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London Caithness Association 

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The Outbreak of the First World War

On the outbreak of war, a meeting of the whole membership was convened to "consider how the Association could utilise to the best advantage in the present crisis, the money they would save by foregoing the usual social functions".  It was agreed to accept the proposal of the honorary secretary Mr John Sutherland that fifteen guineas should be given entirely for the benefit of Caithness and London Caithness volunteers to the Seaforth Highlanders.  There would also be hospital visiting and special efforts to aid prisoners of war.  Although the meeting took place on Halloween, there were no special celebrations, but a sense of kinship with each other, and a common interest in the country's success was felt by all.

Mr Tait, the honorary treasurer read a paper on the two Scottish poets, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Murray, while Mr J Tudor Crowe lifted the somewhat serious spirit of the meeting by reminiscing on his boyhood in Wick, when among other adventures he was an uninvited guest, a very small boy, at a tinker wedding in the cove at the South Head.  

In the following April, at the concluding meeting of that session, he again delighted the audience with an amusing account of a school inspection, chiefly notable in that it consisted of a conger eel hunt, owing to the failure of the inspector to turn up.  He felt, too that in the wartime emergency their programmes would have to be mainly of native talent, and he relied on Mrs MacCallum, a Poltney lassie and others like her for their support.  With a little preparation, he was sure that others with similar native talent could produce stories and talks that would revive memories and that the human element would have a great appeal.  

During that year, the Association agreed to contribute to the funds of the Federated Council of Scottish Societies in London, and to the Friends of St Columba's (the Church of Scotland in Pont Street).  One of the principal activities of the friends was the meeting of trains arriving, usually early Sunday morning at Victoria, and looking after the Scottish soldiers coming on leave, who would otherwise drift about London until their trains left for Scotland in the evening.  

The Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1916 was held quietly in the Holborn Restaurant, with Mr J Tudor Crowe in the chair.  The speaker was Mr Stephen Graham, who had Caithness forebears, and who was one of the most prominent writers and lecturers of the day.  He spoke on "The Spirit of Russia", a most significant theme in the light of contemporary events in that country.  Mr James Sutherland was present that evening, and it was recalled that he had been there sixty years earlier, and now he was congratulated on his continuing good health.

At this time, most of the young men belonging to the Association were on active service.  These included Sir Archibald Sinclair, in the 2nd LifeGuards and the five sons of Mr and Mrs J Tudor Crowe, Alan, Douglas, Lindsay, Valentine and Sinclair, two of whom had been invalided out.  Another member, Driver Alex McKinnon died of wounds about this time, and office bearers attended his funeral in London, then at the opening social in October the entire company stood while the piper played the lament "The Flowers of the Forest".  There was a good turn out of members, in spite of war conditions and the audience included soldiers home on leave or stationed in the London area.  Mr Crowe read a letter from Archdeacon Sinclair who had just recovered from a long illness.  He also read a paper from an old History of the Scottish Race, written by David Scott, a lawyer, and printed in 1727.  Mr Scott traced the Scottish people from dim antiquity, from about 1590 BC, and submitted proof that Moses was a Scotsman!  Mr Crowe may not have edified his hearers but he surely amused them with his well-chosen extracts.  What with that, and various musical items, the company got the much-needed tonic of a good laugh.

At the AGM in January 1917, the credit balance amounted to £30, and £10 of this was immediately allocated to the Fifth Seaforths' Sock and Comfort Fund.  Major JJ Robertson, DSO of Wick, father of the future Viscountess Thurso, was made an honorary member.  The President issued a call at the same meeting to all civilian Caithnessians to take an interest in the Association, and expressed a desire to get in touch with all newcomers to London, as even although present activities had to be curtailed, a vigorous post-war programme was planned.  Owing to the darkened streets of Central London, and the uncertainty caused by possible air raids during moonlit evenings, the committee decided not to call any meeting of the members before the AGM in December.  In London, members had to travel considerable distances and the dangers and traffic delays made people naturally disinclined to take the risk of being caught.  But WPB, the well-known journalist, writing in his weekly article "The Lights of London", published first in the Northern Ensign and then in the Groat, tells us in February 1918 of being inveigled one day into the Mecca Café in Cheapside.  It was John Sutherland who got him to go in, and there he found John and William Crowe and Alex Nicholson, all good Pulteneyers, and John Cormack from Thurso.  It appeared that when these men and others had partaken of lunch in various restaurants, they had got into the habit of repairing to the Mecca for a few minutes chat over a cup of coffee, about old times.  It struck WPB as being an excellent idea.  He was assured that if he could make it, he would be sure to get sugar in his tea or coffee, as John Cormack always carried a "pockie" as big as a pillowslip with him, and would see that he got a lump.  No small inducement when sugar was so severely rationed.

