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London Caithness Association History Index

London Caithness Association

London Caithness Association History

1898 to 1914

The Reverend John Sinclair, brother of the Archdeacon, took the chair at the dinner that same year, at which over one hundred were present, and in the course of his opening speech, remarked that by members bringing their friends the social and financial prestige of the entertainment was materially increased.  On this occasion, the Association took the opportunity of making a presentation to Mr J Tudor Crowe, who was giving up the office of secretary after serving in that capacity since 1884.  The gift took the form of a three-branched silver candelabra, while Mrs Crowe received a set of silver-mounted hairbrushes, amid much joking about the permanently unbrushed appearance of her husband's hair.  In thanking them for the magnificent gift, Mr Crowe told the story of a conversation had had with and old man on his last visit to Caithness.  A true Caithnessian, the old man had asked many questions about Mr Crowe, where he came from, who he was and what was he doing in the north.  Finally he enquired where Mr Crowe worked, and on receiving the reply "London", he responded, "Ay, man, strange places fowk will go to earn a living."

Another speaker on that occasion was Inspector John Swanson of the Metropolitan Police, who reported that while there were sixty men from Caithness in the Metropolitan Force, there was no more than thirteen police in the whole of Caithness. 

At this time, the Association sustained great loss by the deaths in 1898 of Sir John Pender and Donald Larnach, both very generous patrons as already mentioned.  A few months later, another patron, James Traill of Rattar passed away, and also Past President the Reverend Robert MacBeth, at the age of eighty-three.  Thus, with his death, was severed the last link binding the Association to its date of birth.  Mr MacBeth, a native of Wick, had been a very notable minister of the Congregational Church and had held the living of Broadway Church, Hammersmith from 1853 until he retired in 1891.  Although he gave up the Presidency of the London Caithness Association in 1871, he continued to show a deep interest in its affairs until ill health and old age forced him to cut down his activities.  His interest in his birthplace never waned, and he looked forward with delight to his annual visits to Wick to his nieces the Misses Forbes.  About his time too, actually in 1900, Alex Meiklejohn, who had joined the Association in 1857, and served for a number of years as secretary, also died.  The deaths of these men took from the Association a measure of strength and loyalty which the remaining members had to make a great effort to replace, both by adding to the numbers, and in finding strong characters to assist in keeping the Association up to its high standard.  The ensuing years of growth and success proved that this was done indeed.

The annual report of 1899 speaks of appeals for financial help showing a slight increase and that again a number of fraudulent applications had to be investigated but where deserved, assistance had been given judiciously and as freely as income permitted.  The secretary had to report that quite a number of the young men coming to London for the first time, had been helped by influential members, and had then held aloof from the Association, avoiding the very men who often at great inconvenience had secured for them the benefits of regular employment.  This was to be deplored, and it was hoped that such young men would show their gratitude to the Association by giving it all the support of which they were capable.  It was essential to keep up the membership, and cancel out the loss by death and removals, and although during the year there had been an increase of twenty new members, yet the total membership represented but a small percentage of the Caithness people resident in London. 

At that annual festival, held as usual in the Freemason's Hall, and presided over by Sir John Sinclair of Dunbeath, it was reported that economic conditions in Caithness were improving, the crops were better, there had been a good fishing, and the flagstone industry was showing signs of prosperity.

A virulent flu epidemic affected the attendance at each of the Spring functions of 1900, and in addition there was no annual festival held, not because of the flu, but arising out of the condition of the structure of the Freemason's Hall.  At least, that is what one assumes.  The reason is not clearly stated in the reports sent to the local papers, but in any case, the plans for the festival had to be abandoned at short notice.  The annual dinner was the substitute held in the Holborn Restaurant, the chief speaker being Sir John Gunn, JP, who figures as a guest on other numerous occasions.  He spoke of the success of two concerts held during the winter, one held jointly with the other Northern counties, at both of which events the attendance had been very good indeed.

In 1901, the attendance was adversely affected, not by any epidemic, but by the absence at the Boer War of many distinguished young men connected with the county.  The Holborn Hotel had spent a considerable amount on redecorating the rooms, and it was agreed that the magnificent hall in which the festival took place would normally have attracted an unusually large attendance.  There was indeed a greater number of the ordinary members present, and although the Honorary President, His Grace the Duke of Portland had to send an apology for his absence, it was altogether a merry occasion, with much enthusiastic dancing, the Grand March, always the first item, being led by Piper Macdonald.

