The Beginnings of Winnipeg Burns Club
THIS article was first published in January 1923 in the
Canadian Scotsman (a newspaper under the patronage of the Scottish
Organisation of the Dominion of Canada), and it seems quite appropriate,
in the year of the first Canadian Conference, to look back to the origins
seventy years ago of one of Canada's most active clubs, No. 197. Thanks
are due to the Club Secretary, Mr. E. R. Evans, for a sight of this
being in the company of a few natives from 'the wee bit land far ayont the
sea' the subject of the Winnipeg Burns Club came up for discussion, and
the statement was made that a certain gentleman was the founder of this
It so happened that there
was present one who was conversant with the full details, and the writer
was requested to give the true story of the formation.
Before giving this
information it might be interesting to the readers of the Canadian
Scotsman to have the story of a Burns supper that was held previous to the
founding of the Winnipeg Bums club.
In the year 1907 a few
Scotsmen employed in the C. P. R. shops at Weston got the Bums fever and
at a meeting it was resolved that they celebrate January 25th in a
suitable manner. A committee was appointed to make full arrangement, but
the management of every hotel and other suitable place sidestepped the
proposition. This Burns supper proposition was something that they had
never heard of and, unlike Steve Brodie, they were not taking any chances.
However, after weary days the management of Noble's hotel agreed, and it
was arranged that the supper would be on the table at 8 o'clock, and all
the guests were there right on time. Owing, as the management explained,
to unforeseen circumstances, the supper was delayed until 10.30, with the
result that the bar of the hotel did a land sale business and the admirers
of the poet Burns were in fine fettle for the supper.
Everything went along in
good shape. Lieut.-Col. Grassie proposed the 'Immortal Memory' but the
climax was reached when the gentleman who was entrusted with the reply to
the toast of 'The Land We Left' rose to make his oration. It is the usual
routine to praise and embellish this toast, but the guest broke virgin
soil, and was foolhardy enough to tell a gathering of Scotsmen who had
been imbibing of the cup that cheers that Scotland as a country was done;
it was no good, and that was the reason they were in Canada. Needless to
say, the fat was in the fire, and it looked as if a hurry call would have
to be sent into James St. but order was restored after it was explained
that the speaker was only referring to that part of Scotland he was
acquainted with. Altogether, the supper came in the same category as the
story that is told of the elder of the kirk who was helped out of the
ditch and, on being asked where he had been, remarked that he did not know
whether he had been among those present at a funeral or a wedding but,
anyhow, it was a grand success.
Next fall the same band of
what might be termed adventurers had another meeting and arranged to form
a Bums club. A telephone directory was obtained and all subscribers with a
name which was reckoned Scotch received a postcard requesting their
presence at a meeting in the St. Andrew's Society rooms, which at that
time were located on Garry St. just south of Portage Ave. There was an
exceedingly poor turnout, only the faithful few being present, and but for
the fact of the Caithness Association holding a meeting in the rooms at
the same time it is questionable whether the Burns club would have
materialised at that time. However, with the assistance of the Caithness,
who are the pioneers of the county associations in Winnipeg, a club was
formed that night, the writer being appointed secretary and treasurer.
Manitoba Hall was secured for the supper, to be held Jan. 25th 1908 - a
Saturday night-and a guarantee given to Mr. Zimmerman that 100 would be
present. Dr. C. W. Gordon ('Ralph Connor') agreed to propose the 'Immortal
Memory', and the late Dr. Dunbar was the chairman.
It was not plain sailing.
We bumped into rocks and met with many rebuffs and refusals from men with
very Scotch names.
On the morning of the
supper at 11:30 there was a grand total of 17 tickets sold, and as we had
guaranteed 100 to the purveyor things did not have a rosy hue. I
interviewed Mr. Zimmerman at 12 o'clock and explained conditions, but
naturally he had made all arrangements and expected to be paid. The writer
then saw Mr. J. T. Speirs and the late Mr. Haliburton, who gave evidence
of their sincerity by giving their names, covering all expenses that would
be incurred. Hats off to our friends! In company with a Mr. W. B. Fraser
we canvassed all afternoon, and at 7 o'clock on Saturday evening, Jan.
