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London Caithness Association 

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Soirees and Annual Festivals

Although the annual dinners were not started until 1891, a meeting called sometimes a soiree and alternatively, the annual festival was held each year at dates varying between January and April.  The venue also varied, taking place sometimes at Radley's Hotel, Blackfriars, or the Masonic Hall in Bedford Row, or the Freemason's Hall in Great Queen Street.  The programme usually consisted of speeches, interspersed with songs and other musical items, with a short business meeting and the usual refreshments.  Ladies were present as guests only, not being admitted to membership until 1884.  The Chair was usually taken by some gentleman distinguished in public life and connected with the County, and the guests included names illustrious in the annals of the County's history, in addition to others well known in the fields of politics, the armed services and the arts.  At the 1860 festival, and on several subsequent occasions, the choice as Chairman fell on Mr Samuel Laing, at one time member of Parliament for the Northern Burghs, whose father came from Orkney, and who, in the words of the President, the Rev. R MacBeth, was "a man of world-wide fame as a financier and a politician".  Mr Laing was one of the earliest and most loyal supporters of the Association.  Other distinguished members of Parliament who also identified themselves with the annual festivals were Mr John Pender, and Mr George Loch.  Dr. Hill of Thurso and Captain Macdonald of Sandside became patrons, and supported the London men from afar, directing young men from Wick and Thurso to the Association, and helping financially.

The then Earl of Caithness took the Chair in 1867, holding the office of Honorary President, thus beginning a connection with "the Caithness" which has continued down the years, as he was in time followed by his son and then cousins, the present young Earl now holding a similar office.  At that particular festival, held at Radley's, at which one hundred ladies and gentlemen were present, the Earl's speech was very much taken up with the hoped for extension of the railway to Wick.  At that time, the line was nearing Golspie, but a further £200,000 was needed to bring it to the northern terminus.  His Lordship expressed the general concern at the quantity of fish rendered unfit  for human consumption because of the want of means of transport to London from Wick.  He felt that the carriage of fish alone would yield a considerable amount towards paying the expense of the railway, and there would also be great benefit to travellers, cutting the travelling time from Caithness to London to twenty-four hours.

On another similar festive occasion, the Earl gave an inspiring address to the Assembly, concluding by asking them always to bear in mind the adage "it is never to late to do anything, and never say you can't do it".   Judging by the success of Caithness men, not only in London but in all parts of the Empire, this was a principle upon which many young men acted, for they were holding positions of trust all over the world.

In 1870, the annual festival was held in the Masonic Hall, Bedford Row, with Mr George Loch, then MP for the Northern Burghs, in the chair.  One hundred and forty members and guests were present, and dancing to the pipes featured largely on the programme.  A pleasing feature at the beginning of the entertainment was the presence of a number of lovely little girls, children of members, dressed in white, with clan tartan rosettes and sashes, whose cheeks were like roses, whose laughing eyes and merry ways, and yet gentle polite manners were fascinating.  Thus runs the report in the John O'Groat Journal of the day.

The annual general meeting and soiree of 1872 was held in the Guildhall Hotel, with Mr MacBeth intimating his resignation, being succeeded by Mr A Meiklejohn, a native of Bilbster who had already served as secretary in 1861.  He held office for one year only, but was then elected secretary and continued in this capacity for ten years.  Mr J Noble was secretary during Mr Meiklejohn's year as President, and Mr James Auld was still the honorary Treasurer.  The membership was increasing, slowly but steadily, and speakers commented on the friendly family atmosphere pervading the various gatherings, due in no small measure to the ladies, still present as invited guests.  A further soiree, concert, supper and ball was held in the Masonic Hall later the same year, with two hundred people present, and again with the Earl of Caithness in the Chair.  In his speech, he spoke of the fishing in Caithness as having been good, with few accidents, and again commented on the success of Caithness men in the world of commerce.  Taking the well-known phrase that "Blood is thicker than water", he congratulated the members on their loyalty to Caithness and to the Association.  A guest, the Revered Mr McPherson from Canisbay, suggested in his speech that the Association was now strong enough to set up a prize fund, for the assistance and encouragement of struggling students in different parts of the County.  These would thus be in a measure protégés of the Association.  He said that the Highland Society in London already had a bursary scheme.  This suggestion does not seem to have been adopted.

