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London Caithness Association 

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The Early Years

In the early years, the function of the Association was entirely benevolent, the giving of assistance, mainly financial, to men only at first, then later, to women in need. We do not have details of these transactions, as understandably, these were not mentioned in the reports to the local papers, and the minute book of that period did not survive the blitz of the Second World War. Almost certainly, the consideration of applications formed the main business of the meetings, with discussion on the general labour situation in relation to young men arriving from Caithness. There is little doubt that the meetings, held for some years at quarterly intervals only, would have the usual friendly intercourse and exchange of home news. At the fifth Annual General Meeting, in 1861, the honorary secretary, Mr A Meiklejohn, reported that the Association had continued successfully to fulfil the purpose for which it was instituted. There had been few requests for help, although at that time it was estimated that around two hundred natives of Caithness were in London. The Association had a credit balance in the Union Bank of 32.5.4d, while the honorary treasurer, Mr James Auld, held 7.11.5d. Mr Meiklejohn urged the members to make a great drive to recruit to membership all young men coming from home to work in the Metropolis. The President, Mr MacBeth considered that it would be "a glorious reflection if members could say that none of their brethren were indebted to the charity of strangers for the bread they ate". It was a matter of pride that the Caithness community in London looked after its own poor, and help was freely given to any Caithnessian, even if not a member. Between the years 1861 and 1865, a large number of calls for help were sustained: a few poor persons had been sent home to Caithness, and several old and infirm people had been allowed a small weekly sum to keep a roof over their heads. This was possible entirely through the contributions of the members, quite a number of whom were in poor circumstances themselves, and the treasurer could proudly report that not a single penny disbursed from the funds available but went to an utterly deserving case. Relief was afforded to distressed Caithnessians, some of whom had been received and settled on discharge from hospitals, and even asylums, while one recipient of help had been literally taken from the River Thames itself.

In time, the development of the Welfare State, with all its attendant social legislation, resulted in fewer and fewer calls on the funds and applications were later referred to the Royal Scottish Corporation, with a covenanted annual donation from the London Caithness Association. At the same time, a similar contribution to the Royal Caledonian Asylum, later to be known as the Royal Caledonian Schools, took care of the needs of orphan children or those with one parent only.

From time to time also, as occasion arose, efforts were made to raise funds to enable help to be sent home in times of special need. In 1891, a concert was held in aid of the families of fishermen drowned off the Caithness coast in June of the previous year and over 40 was sent north. Again in 1893, a Wick boat, WK 329, was lost, and money was raised and sent, as was done on several occasions when bad fishing brought destitution to some families in Wick. Although in some years as much as 50 had been given throughout the year to help Caithnessians in London, in 1903 the joint treasurers, Mr James Auld and Mr John Sutherland, were in the happy position of reporting that no applications for help had been received that year. However, two aged members of the Association, natives of Watten and Latheron respectively, had been "elected" to the Royal Scottish Corporation, the cost being 13 per year.

The infant Association sustained a great loss during the year 1857 when Hugh George had to resign from the office of President, having accepted the editorship of the Melbourne Argus in Australia. It is worthy of note, that while in this position, a few years later, Mr George incurred the extreme displeasure of the then Governor of Australia by refusing to divulge the authorship of a newspaper article which had given the Governor grave offence. Mr George was detained in custody for some weeks, until the end of that particular parliamentary session, thus being among the great newspapermen who made a stand for the liberty of the Press.

The Reverend Robert MacBeth of Hammersmith followed Mr George as President, and held office from 1857 to 1871. During his tenure, the Association continued to make progress, the quarterly meetings were well attended, and from as early as 1858, a feature of the meetings was the reading, usually by one or other of the members, of a paper on some subject connected with Caithness. Probably the first paper was that given by Mr James Sutherland on "Supply and Demand as regulating the price of cured fish in the Wick Herring Market". A subject which must have been of paramount interest at a time when Wick was one of the most important herring fishing centres in Northern Europe.

Papers were also given in due course on such subjects as "Reminiscences of the County" by JA Grant, this being largely recollections of his boyhood, a theme which struck a responsive chord in the minds of his audience. "Caithness from an Artist's Point of View", was given in 1882 by David Bremner, during his term as President. The word picture he gave of an artist entering the county via Wick Bay on a wet afternoon and further depressing scenes raised considerable discussion and argument later in the evening. "Industries of the North" and "The Geology of Caithness" (the latter by Rev. W Finlayson), show the high standard of subjects chosen and reflects the interest of the members in culture. Mr J Tudor Crowe, who held in turn the offices of secretary, treasurer and president, chose for his subject "The Caithness Dialect", and as late as 1908 he gave an interesting resume of Lockhart's account of Sir Walter Scott's visit to Caithness in 1814. Mr A McGregor, L.D.S., gave a paper on his own subject of "Dentition", surely a very appropriate choice when care of the teeth was not given its present day importance.

Pastor John Horne, well known far beyond the bounds of his native Wick, honoured the Association with a talk on "A Limelight Tour through Caithness", this meeting was held in the Bloomsbury Hall in October 1902, and the occasion was graced by the presence of Mr R L Harmsworth, MP.

No doubt many other papers were delivered at these meetings, and it is regrettable that we have such scanty details, but the foregoing may have shown the general trend.

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