1902 saw the coronation of King Edward VII, in August, having been postponed from early July owing to the sudden serious illness of the king.  The Caithnessians held a bumper summer gathering, jointly with the other Northern counties, but whether this was a coronation celebration is not clear, and there is no record of any special entertainment for children, as might be expected on such a memorable day.

The Association increased its membership and its funds during this and the following two years, and it is satisfactory to think that the exiles responded to the previous appeal to support their county association.  Applications for pecuniary relief had been very few, and donations and subscriptions had been generous.   It was reported at the annual dinner, held at the Inns of Court Hotel, and presided over by Alex Duncan, Vice President, in 1904 that in the previous twenty years 300 had been disbursed.  A considerable sum had been spent in sending back to Caithness, natives suffering from ill health.  A total of 100 had been donated to the two main charities, the Royal Scottish Corporation and the Royal Caledonian Asylum, besides the amounts sent home at various intervals for County disaster funds.  The nest egg in the Bank was now 200.  James Sutherland, who had carried out the duties of honorary treasurer since 1874, now had an assistant in the person of his nephew John Sutherland, who in his turn gave many years of service to the Association.  Actually in April 1925, John Sutherland was presented with an inscribed silver tea and coffee service because of the years he had given them, the meeting being in the Royal Scottish Corporation, and the presentation being made by the then honorary president, Sir Archibald Sinclair.  Mr Sutherland had just resigned from the position of honorary secretary, having held one of the offices of either secretary or treasurer for a total of twenty years.  Inspector John Swanson pointed out that sixty-nine years earlier, the uncle, James Sutherland, had held the same office. 

A special committee was appointed at that time to consider the matter of reducing the annual subscription, but having gone into all the pros and cons, finally came back with the proposal that the subscription should remain as it was, and after discussion, this was agreed to.

Another popular member during the years at the turn of the century was Mr W Mackay Tait, who was also a member of the committee of management of the Royal Scottish Corporation and of the Royal Caledonian Asylum.  At a combined concert of the northern counties, held at the Holborn Hotel in March 1904, boys of the "Asylum" gave bagpipe selections, proudly performing on a new set of silver-mounted pipes presented to them by Mr Mackay Tait, who took the chair that evening.  At the closing meeting in April, he himself gave a bagpipe selection, and he recalled that his father had been connected with Caithness from 1827.  Also his grandfather had walked to the College of Aberdeen in his day, whereas now there was the railway.  In those days, walking and riding were almost the only means of transport and poor folk could not afford to ride, or go in carriages.  Students would start off from Caithness some weeks before the beginning of term, meeting with others from Sutherland, Ross-shire and so on, on the way.  Some people might possibly get a place in a boat going south but this was chancy.  He spoke of the time when his grandfather and uncle planned to attend a graduation ceremony in the University of Edinburgh, got berths on a little boat going to Leith, but owing to adverse winds, landed in Norway.  Starting off once more for Leith, they landed on the east coast of England and by the time they at last got to Leith, by walking the last part of the journey, they were a bit too late.

Another celebrated gentleman with Caithness connections, Doctor Hugh Mill gave his talk that session on his reminiscences of Caithness.  He said that although he was twenty minutes late in arriving at the hall, owing to being held up in the traffic, he was still ten minutes too soon for his audience.  The unpunctuality of the members seems to be deep rooted.

The Criterion Restaurant, Piccadilly was the venue for the festival of 1903, and this time it had been decided to hold a dance, as the committee had experienced difficulty in previous years in getting young people to take an interest in this function.  It was an unqualified success.  Also in this year, the second informal gathering was held, and it was evident from the large attendance that this was a popular idea.  It would appear that the ordinary members were not quite at home in the glittering company which graced their formal dinners and other functions, and welcomed this new opportunity to meet. 

Cinderella dances, "At Homes", and conversaziones, which the dictionary defines as a soiree given by a learned body, covered the now monthly meetings from October to March each year.

