By Jeannie Campbell MBE
In the early years of the 19th century there were several Scottish groups in London. Many of these were benevolent societies, giving their profits to relieve the suffering of destitute Scots in London. Several Scottish cities had similar societies. Many of the gentlemen involved were the landowners and gentry of Scotland; perhaps they felt some guilt or perhaps they missed the irony of the situation as it was their actions in clearing the people from their lands, forcing them to emigrate, move to the cities in search of work or join the army, that had caused the problem.
The Highland Society of London was one of these organisations. Formed on May 28, 1778, its objectives were primarily to try to alleviate the hardships caused to the Highlands and their inhabitants, and to prevent the loss of the unique way of life of the Highlanders. There was a second unwritten, objective: the repeal of the Act of Proscription of 1746 and the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act, also of 1746, with the aim restoring confiscated lands.
In 1781, at a time when those members of the Society who were Members of Parliament were campaigning hard for the repeal of the Acts, the Highland Society held a piping competition at Falkirk, which was situated on the division between Scotland’s Highlands and Lowlands. Since then, the Society has continued to support many piping competitions in Scotland and it still presents the Gold Medals at the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting each year.
In 1815, the Highland Society of London founded the Caledonian Asylum to provide a home and education for Scottish children in London and those who had been orphaned in the Napoleonic Wars. The first Asylum was at 16 Cross Street in Hatton Garden, London from December 1819 until 1828 when it relocated to Copenhagen Fields, Islington.
In May 1825 a Grand Caledonian Fête was held in aid of the Asylum to which many members of the nobility and the Royal Family attended. The Fête included a ball at which in the evening a piper played, leading a parade of 46 boys from the school. The annual Caledonian Balls in aid of the Asylum continued for many years and were reported in detail in the newspapers.
Another event in the summer of 1825 was held at which “the Proprietors have engaged Mr Gow and his band; Mr Clark, the celebrated Piper; and Mr Farrell for the Union Pipes; who will play during the evening numerous National Airs. An entirely new Highland Ballet will be performed, with various other Novelties appropriate to the character of the Country. To conclude with a Grand Display of Fire Works and Ascent. Full particulars in due time.”
“Mr Clark” was George Clark or Clarke who was born at Tongue. He served with the North Lowland Fencible Regiment then in 1800 became Pipe Major of the 71st Regiment. He was at the Battle of Vimiera on August 21, 1808 and although wounded badly in the leg he continued to play. He afterwards became piper to the Highland Society of London. The Society later awarded him a bagpipe and a Gold Medal for his conduct at Vimiera. He was the subject of several prints, engravings and paintings. He died in 1851.
Another early London based Scottish society was The Club of True Highlanders, a benevolent ‘Caledonian Society’ founded in London around 1817. Throughout the century, the Club organised regular meetings, an annual ball, a St. Andrew’s dinner, sports, social evenings and, in the 1860s and 1870s, Highland Games.
William MacBeth, (c1781-1853), was a blind piper and pipe maker from Helmsdale, Sutherland According to his obituary, he was a member of the Club from 1810 to 1817 and always known by the cognomen ‘Mr MacBeth, the celebrated Highland Piper’. His obituary noted: “Since that time he visited London almost once every summer, and always finished his metropolitan visit by giving a full state-dress Highland ball, where, not only a large assemblage of ladies and gentlemen would convene, but often some of the nobility, such was the respect shown to him. The last of these balls was held in May 1851, which ended Mr MacBeth’s visits to London.”
In August 1830 there were highland sports at Blackheath near Greenwich, organised by the Club. According to reports the participants, enjoyed the “manly game of Cammanachd from noon until four o’clock ‘when the party retired from the well contested field to the sound of the spirit stirring music of Clarke, the celebrated Vimeira piper, followed by Lochaber axe bearers and spearmen of the various clans and preceded by the flags and banners peculiar to each.” The Club held similar gatherings for many years.
In April 1837, after reports of famine in the Highlands and islands, the Club held a ball in aid of “funds for the relief of their distressed countrymen”. A good sum was realised towards the benevolent object they had in view.
The annual balls, gatherings and shinty matches organised by the Club continued in much the same form throughout the 1830s and 1840s with several reports of the sports and the annual balls appearing in the newspapers.