In December 1917, a memorial service was held for Archdeacon Sinclair, who had passed away shortly before.  Held in St Lawrence Jewry, it was attended by the principal office-bearers of the Associaton, and representatives of the London Ross-shire and the London Inverness-shire Associations.  The death also occurred of Mr W MacKay Tait, a Vice-President, and father of Mr WNC Tait, who had been honorary treasurer until he moved to Edinburgh.

At the closing meeting that year, the honorary treasurer, John Cormack gave a paper on the Petermas Market and Thurso in "the good old days"; it was of a very high literary standard, but regrettably he firmly refused to have it published.  Mrs Crowe's contribution was a paper on "Second Sight", plus stories from his early days of which he had a very clear recollection.  Readings and recitations by Mrs MacCallum added to the galaxy of native talent, while the subsequent report to the home paper was made by WPB, the afore-mentioned well-known contributor to the Northern Ensign.  Whether his initials stood for "Week an' Poltney Boyag", or "Waste Paper Basket" he would never divulge.  

The annual Scottish church service at St Columba's was held as usual in December, and as usual it was attended by a number of the Caithness members.  

One afternoon, a week later the AGM was held in the Royal Scottish Corporation building, the chair being taken by Mr James Laird in Mr Crowe's absence.  The good attendance seemed to prove that an afternoon meeting was successful.  Mr Laird explained the scheme of adopting Caithness prisoners of war in Germany, and reported that already the sum of £125 had been either raised or promised.  A social, with a musical programme, followed, supplemented by a paper read by Mr Cormack on Robert Louis Stevenson's connection with Caithness and his friendship with the tinker Peggy Stewart.

The afternoon meeting held in March 1918 in the Royal Scottish Corporation, was the best attended for years.  Mr & Mrs Crowe came with two of their sons, Alan and Lindsay, the latter wearing three wound stripes, also Mr and Mrs Alex Nicholson and Frank.  The Grand Old Man James Sutherland, now aged eighty-five, was there, also Donald Waters and John Craig, both in their seventies.  Mr Craig died a few months later.  At this meeting, five guineas were donated to the Caithness prisoner of war fund, with apologies for the small amount.  More could not be afforded, as the Association was already pledged to donate £130 during the current year for the nine Caithness boys imprisoned in Germany and now virtually adopted by the Association.  Catering presented some difficulty, with wartime rationing, but a whip around among the committee produced enough tea, sugar and even butter or margarine for a cake or two.

In May 1918, an appeal to relatives to furnish names and addresses of men in hospitals in or near London was published in the local papers.  At the same time, our friend WPB gave a big write-up about the hospital visiting, as usual putting it in his Lights of London article.  He also wrote that the honorary secretary of the L.C.A. would be willing to supply names and addresses of members willing to give a cheery welcome to Caithness soldiers passing through London.  It was fortunate that the signing of the Armistice a few months later obviated the necessity of pursuing this plan.

The same WPB, writing in May 1919, issued a warning to Caithnessians against paying heed to pitiful tales told by person cadging financial help.  He repeated the advice that claims should be referred to the Relief Committee for full investigation.

The returning soldiers were the guests at a Victory Dinner, held at Frascati's in June 1919.  His Grace the Duke of Portland presided.  This was in the nature of a "Welcome Home" to the service members of the Association.  A silent toast was observed in memory of the twelve men killed, and the one, William Laird, reported missing.  

An annual gathering was held in the Royal Scottish Corporation in February 1919, and a newcomer later wrote to the Groat about the welcoming effect of a greeting in the dialect, viz "Is 'at ye, Cheordie boy?"  A concert containing items in the homely tongue, a Caithness tea and a gossip, with greetings from folk he had not seen since his schooldays, made his evening unforgettable.  In the absence of Mr Crowe, Mr Sutherland Ross, Vice President, to whom Halkirk owes its Ross Institute, took the chair.  It was reported that during the previous year, three hundred parcels of food had been sent to Caithness prisoners of war in Germany.  Happily many of the men had been released and were now home.  They formed part of the guests at the later Victory Dinner in June.  Also, £25 had been sent to Lewis, to the relief fund at the time of the loss of the Iolaire, when so many Lewis men were drowned on their way home on leave the previous New Year.

1919 - 1938