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The Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne
Chapter I


In the Roaring 'Fifties - A Useful Tombstone - Five Caledonian Societies before 1860 - Scottish Explorers - Getting home before dark - No "English" Queen - Donald Kennedy as first Chief  - Strong Committees.

ALTHOUGH it has long been supposed that the Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne had its genesis in 1884, we know now that the roots of our Society extend back to 1858.

The years between cover almost the entire span of Victoria's life as a Colony and State. In 1858 it was only twenty-three years since John Batman had discovered what he regarded as "the place for a village". It was barely seven years since the Colony had been inaugurated. It was less than four years after the historic affair at Eureka. And, for another picturesque reflection, it was a couple of years before Burke and Wills started out on their tragic expedition.

Knowledge regarding the original formation of a Caledonian Society in Melbourne was gained through an inscription on a weather-worn tombstone in a country cemetery. Actually, the inscription had nothing to do with Scottish affairs - it simply commemorated an old-time murder. The point is, while a search was being made for the story of that tragedy, in the files of the Melbourne Herald, attention was arrested by a lengthy report of the founding a Scottish society. The date of the meeting in question, held in the Mechanics' Institution, Melbourne, was 6th April 1858.

Here is the text of the main resolution adopted by the meeting, which was attended by about one hundred persons:

It is expedient that a national association, to be called the Caledonian Society of Victoria, and consisting of members of Scottish birth or parentage, be now formed, and that the rules now read be the fundamental rules of the Society.

With the adoption of that motion Melbourne's Caledonian Society was established. It took its place with Geelong's Commun Na Fienne (now unfortunately extinct) which was formed in 1856, and with Maryborough's Highland Society (still flourishing) which was founded in 1857. Also, it joined those bodies in setting an example to Ballarat, where a Caledonian Society was formed later in 1858, and Bendigo, which acquired a Caledonian Society in 1859.

There you have the names of the five chief Scottish societies in the early days of Victoria. But, as a notable fact, they were not the first of their kind, for records indicate that two or three Scottish organizations were formed in Melbourne from as early as 1846. One, a St Andrew's Society, had died in infancy, the chief complication being a dispute about whether Englishmen and Irishmen should be admitted to the dinners.

Why, it may be asked, did Victoria chance to be the scene of such an upsurge of Scottish societies thus early in its history?

The explanation appears to be that, aside from the fact that Scots have always been apt to "get together" on the slightest provocation, Victoria had the luck to receive in its youth bulk supplies of folk from the land of Burns, and that not only during the gold era but in earlier days. For example, the first immigrant ship to arrive in Port Phillip, on 27th October 1839, was the David Clark from Greenock, and among its passengers were men named McArthur, McFarlane, Menzies, Stewart, Macdonald, Mathieson, McLachlan, McCool, and Mackenzie. [On 28th-29th October 1939 approximately 300 descendants of the David Clark migrants celebrated in Melbourne the centenary of their ancestors' arrival. It was a novel and memorable celebration.]

All this, indeed, was appropriate enough, for Scots of the exploratory period had been leading figures in charting the region that was to be given the name of Queen Victoria.

It was a Grant and a Murray who, in the good ship Lady Nelson, worked along the Victorian coast in 1801-02, and it was Grant who first gazed upon the "most noble sheet of water" that was to become known as Port Phillip. It was Thomas Mitchell, a native of Stirlingshire, who figured as the chief pioneering explorer of the area which he termed "Australia Felix". And, for another example, it was Angus McMillan, from the Isle of Skye, who discovered the beautiful province now known as Gippsland, but which he termed "Caledonia Australis".

Possibly Mitchell's appreciation of the Port Phillip district was a factor in causing many of his countrymen to set their faces towards Melbourne. At all events, there were considerable numbers of Scots among the pastoralists and business men in Victoria during the formative days, and quite a few of these had seats in the colony's pioneering Parliament.

The mover of the basic motion at the Melbourne Caledonians' meeting, the Hon. T. McCombie, was a member of the Legislative Council. So, too, was the Chairman of the gathering, the Hon. Donald Kennedy. Others present included additional M's.L.C. and a number of members of the youthful Legislative Assembly.

Mr McCombie, in his address to the meeting, suggested that Scots in Australia should do all in their power to advance the interests of their adopted country, but at the same time they should never forget their native land. He himself had been away from Scotland for sixteen years, and in that time he had never had cause to be ashamed of any of his countrymen. They were, indeed, among the most industrious, most independent, and most successful members of the mercantile and agricultural communities. In addition, they were never behindhand in the cause of benevolence, which cause was to be one of the objects of the new Society.

After referring to the high place held by Scots in literature and education, Mr McCombie curtailed his remarks because (and this was probably a sound reason in the Melbourne of the day) he wanted to get home before dark!

Mr John Nimmo seconded the motion. An Ayrshire man who had reached Australia in 1853 (and who was later to be Minister for Public Works), Mr Nimmo pleaded for good-fellowship towards other units of the Empire. All the same, he objected to the over-frequent use of the word "English", particularly in reference to the Queen, the Navy, and the Army: there was no "English" Queen or Navy or Army since the Union. He urged that action be taken to promote Scotland's music, literature, and national games in Victoria, and he expressed pleasure at the fact that no fewer than 200 gentlemen had already tendered their annual subscriptions to the new Society.

Mr James Service (another Ayrshire man, who later became Premier of Victoria) led a discussion on the rules of the Society and then moved for the appointment of the Hon. Donald Kennedy as first Chief and Mr John Macgregor as second Chief. This motion was carried with applause. So, too, was a motion requesting the Governor of the Colony (Sir Henry Barkly) to accept the position of Patron of the Society.

The following members were appointed to the Board of Extraordinary Directors of the Society: J. F. Strachan, James Cowie, Thomas McCombie, George Urquhart, M. Hervey, J. H. Patterson, James Stewart, and Dr Hope (all M's.L.C. ); Dr Thomson, James Service, and Henry Langlands (all M's.L.A.); W. M. Bell, J.P., R. McDougall, J.P., Dal Campbell, Norman Campbell (Registrar-General), Dr McArthur, J.P., Dr Wilkie, and Charles Williamson.

The following members were appointed to the Board of Ordinary Directors: John Dinwoodie, J.P., John Bramwell, John Campbell, John Macgregor, junr., John Grant, John Nimmo, John Sloan, John McMillan, Gordon Cameron, Thomas Mount, Alex. McGregor, Henry Budge, Thomas Alston, H. B. Stevenson, J. F. Dow, Aeneas Gunn, William Glen, James Menzies, Thomas Rae, and Dr W. M. Turnbull.

There, to be sure, was a strong body of Councillors. The Chief was a leading member of the legislative Upper House, and with him were eleven other members of Parliament, together with a sturdy group of men who were all among the leaders of their various professions in Melbourne.

With such a Council, and with an initial membership of 200, the Caledonian Society of Victoria, in that autumn of 1858, seemed to be assured of a lengthy, prosperous, and highly useful period of activity.


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