While ‘The Challenge’ may sound like a cringey 5pm game show, it is actually an annual November shooting competition that brings over 140 shots from universities around the country to East Fife. Some might see the Welly Ball that follows as a quintessentially St Andrews event – playing host to thousands of students in ball gowns, tweed, and most importantly, wellies – but it remains one of the few cross-university events that the town hosts, with attendees from as far as Exeter. The Clay Pigeon Shooting Club somehow manages a finely-tuned schedule starting with a day for the shots and then followed by a ball for both Dinner and After Party guests, greatly to their credit. Welly 2018, though not without its detractions, was yet again a fun experience, with the proceeds going to a great cause. Plus, it had the added bonus of Wellington boots as a barrier both to the usual mud, and toe-stepping revelry of Kinkell.
From the early drinks before the ball, the pouring rain, and the decoration of Kinkell, one might be forgiven for mistaking this event for another in St Andrews’s glittering social calendar: the Byre itself was austere, with the usual fairy lights and long bars; though the addition of the VIP tent gave extra practical room for the huge throng of guests. The dinner, preceded by the national anthem, was a feat of organisation to fit all the ballots around Kinkell’s numerous nooks and crannies, but left much wanting: many of the dinner guests I spoke to remarked on the relatively austere portions of the dinner, it only being a single course, and one partygoer described it as ‘satisfying, but not anything special’. For an event nominally beginning at 7pm and running through to 2am, for the dinner to be spare and accompanied by wine left many seeking more. Luckily, among the back rooms, both a toastie bar and a crêperie attended to the hungry crowd: the sight of a queue of tweed-clad shooters in dirty Hunters (by far the most spotted brand of the night) lining up for small crepes made quite the contrast. A good atmosphere for the after party belied the sparsity of the dance floor at times as guests made their way through the never-ending maze of Kinkell’s passageways and bathroom queues.
Where Welly’s true virtue lies, beyond the comfort of more relaxed footwear than usual, is in its charity work. Held, for the fifth year, in honour of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, the St Andrews Welly Ball raises funds for mental health training and treatment both in Scotland and across the UK, allowing GPs, parents, teachers and more to better recognise the signs and providing the training to act on them. Last year, the Welly Ball raised £27,000 for this charity, and Rachel Waller related to the WB last year about a parent who wrote to the CWMT, saying: “I wanted to write and thank you for the work carried out by the Charlie Waller Trust and how in particular it has helped my son. Following a talk…at his school, my son had the courage to talk to me about his anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts… Thanks to the talk, my son was able to seek help and we are now on that journey.”
This year’s After Party was akin to many other balls held at Kinkell, with a central DJ booth in the main barn paralleled by a smaller venue in the side section; a format that, while very popular, didn’t really spice up the event enough to be distinguishable from other late-night Kinkell events. The very function of having the side tent opened up from the VIP section, to be used as overflow from the main DJ booth was a nice touch, however. These small qualms don’t, by any means, suggest that the event wasn’t fun, or didn’t have its merits. Welly’s enduring popularity lies in its novelty – to wear comfortable footwear for just a night that won’t get ruined by the typical Scottish rain and mud.
Where Welly Ball 2018 succeeded was in its fine details – greeted by kilted bagpipers, being crooned Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” by a jazz/swing band early in the night, and the diligence of the committee to the admittedly herculean task of clearing up the dinner tables before the After Party guests arrived. Where it lacked was in its ambition: though bringing together a cast of hundreds of university students from across the country, organising them into dinner tables and VIP sections, must have its hardships, Owl Eyes was left feeling there could have been more; more decoration, more Welly personalisation.
All eyes on Welly Ball 2019.
Photos courtesy of Josh Horan for Owl Eyes Magazine.