And so we come to 1906, the Jubilee year of the Association.  From the small beginnings in 1856 and with an initial membership of sixteen men, it had grown to the well-established and financially sound organisation, known to all ranks of society, in the metropolis, in the home County and throughout the United Kingdom.  It was imperative, therefore that the fiftieth anniversary of the founding should be suitably celebrated.  The most important event in the list of celebrations was the Jubilee Dinner.  Held in the magnificent surroundings of the Holborn Hotel, and attended by one hundred members and friends, Lord Reay being graciously pleased to be Chairman.  However an important meeting at the University of London kept him late, and the guests were received and welcomed by the Archdeacon.

Sir John Gunn was one of the special guests, as was also the Hon. Hume Sinclair, uncle of the Earl of Caithness, besides gentlemen representative of the armed forces, the Caithness county families, others distinguished in politics, the arts and sciences, with a good number of members.  Regrettably, the honorary president His Grace the Duke of Portland was unable to be present.  Perhaps the most important man present, and certainly the Grand Old Man of the occasion, was Mr James Sutherland, resigning after forty years of "strenuous office" as Lord Reay, who had arrived in time for the meal, expressed it.  His Lordship recounted how Mr Sutherland had become a member of the Association a few months after its inception, had become secretary in 1866, and treasurer in 1873, a position which he had held until the present year.  It was only fitting that the Association should seek to mark their gratitude for all he had done, in some tangible way.  He was most pleased to note that the subscription appeal had met with a most generous response from all the members, from the Duke of Portland down to the simplest servant girl and he had much pleasure in asking Mr Sutherland to accept a solid silver tea and coffee service.  The President also voiced the appreciation of all the members when he too spoke in praise of their treasurer.  Although the annual income had never been more than 30 to 40, yet no less than 1000 had been distributed in the fifty years.  Often their "almoner", as he called Mr Sutherland, had met urgent needs from his own pocket, in anticipation of the funds coming in, and there were times when Mr Sutherland did not debit the accounts to the full amount.  In the Archdeacon's view, the history of the Association was best embodied in James Sutherland's years of service.  In addition to dealing with the claims of London Caithnessians in need, Mr Sutherland had been responsible for getting the amounts sent north in times of trouble, besides being instrumental in arousing in Caithness people the founding of the Golspie Technical School.  In his speech of thanks, Mr Sutherland also reviewed the inception of the Association, its troubles at the time of the secession, and in particular the career of the first ever president Hugh George, after the latter had gone to Australia.

During the summer, there was a special outing to the Royal Caledonian Schools at Bushey, still labouring under its old name of Asylum, used in its original sense as a shelter and not necessarily as a refuge of mental patients. 

In November, at a special gathering of the members, the Archdeacon presided over an "At Home".  This was for the members who considered that the Jubilee Dinner was not the kind of entertainment for them.  At this event, the Archdeacon recalled that in 1856, when the Association was founded, he was a small boy in smoky Leeds, where his father was a clergyman, and it was his earliest memory that his mother used to tell him of Caithness, that wonderful land of romance. 

Death claimed three more loyal supporters during 1906, Miss Bain of Elgin Villa, Janetstown, Wick, who had been very liberal in her donations, Mr AR Macdonald of Sandside who seems to have been a son of the Captain Macdonald of Sandside, who was made a patron round about 1857.  This year also saw the death of Alex Duncan, who had forty years connection with the Association, in spite of his difference of opinion at the time of the schism.  He had given of his very best in service as the years went on.

At this time, the principal office-bearers were, in addition to the President Archdeacon Sinclair, Vice Presidents J Tudor Crowe, Dane Sinclair, who moved the following year to Preston, George Flett, GT Mackay, James Sutherland, George Leith, John Swanson and James Laird, who was appointed a trustee in place of the late AG Duncan.

We cannot leave this account of the first fifty years of the Association without including the following menu, at the dinner held in 1904.  No doubt the hotel management had written it out in plain English, but someone had translated it into the Caithness dialect, thus:

            Deid Cock's Bree wi' neeps an' carrads intild.

Thick stock fae 'e cooag's tail.

Fried Founders wi' 'e banes oot.

Peerie wee sellagies (Could this have been whitebait?)

Haggis, wi' chappit tatties an' neeps.

Reesened spyogs o' 'e sheepie (What on earth is it?  Mutton anyway.)

 Roasted tatties.

Peedie wee cabbages (Do you think this is sprouts?)

Reested Pulleycock an' sassidges

Wi' fit ye ca'd Salad.

Caibenet Pudding - Loch o' Watten Ice an' dry Biscadies (Wafers?)

