130 YEARS OF HISTORY – THE CAPE TOWN CALEDONIAN SOCIETY
The founding of the Society owes its origin to a rather tragic event – the sinking of the steam ship, RMS Teuton, off Quoin Point between Danger Point and Cape Agulhas. She sailed from Plymouth in England and 23 days later arrived in Cape Town on August 29th 1881. After leaving Table Bay on Tuesday August 30th on the way to Natal she struck an object off Quoin Point at about 7.30pm. Initially it was thought that the damage wasn’t serious but by 10.30 she was bow down and she sank shortly after. A survivor, Mr Kromm, one of the passengers, said, “She went down like a streak of lightning…I would not have thought it possible that a vessel could go down so quickly.” Probably one of the most comprehensive records of the disaster is contained in the book, “Tales of Shipwrecks at the Cape of Storms” written and researched by one of our Members, Gabriel Athiros, together with John Gribble. The records of survivors and those lost vary in number but out of some 226 souls on board only 36 survived, one of them being a young Scots lass of 15, Miss Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ross, the only female survivor.
She was travelling 3rd class with her family. Later, she said, “I was in the cabin with my mother and father, getting the baby to sleep, when I heard a dull grating sound. Soon after that we were all called up to the deck, when the Doctor and Chief Officer told us there was no immediate danger and that we were to be calm as, if the ship would sink, the boat would save us. I and my mother and father were in the boat when I saw the ship sinking and we were capsized. I caught hold of a spar and afterwards of a barrel, and after floating a little was taken into the carpenter’s boat. A great number of spars were floating about and I hope papa is saved, he was a powerful swimmer.” Sadly this was not to be. She was the only one of the family to survive. She was taken in by the Minister and Elders of the St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Cape Town and cared for by Mr and Mrs Runciman. She was later educated as a teacher.
It was soon realised that there was a need for Scots in Cape Town to come together for fellowship, to keep alive the culture and heritage of Scotland and to help fellow Scots in distress in order to, “Give aid and pecuniary help to those who require it under distressing circumstances.” The Society was constituted and at the first meeting of its Council on 6th October 1881 it was decided that they would hold a St Andrews Nicht Celebration in November that year to raise funds. A Burn’s Nicht Supper was held in February 1882 when nearly the whole Scottish community in Cape Town attended – though only the men. Until they could become Members in their own right, women had to watch the men enjoying the celebrations from the balconies around the venue.
The first ‘Highland Games and Sports Gathering’ in Cape Town was held at Easter of the same year. A Dramatic Society was also formed and several performances were given throughout that year and they continued to give many more performances over the years but sadly this is no longer one of the Society’s activities, although some may dispute that.
It’s interesting to note that there were some impressive members on the first Council: The Speaker of the House of Assembly, The Astronomer-Royal at the Observatory, an Attorney and well-known and respected Businessmen of the time. The first Chief of the Society was Captain James Murrison, a self-made man who ran a shipping line between Cape Town and Durban. Eventually settling in Cape Town he became a prominent citizen and was a member of the Legislative Council. It was only in 1906, during Sir George Buchannan’s “enlightened” term office as Chief that the ladies were “permitted” to become Associate Members of the Society – no longer having to sit in the balconies! It’s also recorded that, in 1910, one of the Members of the Society, a certain Captain Crawford, was very conveniently the Commissioner of Police. What is not recorded is why it was so convenient to have him as a Member!
The many public leaders and opinion makers in Cape Town, that have been elected Chief of the Society in the past, clearly reflect the honour it is to have the mantle of Chief bestowed upon one. Among notable Chiefs of the Society were: Mr W Duncan Baxter who endowed the University of Cape Town’s Women’s Residence, Baxter Hall, as well as the well-known Baxter Theatre, and Dr Bennie Hewat, a noted educationalist whose name was given to the Hewat Teachers Training College and to the Main Hall at what was then the Cape Town Technikon and is now known as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
Despite two World Wars, during which the Society went into recess as many of the Members fought and died for the cause of freedom, the Society survived and was resurrected after each one with great enthusiasm. We remember those Members who died in any war on Remembrance Sunday flowers are laid, on behalf of the Society, together with all the wreaths laid by the Army, Navy and Air forces together with other organisations at the Cenotaph.
The post World War II years were very interesting in Cape Town as hundreds of immigrants were flooding into the City. Many were Scots, some on their way north to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and even Kenya. They arrived weekly on the liners of the Union Castle Line and the ships also brought the latest British magazines, including popular Scottish publications, the contents of which were devoured by Members of the Society, if they could buy a copy before they were all sold out.
Nowadays the Society continues to hold Highland Gatherings every three years (In the intervening years Highland Gatherings are held in Port Elizabeth and East London) as well as annual St Andrew’s Nicht and Burns Nicht Dinners. The ‘Address to the Haggis’ by Robbie Burns is always a popular highlight of the evening during Burns Nicht. There are many other interesting events, functions and fund raising activities arranged for Members of the Society and their friends. We’ve developed very close ties with the Cape Town Caledonian Pipe Band, the Scottish Country Dancing fraternity as well as Highland and Irish Dancing Schools all of which join us tonight to celebrate the 130th Anniversary. The Cape Garrison Artillery Regiment with their Head Quarters at Fort Wynyard and with close ties with the Castle of Good Hope have embraced the Society as part of their ‘family’ and often provide facilities and venues for our functions. Membership of the Society has broadened somewhat and we now welcome, not only those of Scottish descent but, as Associate Members, those who simply have a love of, and embrace, Scottish tradition, culture, customs and heritage. We keep in touch with Kindred Societies throughout Southern Africa and, indeed, the World. There is friendly rivalry among the Celtic traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Breton in France and we always endeavour to build close relationships with all, while also embracing the land we live in, South Africa.
And so now, 130 years later the Society is still flourishing and it was so appropriate that we celebrated this anniversary of its founding on St Andrew’s Nicht 2011, 130 years after the first St Andrew’s Nicht in 1881. Let’s raise a dram, or two, to the next 130 years.
The Council is elected at the Annual General Meeting and usually consists of a Chief, Lady President, secretary, treasurer, four chieftains and eight councillors, each serving a term of two years and retiring in rotation in order to ensure continuity. Council meets once a month to conduct the business of the Society.
The funds consist of current accounts used for routine income and expenditure and special trust funds, the interest from these being used for designated projects. Again, details of these are in the Constitution and at the AGM the treasurer reports on the financial affairs of the Society.
In 1922 the Federated Caledonian Society of Southern Africa, consisting of the provinces of Cape, Gauteng (previously Transvaal), Natal, Orange Free State and Northern Cape, and Zimbabwe (previously Rhodesia). Each province takes it in turn to organise the annual Congress with three delegates from each province attending to discuss the business of the Federation and to install the newly elected Federation Chief and Lady President and the five Provincial Chieftains and Ladies President