The aftermath of a rain shower earlier in the day meant that I could make the most of my polka-dotted welly boots on the evening of 4 November 2023, as I splashed my way through the puddles on South Street to the private coach that would take me to this year’s Welly Ball. To paraphrase Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, in St Andrews World, Welly Ball is the one night a year a person can pair knee-high rubber boots with black tie dress and nobody can say anything about it. Prioritising the comfort of your feet for a good cause is something that Welly Ball has been doing par excellence since 2007, when the event was started as a celebration of the annual St Andrews Challenge, the largest student clay shooting competition in the UK. The proceeds generated from ticket sales – a whopping £33,000 last year in 2022 – are donated to the Charlie Waller Trust, a UK charity that provides educational resources on mental health and wellbeing to young people and their support networks.
The first half of the evening is dedicated to a sit-down dinner for which tickets were allocated by a ballot system. The steep £85 price of admission for dinner guests included a welcome drink courtesy of Tom Savano cocktails, a two-course meal, five bottles of wine per table, transportation, and access to the afterparty. Returning Welly Ball guests informed your roving reporter that the dinner was a marked improvement on the food served the previous year, and a far cry from the boiled chicken incident of ‘21. The main course was brought out as a sharing plate from which guests could serve themselves, which undoubtedly enhanced the convivial atmosphere of the evening. Of course, fuelled with enough wine to fill the Kinnessburn, the halfway point of the night becomes a strange liminal space between drunken debauchery and the starkly sober afterparty arrivals. The upside of this arrangement is that it doesn’t take long for the entertainment acts to warm up the already buzzing crowd, but the downside was that – arriving as I did before the hotly anticipated fireworks display – I saw the disciples of Dionysus on their finest form, barely standing up on their welly-clad feet, running away from security guards in hot pursuit, and attempting to push their way into restricted areas. An event cannot be faulted for the conduct of its guests, but I found myself sincerely hoping that the incredibly hardworking bar staff would cut off some of the attendees… for their own sakes.
I shared my coach ride to Welly Ball with two of the DJs playing sets at the afterparty, listening to them swap mixes over their phones as we drove through the pitch-dark Scottish countryside to Falside Mill. After the short ten-minute ride, we arrived at our destination in suitably damp and dreich weather. I bade farewell to my puffer jacket at the coat check and I entered the ballroom of the venue to the soundtrack of The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ covered by local pop duo Cal and Ally – a returning act from last year’s ball. Spirits were already high, but the prospect of fireworks seemed temporarily dashed by the inclement weather. Despite their suitable footwear, guests seemed reluctant to leave the dry warmth of the venue for the now-pouring rain. Fortunately the showers stopped just in time for the spectacular display, and our wellies were put to good use as the attendees poured out into the muddy field to watch showers of red, green, blue, and gold light up the sky.
In the next hour, over a thousand further attendees joined the dinner guests at Falside Mill as the afterparty went into full swing. Drinks were poured generously and the bar staff efficiently handled the large crowds at the several bars interspersed throughout the venue. For the first couple of hours, live music continued to play in the ballroom while a nostalgic DJ set kicked off in the marquee. Cal and Ally were succeeded by The Slick, a charismatic homegrown student band with 90s and early-2000s pop-rock roots – think Arctic Monkeys and The 1975. I personally love live music at balls – a sentiment echoed by several guests with whom I spoke – and Welly Ball made sure that there was plenty of it. On the main dancefloor, however, the concrete had become very slippery due to spilled drinks and soggy wellies. While certain pairs of rubber boots might give you additional grip on the floor, I personally don’t love my dancing with too much extra fear of falling – and watching several inebriated guests get rapidly acquainted with the floor didn’t exactly help me relax. Inflated beach balls also made an appearance in the main ballroom, which was a fun idea in theory, but slightly chaotic in practice. In the marquee, a very nostalgic DJ set engaged the attendees to the fullest with clever transitions and crowd-pleasing song choices. Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ inventively segued into Miley Cyrus’s ‘Party in the USA’, which in turn was followed swiftly by lots of retro dance moves as ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ came over the speakers.
After a decent amount of time spent grooving to some of my favourite dancefloor tracks, I left the marquee to take a quick breather and check out the rest of the venue. Mysteriously, when my friends and I came into the ballroom, the space was dead silent and the spherical hanging lights were somehow set to ‘strobe until everyone gets a headache’. Fortunately, the music returned after a few minutes with a more intense bass-heavy beat suited for the latter half of the night, but the lights kept flickering and I swiftly made my exit from the space.
It should be noted that when attending Welly Ball, some budgeting should be taken into account beyond the initial ticket fees. A ticket to the afterparty at £43 – already a steep cost for student wallets – covers your entrance and transport to the event, but additional costs are incurred for drinks, food options like the ever-popular Screaming Peacock Burgers, and even the cloakroom. The high-quality entertainment at Welly Ball, in my opinion, was well worth the price of admittance – but as always, setting a relatively high price for tickets inevitably restricts accessibility to events that should be put on by students for students.
When I finally decided to leave Welly Ball for the comfort of my flat and a post-night-out cup of maple rooibos tea (hello, Canadian here), I overheard a group of attendees praising the event on the coach back to St Andrews. One even declared that this was ‘probably the most worth-it afterparty’ that they had attended for a university event – but will this reporter agree? All in all, if you’re looking for a fun night out with a unique twist on black tie, I ultimately would not hesitate to recommend Welly Ball. No event will ever go off without a hitch (re: this year’s complaints about the organisation of the cloakroom succeeding last year’s complaints about the organisation of transportation), but coordinating an event of this scale is an incredibly difficult undertaking – and one that should definitely be commended for its significant charitable contributions over the last sixteen years.