In 1873, during Mr D Cormack's three-year term as President, a feud arose in the Association, led by the Rev. R MacBeth and Mr AG Duncan.  Details of the cause of this trouble have not come to light, but we do know that eight or nine dissident members broke away and formed themselves into the London John O'Groat Association, but this did not prosper and finally folded up.  The breach did not adversely affect the Association.

Mr Cormack described the annual festival of 1874 as "a big family gathering" so presumably the rift had no serious effect.  On the business side, it was reported that the Association continued to make an allowance to two widows and their families but that expenditure exceeded income, a matter which could be put right if members paid up their arrears of subscriptions.

Mr David Bremner succeeded Mr Cormack in 1877, and held office until 1889, and the Association continued its steady progress.  Timely aid was given to deserving cases, the quarterly meetings were well attended, and the annual soirees were most successful.  These latter came to be regarded as the great event of the year for London Caithnessians, a time when friendships were renewed, hearts were warmed, the homely dialect was heard in its purest tones.  Men remembered more clearly than ever that they were Scots, and their pride in their Scottish blood was high, while they looked with scorn and pity on Scots who decried Scots and all things Scottish.  In the words of the President, "The worst Cockney was a Scottish Cockney".  They were doing well, some of them had come from very humble beginnings indeed, and men from the North were in demand, because of their integrity and industry, and held the reputation of being as successful as masters as they had been as servants, because of their innate knowledge to handle men..

It may be of interest to note that in 1880 the hire of rooms for holding meetings amounted to £2.10, while £1 covered the outlay on postage and stationery.

About this time, meetings began to be held at monthly intervals, papers were read, and it was agreed to have an occasional musical evening, the first one being held in November 1883.  The venue is not known but probably it was held in Anderton's Hotel, in Fleet Street, where in the following years a series of concerts and such like functions took place.  These started off by being a small and unobtrusive effort to introduce variety and interest into the rather dull routine of the ordinary meetings.  Each of these events turned out to be a distinct advance on previous efforts.

The annual meeting in 1884 was given the grand title of Ball, as it had been boldly decided to cut out all preliminary entertainment and concentrate on dancing.  Fears had been earlier expressed that some of the older members might be disappointed, but the result proved the innovation to be most successful.

During the evening, Mr J Tudor Crowe made a short speech in appreciation of the effort that had gone into making the ball such a success.  He expressed the thought that ladies should be afforded a wider interest in the affairs of the Association, their present interest being for that evening only.  He could see no bar in the rules, except that the founders made no provision for the admission of ladies, but mentioned only Caithness men and other gentlemen interested.  Mr Crowe's idea must have been accepted, as 1884 marks the year when ladies were admitted to full membership.

Besides those functions being a financial success, there must also have been a great feeling of friendliness, for one old member was heard to remark, "We micht chist as weel been in 'e Temperance Hallie in Week for 'e number o' Week fieces here 'e nicht".

The annual festival that year, held on the 14th January in the Freemason's Hall, brought such a large attendance of ladies and gentlemen that "it was full enough for dancing".  As the Association now boasted its own piper Donald Sutherland, no doubt he justified his appointment in the dance that formed a large part of the programme.  He was assisted by a piper from the Royal Caledonian Asylum.  On this occasion, the young Earl of Caithness, who on his father's death in 1882 had accepted the honorary presidency, was supported on the platform by Major Clarence Sinclair.  The latter, in a moving speech, recalled Black Monday, when a party of Sinclair's crossed the Ord to join James the Fourth's army, presently to be so completely destroyed at Flodden in 1513.  The Sinclair men were wearing a green tartan, a colour which was thereafter, taboo.  It is tragic to relate that every Sinclair fell in that bloody battle, not one living to re-cross the Ord.  That evening a member recalled that his own grandfather used to tell him that from that sad day no Sinclair would ever wear green, nor would he ever cross the Ord on a Monday.