Aiples, orangers, graips, and nits.

Direction re smoking:- 'em 'at snuffs, can snuff, bit 'e shither 'at smock, 'll hev til wait til 'e Chairman, brave boyag that he is, tells ye ye can doo'd.

From the Jubilee year until the beginning of the first World War in August 1914, the Association maintained the high position it had achieved during the previous two decades.  Excellent leadership and a strong and enlightened administration guaranteed a steady rate of expansion.  The halcyon days immediately preceding the war reflected in the Association the same level of prosperity and progress then pervading the whole country.  A series at the time in St Columba's magazine on the subject of some London societies included a very laudatory article on the inception and progress of the L.C.A.  There was also a great drive to help the old country by supporting the marketing of Scottish produce in London, largely through the work of the Scottish Products and Industries Development Association.  London Caithnessians identified themselves with it, and supported this venture.

But not only produce left the north of Scotland.  There was still the steady drift of young men and women from the home county to the various centres where work could be obtained and particularly to the Metropolis.  At the dinner in 1908, in the Inns of Court Hotel, Mr J Tudor Crowe spoke of there being more Caithnessians outside the County than in, although the actual membership of their Association was still under two hundred.  On this occasion, the principal speaker, John Rae, LLD reminded his hearers of the old tag about the fighting that was a permanent feature when the Sinclairs, Sutherlands, Keiths and Gunns got together, but that now there was nothing but peace and probably fewer fighters about, most being engrossed in trying to earn a living under difficult conditions.  Incidentally, Dr Rae had been appointed an examiner from the University of Edinburgh when a centre had been established in Wick for local examinations, and in introducing him, Mr Crowe said that Dr Rae had the reputation of being the finest scholar that ever left Caithness.  In the drift to the centres of employment the brightest and brainiest of her people were often lost to Caithness. 

At the AGM that year, Mr Crowe told a story that had come to the notice of the committee in their capacity of dispensers of relief.  It concerned an old Caithness lady, who in her time had been in very comfortable circumstances.  She had become the victim of misfortune and the committee discovered that the old lady's former housemaid, out of a total wage of 20 a year, had been giving her old mistress five shillings a week.  Needless to say, as soon as her plight was found out, the committee hastened to give her substantial assistance.  It was at this meeting that Mr Crowe read to the members some excerpts from Lockhart's account of Sir Walter Scott's visit to Caithness in 1814.  Scott's conclusion that "Stroma was a wicked island" provoked argument and discussion and it was concluded that Scott was really referring to the tides and eddies round the island, rather than to the people.  Thus do men rationalise the unpalatable.

The talks at these gatherings shed light on conditions in Caithness during the preceding century; thus we find that up to 1830 there was only one road in Caithness, along the coast to Wick, then north to Thurso.  As mentioned earlier, young men walked to the Colleges, and walking was the general way of getting from place to place.  At the dinner in 1909, Lord Pentland of Lyth recalled that in 1819, one of the crew of the ship, in which Sir John Franklin made his Polar expedition, missed the ship at Yarmouth.  By hiring every kind of speedy conveyance, he travelled from Yarmouth and joined the ship at Stromness, taking nine days to complete the journey, which now took twenty-six hours.

Journalism also was in the embryonic stage at that time.  Mr John Cormack spoke of the early struggles in the newspaper world saying that there were no local papers in the County before 1835, none printed locally.  In 1836 the John O'Groat Journal was started, confining itself at first to monthly issues, then weekly as demand and facilities allowed.  The "Northern Star" was begun the same year, primarily in opposition to the Groat, but there arose the farcical situation of the staff of the Star running short of printing ink, and of borrowing some from the rival paper.

Again, Mr Tudor Crowe in 1913 read from a rare book he had come across, "Travels in Scotland by an Unusual Route", by the Reverend James Hall, at one time chaplain to the Earl of Caithness.  Mr Hall covered the period from 1791 to 1803, and travelled up the East coast, mentioning passing through Dornoch.  The county of Caithness, said Mr Hall, looked bleak and barren, and had a dreary appearance; the men and women were small in stature: their food seemed to be poor, consisting mainly of meal, gruel and "bree".  The members disagreed with this assessment, saying that earlier writers had spoken well of the Caithness physique and character and mode of life.  It must be said in Mr Hall's favour that there had been a very serious blight round about 1800.

