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London Caithness Association History
The first annual dinner was held in May 1891, at the Holborn Restaurant. Invitations had been sent out to all gentlemen connected with Caithness whose names were known to the committee, and in response about sixty gentlemen accepted the invitation. His Grace the Duke of Portland, who was an honorary president of the Association, had agreed to act as Chairman, but at the last moment he had to withdraw, having received a command from Her Majesty Queen Victoria to attend with his Duchess at a dinner at Buckingham Palace that evening. It was little consolation to the Caithnessians that when her Majesty wanted company at dinner, she had to chose a Caithness man, and it was a company with "faces as long as an Orkney stocking" says the report in the local paper, that finally sat down under the Chairmanship of Archdeacon Sinclair. Another noted absentee was Sheriff Thoms, who is said to have held the office of Lord High Admiral of Caithness and Orkney, who expressed his regrets in nautical terms, saying that he was confined by an attack of gout to Blanket Bay, with two anchors down". However, Sir John Heron Maxwell, President of the Dumfriesshire Association, and Captain Hugh Sinclair, brother of the Archdeacon, dealt very ably with the speeches and toasts, which were interspersed with songs, while the honorary secretary, Mr J Tudor Crowe spoke of this new departure in the Association's history; he had hoped to have seen one hundred gentlemen at this, the first dinner, but his hopes had not come up to expectation. Another speaker was Past President David Bremner, who spoke in praise of arrangements for the dinner, but thought that some typically Caithness fare should have been included. One wonders what the gentlemen would have thought of sowens or croppin heads.
Lord Berridale, son of the new Earl of Caithness, presided at that year's festival, which began with dancing and was described as an "enormous success". As on so many previous occasions, it was held in the Freemason's Tavern. Archdeacon Sinclair emphasised in his speech as President that in addition to any financial help, another object which the Association had in view was to keep up as far as possible the old affection and the old loyalty to Scotland.
A copy of the annual report of 1893 was sent to the Northern Ensign. The London Caithness Association, it said, was experiencing a period of unexampled prosperity, the meetings were of a higher character and better attended, and the interest of Caithness men and women had been greatly increased. There had been a gratifying increase of membership of eminent Caithness men, whose support had for so long been wanting. A great measure of this increased adherence had been due to the President, Archdeacon Sinclair, as the committee gladly acknowledged. The Reserve Fund stood at £150. Unfortunately, the charitable work of the Association had become too widely known, and there had been an overwhelming number of applications from people claiming to have been born in Caithness. In most cases the fraud was detected at once, their speech having betrayed them as natives of the south of Scotland, but much annoyance and labour by the committee had resulted from these applications, which did not cease until it was found that none but genuine cases which could stand investigation had any chance of consideration. Members and Caithness men generally were warned not to take for granted the tales of unknown persons claiming to be natives, but to pass on such person to the secretary or treasurer, so that their claims could be fully investigated.
At the annual festival, again held in the Freemason's Tavern, and presided over by the Earl of Caithness, there was a record attendance of over two hundred and sixty people, and the manager had to hurriedly get additional supplies and waiters for the supper at 2.30 in the morning, after an evening's dancing. A "Wicker" was heard to repeat sentiments expressed years earlier, namely, "Man, hid's as good as a chuvenile soiree in 'e Temperance Hall". The Earl compared the attendance that evening with that of 1891, and said that the prosperity of the Association could be assessed by this increase. The Archdeacon spoke of conditions in Caithness, saying that this was a time when lambs were selling at a shilling each, and Caithness corn, upon which so many depended was lying rotting in the snow. Farmers were making a very low profit indeed, and the contrast to him was all the greater when he thought of the prosperous conditions of those present.
However, the Association and its activities did not altogether escape criticism. Writing in one of the County papers, a man styling himself "Anti-Humbug" decried the long orations at these functions; in his opinion, one or two speeches consisting mainly of short, pungent, remarks should suffice. People went to a ball to dance, and he knew that some people in the audience were sick of speeches, especially speeches by some who were nonentities and others who could not make a speech. He also deplored the introduction of new-fangled dances. Well, you cannot please everybody!
The concert held in 1893 in aid of the families of the men drowned in the fishing boat disaster earlier that year, is worthy of mention in that two members of the Association took part in the programme along with noted London artists. These were Messrs George Leith, violinist and Frank Nicolson, whose recitations and Caithness readings were received with loud applause.
At the dinner of 1894, held again in the Holborn Restaurant, the Archdeacon and some of the members of the Vicar's Chapel of St Paul's Cathedral formed themselves into a quartet and sang several "glees" between the toasts. Later, in his presidential speech, the Archdeacon referred to the recent death of Past President David Bremner. He pointed out that the Reverend Robert MacBeth was now the only one surviving of the original sixteen members, whose first experiment had been to rescue from the hands of the Lord Mayor a youth who tried to commit suicide. This then and until many years later, was an offence for which one could be brought to Court. Presumably the offence was committed within the jurisdiction of the City of London, hence the Lord Mayor's involvement. Was this youth perhaps the same one that Mr Bremner had referred to as being taken literally from the Thames. Whether he was or not, this lad had been assisted with the aid of friends and the meagre funds then at their disposal, and had been shipped off to Canada, and he had done very well there.
