A Short History of the Wolverhampton & District Caledonian Society
given by Mr Willie Robertson on the occasion of its Golden Anniversary 1988.
A talk was given by Mr. Willie Robertson, a founder member of the Society, on celebrating their 50th Year at the Mount Hotel, Tettenhall, on Friday 22nd April 1988. He gave a history of the Society and some extracts are as follows:
"Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen; never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sharing with you the 50th Anniversary of our Society. There is, without doubt, a great sense of achievement in reaching this Golden date. Before going further, however, I would like to thank you, Madam President, and the committee for your kindness in inviting me to be your guest this evening.
Our Secretary, Laurie Craigie, writes a very tactful letter and in the one I received he opened with a glowing account of what was going to be done to celebrate – ‘so do come and join us, and have a good evening’. But, as I read on, it was to find that the sting was in the tail! ‘After the meal, possibly a few words about the Society!’ I hope I don’t let you down, since for such an occasion, it is perhaps permissible to go back in history.
It was in the early part of 1938 that four Scots gathered together in the consulting rooms of Mr. Campbell Orr, the well know eye surgeon. Their names were: Campbell Orr, Willie Allan, David Brown and Willie Robertson. There has been various letters in the Press advocating the formation of a Scottish Society and we got together to do something about it.
Each of us tabled the names of Scots known to us in the area and a letter was drafted asking them to attend a meeting to be held in the Windsor Rooms, Queen Square, on 18th March 1938.
It was an enthusiastic meeting, over 100 being present and with the appointing of officials and committee the Society took shape.
Our first President was Mr. J. L. Swanson, a native of Edinburgh who lived at Wergs Hall. I would like to say at this point that Mr. and Mrs. Swanson put in a tremendous amount of work to help in getting the Society going.
Other officials elected were;
Vice-President ............ Mr. Campbell Orr
Secretary .................. Mr. W. R. Robertson
Treasurer .................. Mr. David Brown
The net was cast fairly wide for the formation of a committee, later to meet under the chairmanship of Mr. Willie Allan, and in addition to the seven representatives from Wolverhampton, there were elected members from Dudley, Bilston, Willenhall, Bloxwich, Albrighton and Codsall.
We got going with the usual committee work of forming Constitution and Rules and putting a syllabus together. We also became affiliated to the Burns Federation, Edinburgh – to be given No.553 – and found that, for a newly formed Society, this was a good move as were kept informed about the availability of speakers.
Our inaugural meeting took the form of a social evening held in the Victoria Hotel on May 27th and this was followed later in the year by a Halloween Dance in the same venue. Then followed the meeting on St. Andrew’s Night, addressed by the Scottish author, Mr. A.A. Thomson, his subject being, appropriately enough, ‘In Praise of Scotland’. He agreed to his paper being printed and this was distributed in booklet form to members of the Society.
The first Burns’ Dinner – 152 present – was held in January 1939 in the Victoria Hotel and the manageress, Miss Taylor, did everything she could to make the dinner a success. And it was. The principal speaker was Archibald Crawford, K.C., M.A., LLB., and the singer was a Glasgow lady, Miss Agnes Leitch, a member of the Carl Rosa Opera Company. In giving the toast to the Immortal Memory it is difficult not to refer to the ubiquitous Scot to be found in most corners of the globe, and Mr. Crawford told us of one late Saturday evening in a New York Hotel when he head a loud voice in the corridor – “How did Queens and Hearts get on the day!”
A month later we welcomed Mr. Ninian MacWhannel, a Glasgow city councillor, who gave us an address on “Oor Mither Tongue”.
We went ahead with the drawing up of a full syllabus for 1939/40, with speakers booked for the principal dates. But war broke out in September 1939.
History tells us that when World War I broke out in August 1914, Earl Grey of Falloden, the then Foreign Secretary, said: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe.’. It would appear that that could have been said with even greater emphasis in 1939, particularly when we remember the 5 years of blackout conditions that we had to come to terms with. Of necessity our complete programme had to be scrapped and we carried on with easily arranged meetings such as whist drives, social evenings etc. But the leading question ‘Do we carry on or do we disband?’ was in the minds of most members. The war effort was paramount and yet there was a feeling that to offset the grimness of those days, some attention should be paid to the other side of our lives.
We did not reach the point of folding up completely and as it happened, circumstances more or less pointed the way forward. In 1941 a small army of 300 workers was transferred from Scotland to the Midlands to assist in the war effort and this was an impelling reason why we kept going. For those living in the Wolverhampton area a hostel and canteen were put at their disposal in Sidney House, Darlington Street and to look after their interests in every way the Rev. H.S. Maclean from Coldstream was appointed as Chaplain. Mr. Maclean was invited to sit in at our committee meetings so that whatever functions were arranged, these would be suitable, not only for members, but to include the Scottish contingent billeted locally. These arrangements worked well.
To keep the national spirit alive a group of enthusiastic members interested in drama formed the Caledonian Players and in no time they produced some very acceptable one-act plays. In giving you the names of these plays, I am very sure there are quite a number here tonight who will recollect the parts they themselves played:
‘Little Glass Houses’, ‘Campbell of Kilmhor’ (a tragedy of the ’45), ‘Courtin’ Christina’, ‘Cream of Tartar’, ‘Granny’s a Hundred’, ‘Storm in the Manse’. Production of the last named did not go unnoticed in the local Press and special mention was made of the portrayal of the Rev, Nicholas Urquhart by Dr. R.P. Walker.
These plays were only a beginning and in February 1950 the Players produced ‘Mary Rose’ by J.M. Barrie in the premises of the Y.W.C.A., Penn Road. Not content with these efforts, the Wulfrun Hall was booked for two nights in May of the same year for the production of ‘The Lady from Edinburgh’. There are many names which come to my mind when writing about these plays but there are two which I feel I ought to be mentioned – Mrs. Cowan Glegg for her unflagging enthusiasm in rehearsing, and Mr. Angus Stewart for this work in stage managing in all its aspects.
Have we members in the Society today interested enough to revive dramatics?
Compared with other Scottish Societies, I think we have been particularly fortunate in that our members have been able to avail themselves of tuition offered by several dancing classes – begun in 1942/43 – in mastering not only the routine of a dance but also the footwork involved. We are indebted to many people for giving their time and expertise and to their great credit these dancing classes still go on, (at present under the guidance of Mrs. Helen Moore, Mrs. Irene Morrison, and Mrs. R.P. Walker).
The 7th A.G.M. of the Society was held on 10th May 1945, two days after the official ending of World War II. Dr. Margaret Mackay was in the Chair and she not only took note of the auspicious occasion, but also expressed the hope that the Society would rise above the difficulties of the War Years and continue to flourish. And so it has proved, because with the holding of the Burns’ Dinner in January 1946, our normal activities have since kept faith with the well known dates on the Scottish calendar. And it says a great deal for the energies and outlook of successive Presidents, Secretaries and committee members that we have come to this Golden date of undoubted achievement.
Might I put in a plea at this stage for one or possibly two evenings to be devoted to Scottish literature in the next syllabus? A little organization would produce the reading of a play by J.M. Barrie or James Bridie and any one in possession of Dean Ramsay’s book on Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character will certainly not want for material.
This suggestion may well be unpopular with the younger members of the Society but I would remind them of what R.L Stevenson says in his book ‘Weir of Hermiston’ – ‘For this is the mark of the Scot of all classes; that he stands in an attitude to the past, unthinkable to an Englishman, and remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad: and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation.’
It is difficult to realize that, through thick and thin, our Society has been in existence for 50 years, but there comes to mind a quotation from our National Poet – ‘Facts are chiels that winna ding.’