History was made at the annual general meeting in 1908, when two ladies, Mrs George Steven and Miss Jean Ross were elected to the committee.  Ladies had of course worked very hard for the benefit of the Association ever since its founding, but this was official recognition, although it was not until 1934 that Rule 2b was altered to allow women to officially benefit from the facilities hitherto available to men only.

In July 1911, Archdeacon Sinclair retired form his service at St Paul's, having held the offices of Canon and Archdeacon respectively for about twenty-two years.  The following year saw his giving up the presidency of the London Caithness Association, a position he had also held for the same number of years.  At the dinner in the Waldorf in 1912, Lord Reay, K.T., spoke in most complimentary terms of the Archdeacon's years of office, speaking of the spurt of activity as soon as he took over, and of the great progress made during the past twenty-two years.  The Association presented their retiring president with an illuminated address and a cheque, which he said would be used for the erection of a parish room and as a Caithness library in his rectory at Horsham, Sussex.  The address, set in a frame of oak, showed miniatures of Thurso Castle, and St Paul's, surrounded by a wreath of Scotch thistles.  Among other gifts to the Archdeacon, tokens of the high esteem in which he was held, was a motor car from the Lord Mayor and citizens of London, His Worship saying that St Paul's was a church before the Norman Conquest and in his opinion, the London Caithness Association was one of the Lights of London.

At the annual dinner in March 1913, Mr J Tudor Crowe recalled that in December of the previous year, the Archdeacon had been elected President for yet another term of office, but felt unable to be present at the meetings on account of his living so far from London, so he had resigned and the committee very reluctantly had accepted his resignation.   Mr Crowe had not been present at that meeting, and it was with the utmost dismay he heard that the committee had elected him to the Presidency.  He felt very diffident at succeeding a president of such distinction but he could say that he had now held every office in the Association except that of piper.

During all those pre-war years the ordinary members were amply catered for in the programmes.  They had the intellectual stimulus supplied by the afore-mentioned talks, always of a literary content.  There were animated discussions arising out of the various papers; concerts, dances and whist drives were held, satisfying the need for enjoyment on a different level.  These whist drives were most ably organised by Mr RM Phimister, who on at least one, occasion, had twenty-six tables occupied.

The annual outing of 1913 was arranged by Miss Jessie Keith and an "At Home" at Anderton's Hotel later that year was managed by Miss Ross, one of the two first women members of the committee.

Earlier that summer, a competition was held at Hendon for the Sir Robert Finlay Golf Cup, the various northern county associations taking part.  The London Caithness members were Messrs JT Crowe, George Leith, AB Campbell, J Chisholm, William Crowe, Alex Jamieson, Frank Nicholson, James Tait and William Banks.  Caithness failed to win, Mr Crowe, who was chairman at the subsequent social, advancing the ingenious excuse that his team was put off because of the aeroplanes buzzing overhead, a hazard unknown in Caithness. 

The principal speaker at the dinner in 1914, again held at the Waldorf, was Mr Robert Munro, making his first public appearance since his appointment as Lord Advocate.  He expressed his pride in his Caithness connection, his mother being a daughter of the Reverend Mr Sinclair of Bruan Kirk.  Others present on that occasion included Mr Angus, President of the Edinburgh John O'Groat Association and Mr Roberts, President of the Glasgow Caithness Association.  In his speech, Mr Munro made a salient point, namely that a society such as the London Caithness Association could only flourish in London if it satisfied two conditions, the first being that there had to be a good supply of natives of the County to draw on, and secondly that the County had to have conditions, traditions and characteristics worth preserving.  Mr Crowe told the gathering of a very encouraging experience he had had the day before.  He said that five years earlier, a kindly policeman had found a young man, a native of Caithness, stranded on the Embankment through no fault of his own but solely through the inhumanity of a public institution which had denied him his just rights and deliberately left him to starve.  With the help of the Association, to which the police officer had referred the lad, Mr Crowe got more or less justice done to him, but at a relatively heavy expenditure of money.  During those five years there had been no news of him, until the previous day, when he himself had received a letter from him, breathing thanks and enclosing a draft of 5 towards repayment.  It had taken him a little time to make good, but he had not forgotten those who had helped him.  Such a story made the work of the London Caithness Association infinitely worth while.