In May of the same year, namely 1887, a Cinderella dance was held in the Bridge House Hotel, Blackfriars, as the numbers patronising the London Caithness dances could no longer be accommodated in either the Royal Scottish Corporation Hall or in Anderton's Hotel.  We cannot leave these very successful functions without paying tribute to the great organising capacity of the various committee members.  From time to time, speakers had commented on the high degree of organisation and the consequent smooth running and financial success of these affairs, but only here and there does a name stand out.  Vice President A McGregor, secretary J Tudor Crowe, and Treasurer James Sutherland are the best known, but it is certain that support was given by many anonymous members.  The loyalty, strength and hard-working quality of committee members has, up to the present day, been an outstanding feature of the administration of the London Caithness Association.

The annual festival of 1889 was remarkable for the number of gentlemen in kilts, and for the marvellous decorations in the Freemason’s Hall, the flags, tartans and trophies being lent by the Royal Scottish Corporation.  The Chair was taken by the Earl of Caithness, honorary president, supported by Major Sinclair (father of the first Viscount Thurso), who reviewed the aims of the Association as set down in the Rules.  He considered that people then coming from Caithness to London did not require charity, but the Association came to their aid in another way.  It gave them a helping hand and assisted them to get situations in London.  He also reminded his audience that at that moment the most popular play running in the West End was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which one of the characters was the then Earl of Caithness.  That was seven hundred years earlier, and it was notable that such a distinguished family still had a representative.

The tragic death of the Earl only a few months later at the age of thirty-one, after holding the title for eight years only, was a great shock to all who knew him.  The Association felt they had lost one, whom no matter how ill he was, and how great the strain on his health might be, never failed to give of his best to any cause with which he had identified himself.  His death, without issue, and his being an only son meant that the senior line of Sinclairs was now extinct, but the cousin who succeeded to the title gave the same whole hearted support as his descendants have also done, and the present young Earl is now one of the honorary presidents, and has graced an annual dinner with his presence.

1889 saw also the resignation of David Bremner, who regretted that overwork and ill-health prevented him from continuing in office.  When he died five years later, Archdeacon, Sinclair, who was then President, described Mr Bremner as one of the lights of the London Press, and a tower of strength to the Association for many years.  Mr J Tudor Crowe, the honorary secretary, said on the same occasion that the history of the Association was largely the history of its presidents;  Hugh George, the first to hold that office was excellent, but was soon lost to them; his successors in office varied in strength and ability, and David Bremner had accepted the presidency at a critical point in the history of the Association.  Differences had arisen, but by his tact and firmness he had gradually smoothed away all their troubles, and for many years they had worked together without a single jarring note, and had brought the Association to a very prosperous state.

But we are still with Mr Bremner making his final speech as president.  He felt he had to draw attention to the poor attendance at some of the quarterly meetings, and yet he could sympathise with the members’ difficulties.  It required both zeal and effort in no small degree to turn out after a long day’s work, especially as the distance travelled might by anything up to ten miles, bearing in mind that London extended over an area comparable to the distance between Wick and Thurso.

His successor Mr AG Duncan held office for a few months only, then had to give up, having become seriously ill.  It will be remembered that Mr Duncan was one of the leaders of the party, which broke away in 1873, but he must have returned to the fold, probably as a result of Mr Bremner’s ability to smooth out the troubles.  Mr Duncan had to absent himself from the Association for some time owing to illness, but in 1895 we find him proposing a vote of thanks to Archdeacon Sinclair for showing a party of members over St Paul’s.

And now in 1890, the presidency was assumed by the Venerable Archdeacon William MacDonald Sinclair, D.D., of the Ulbster family, so beginning a connection with that family lasting until the present day.  He held office until 1912, and was probably the greatest and almost certainly the best known of the long line of Presidents.  He gave the Association a strong injection, livening up the rather dull meetings, bringing in numbers of distinguished relatives and friends to the membership, and these helped financially and spread the name of the Association among ranks of society to which it was hitherto unknown.  The annual dinners were initiated, summer outings were arranged in conjunction with the other Northern County Associations, smoking concerts and soirees, called conversaziones, were held for special charitable objects, while the annual festivals glittered with illustrious names.  He held the committee meetings at his own residence in the precincts of St Paul’s, and although he had many calls on his time, he never failed to give the London Caithness Association his full attention and support.

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