25th, 1908, 108 persons were present at the first supper ever held under
the auspices of the Winnipeg Burns club, and a standard was set that night
that has always been the aim of the club to endeavour to eclipse. You will
understand this supper was held B.P., and the refreshment part was very
important. Thanks to Messrs. Graham and Kidd this end was carefully looked
after by a generous donation, The old Crimean veteran, John Mackay, led
the parade of the 'haggis' and we were fortunate in having the services of
Mr. Robert Meikle, the eminent singer, who had just arrived in Winnipeg,
who sang 'A Man's a Man for a' That' in a manner which has not been
excelled in the City of Winnipeg.
I could give further
details on the founding of this club, but I consider that I have given
enough of the inside history. The following gentlemen composed the
committee: Dr. W. A. Dunbar, W. Bruce, J. K. Fraser, D. M. Telford, R.
Kirke, W. B. Fraser, Arch Speirs, D. Mawson, Alex. Smith, W. Dodds and
lames Gilchrist, Sec.-Treas.
The first anniversary
celebration of the birthday of Robert Bums, under the auspices of Winnipeg
Bums club was held in Manitoba Hall, Portage Ave., on Saturday night, Jan.
The address of the evening
(according to routine, 'The Immortal Memory of Bums') was delivered by Dr.
C. W. Gordon (Ralph Connor).
That great, old, leal and
true Scot, the late Dr. W. A. Dunbar, president of the Burns club, was in
The tickets cost $1.50,
just about the same as today-but -well-that was the price.
There was a large
attendance and the proceedings passed off with the utmost bonhomie
according to Johnnie McConnachie.
On this occasion Dr. Gordon
made one of the best declarations on Burns that has ever been heard in
He referred to one of the
poet's masterpieces, 'The Cottar's Saturday Night,' and said: 'If Burns
had written nothing else than that, it would be fitting for Scotsmen to
gather once a year wherever they might be, to honour the poet and to
perpetuate his memory.'
The average Scotsman is
sentimental, if nothing else, and Mr. William. Grassie, in replying to
'Scotland,' struck the proper key. 'If his first associations formed amid
the scenes of Scottish rural life, as his early years had been spent, and
time passed and the years accumulated upon his head, his thoughts would
turn instinctively to his native land-in the words of Burns, 'Time but the
impression deeper makes, as streams their channels deeper wear.'
Our own (the late) J. P.
Robertson, spoke in a reminiscent strain in proposing 'Canada', and
incidentally recalled the interesting fact that in the year Robert Burns
was born- 1759- Fraser's Highlanders were helping to place the freest flag
in the world over Canada.
Dr. Bryce, in replying,
spoke of Scotland's great interest in Canada, and of the great welcome
that waited the Scotsmen coming here; in the Hudson's Bay company,
although it was an English company, there were 51 per cent of its officers
Scotsmen-there was room for all who wanted to come, and, indeed, for the
entire population of Scotland. Dr. Bryce was toasted after he finished
speaking, and was treated to some cheering and the singing of 'Will Ye No'
Come Back Again?'.
The toast of 'Kindred
Societies' was replied to by Thomas Fairbairn. He hoped it would not be
long until there was a regular Scottish hall established in Winnipeg, and
also a monument to Robert Burns. Another thing he hoped soon to see was
the organisation of a Highland regiment in the city.
Major Macdonald, D.S.O., in
a short speech, and D. Mackay, an old 'Forty-two' veteran, said they hoped
to see the day when the kilts would be as familiar in Winnipeg as the
black uniforms of the bold Ninetieth.
The musical program had to
be somewhat cut down owing, as the late Dr. Dunbar said, to the 'alleged
wholesale desecration of the Sabbath day, for it would hardly do for
Scotsmen to break the law',
The musical program
included: J. B. Guthrie, David McCulloch, Alex Smith William Curr, Thomas
Shankie, wií his fiddle, and Robert T. Meikle, who got a flattering
reception on singing 'A Man's a Man for a' That'.
Just another item that
comes to mind Lachie Collie headed the haggis parade with honours, but
when auld John Mackay, the veteran, with drawn sword, attempted to cut the
bag, it wadna cut and somebody brocht a ham knife.
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