He also said that of the nine patrons elected in the very early years, three only now survived, namely Messrs James Traill of Rattar, Samuel Laing MP, and Donald Larnach, the latter heading with Sir John Pender the list of generous supporters of the Association. It is to be regretted that we have not got all the names of the other patrons, although as already mentioned Dr Hill of Thurso and Captain MacDonald of Sandside were of the original number.
The Archdeacon also recalled that at the first annual festival, which had apparently taken the form of a large tea-party, a large number of ladies were present, accompanied by their babies. Rumour had it, that during the proceedings, some practical joker had mixed up the babies in the various prams, causing no end of outcry and confusion.
His political duties prevented Sir John Pender from being present at the annual festival of 1895, but again the chair was taken by the President. On this occasion, the management of the hotel, had contrived and placed before the Chairman a sugar confection, octagonal in shape and generally resembling John O'Groats House, but, as the Archdeacon remarked, with a slight flavour of St Paul's Cathedral about the dome, no doubt meant as a compliment to himself.
In June of that year, the Archdeacon personally conducted a number of the members over St Paul's, of which he was official guardian, and the difference between his taking them and their going on an ordinary guided tour, was very marked, and appreciated. However, one rather stout lady was heard to remark on reaching ground level, after being right up to the top, "Eh, me, that was a thousand steps and there's only three hundred and sixty-five at Whaligoe". Maybe the teas at the nearby Evans Restaurant, to which the Archdeacon treated them afterwards, did something to restore her. Present on that occasion was a little boy, aged four and a half years, Master Archie Sinclair, later to become Viscount Thurso, and Miss Sinclair, sister of the Archdeacon. It was tragic, and no one could have foreseen that only a few months later, he was to be orphaned by the early death of his father Major Clarence Sinclair.
The members themselves held a dinner in February 1896 in the Holborn Restaurant, and for the first time, ladies were present. This was more informal than the glittering functions so far held, and did not in any way replace them. It was probably of a much more homely character, and attended by those in a less exalted walk of life, for the list of those present at the formal dinners reads like a page out of Debrett. There was, however, no gap between the top people in the Association and the ordinary members, and a feeling of unity and mutual trust prevailed throughout the Association. At this time too, the funds were in a healthy state, and the Reserve Fund is reported as being £150, lodged in the Mercantile Bank of India, the trustees names being Messrs AG Duncan, George Leith and William Rugg. At the same time, a contemporary newspaper "The London Scot" commented on the progress and sound condition of the London Caithness Association, "the oldest of all the Scottish County associations, in London, although the Gaelic Society of London took precedence over all in age, though not a county association.
At the annual dinner of 1897, there were two toasts only, firstly the loyal toast to Her Majesty, then to "Our Noble Selves", both proposed by the Archdeacon. We wonder if the Dinner Convenors had taken to heart the criticism levelled at them earlier by the gentleman styling himself "Anti-Humbug". Instead of the various speeches, there was a fuller programme of music, recitations, anecdotes, and reminiscences of the County, and dancing as always. A special feature of the evening, a complete innovation, was the recording and reproduction by phonograph, the predecessor of the gramophone. The items chosen were a short speech by the Archdeacon, and a "bagpipe obligato" by the Association's piper, John Macdonald.
In July of the same year, there was a small gathering at the Chapter House, St Paul's, when Archdeacon Sinclair presented George Leith, on behalf of the members, with a richly-chased electro-silver tea and coffee service and salver, as a token of their regard, and thanks for his long service as a member of the committee. His recent marriage was the occasion for the presentation, which had been organised by Messrs JA Chisholm and John Swanson.
The Archdeacon, in his presidential speech at the annual festival of 1898, coined a phrase when he summed up the aims of the Association as being philanthropy tempered with frivolity, a sentiment echoed on several subsequent occasions by other speakers. And, indeed it was a most comprehensive assessment of the new activities under the leadership of the Archdeacon. More and more, programmes became brighter, and the social aspect began to take a greater and greater part, probably due to the decreasing calls on the financial resources of the Association. Another significant development was the growing interest and support accorded to the "Caithness" functions by kindred societies. Deputations from the Burns Club of London, from the various County Associations, from the Glasgow Benevolent Association, and the London Fifeshire, the secretary of which was a son-in-law of the late President David Bremner, all were pleased to figure on the guest list, and as they so freely admitted, being indebted to the London Caithness Association for their Rules. The London Caithness, in its turn reciprocated, by sending representatives to the other function; thus we find that in November 1898 George Leith attended the annual concert of the Gaelic Society, held in the Queen's Hall, Langham Place.
Next 1898 - 1914