded seeking its protection and just 59 days after the Tasmanian government signed a conservation order to protect it the last thylacine had died. Optimistically it remained on the endangered list until the 1980’s , but with no confirmed sightings for 50 years it was declared officially extinct.Every now and again there is some crack pot scheme to clone it from DNA harvested from remains in museums, or some millionaire will put a reward for the capture of a live one, but the reality is that the thylacine is long gone because of an indifference to its plight.

In the mid 1990’s a biologist by the name of Nick Mooney gave an interview to the Hobart Mercury newspaper. Mooney was concerned that the attention the thylacine was getting was diverting the attention away from Tasmania’s other iconic animal – the Tasmanian Devil. He argued that the Devil should be researched and protected. Many people thought that he was barmy as there were more Devils in Tasmania then than at the time of first settlement and farmers were claiming that they were at plague proportions and were a threat to livestock. Fast forward twenty years and the devil is now on the verge of extinction from a combination of devil facial tumour (a transmissible cancer), habitat destruction, traffic fatalities and environmental pollution caused by high levels of flame retardant chemicals found in consumer electronics. These chemicals are banned and were phased out in the 1980’s but their effects are still being felt and it is thought that they play a part in devil facial tumour disease. Because devil populations are declining the gene pool is also diminishing this had laid the Devils very vulnerable to  disease.

The devil is an iconic symbol of Tasmania and many organisations, groups and products associated with the state use the animal in their logos. It is seen as an important attractor of tourists to Tasmania.

Today Tasmanians mourn the passing of the thylacine even though there are very few people who are left alive that actually saw one. All that remains are a few preserved specimens in museums, some black and white photos and some grainy film footage. Tourist operators say that the extinction of the devil will severely impact their industry and slowly people are starting to wake up to the fact that the devil is likely to go the same way if something is not done. There has been some research on the on devil facial tumour disease which is fantastic. So is devil saved? Well some scientists believe that the only way for the devil to survive is to quarantine healthy devils in captivity and let the wild population die out. Even if the wild population could survive the current Tasmanian state and Australian Federal governments are working to open up Tasmania’s national parks and world heritage areas to commercial logging. The federal government is also not prepared to fund research into Devil Facial Tumour Disease. So at present your best chance of seeing a Tasmanian devil is either at a zoo, animal sanctuary or dead beside a road. In another twenty years all we could be left with is some video footage and some memories. I would urge every Australian and prospective visitor to Tasmania to write to:

Matthew Groom the Tasmanian minister for the environment

and

Greg Hunt the federal minister for the environment

asking that more funding should be given to ensure the survival of the devil and to ask them not to open the Tasmanian national parks to logging.

 

They’re not the most loveable of creatures but the world would be a worse place without them.