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The Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne
Chapter XI


Society's character changes - Formation of The Melbourne Scots - Deaths of A. G. Steven, poet, and J. Center, champion piper - Medal for Scotch College - Society Receives Royal Charter - Oath of Allegiance introduced, 1921-Society acquires premises in Russell Street - Prime Minister Bruce performs opening ceremony.

THE years following the war of 1914-18 were a distinctly significant period in the history of Melbourne's Caledonian Society. Progress and reverses mingled, but in each year the brighter developments predominated.

Necessarily, the Queen's Walk enterprise, with its introduction of the social club atmosphere, had changed the character of the Society to some extent, and through this and other causes a number of defections occurred. So it came to pass that, in October of 1919, some eight or nine men formed themselves into a new group under the title of The Melbourne Scots. James Dyer was the first president and among the foundation members, curiously enough, were Dr. Taylor Downie (who had been President of the Caledonian Society when the change to Queen's Walk occurred), and a former Secretary of the Society, Hector MacLennan.

On the other hand, the Caledonians enrolled new members of quality from time to time-including His Excellency Lord Stonehaven as Patron and, with leadership that was in general sage and resourceful, the Society continued to prosper.

A. S. Heriot, a shipping man from Inverness-his name remains today upon a handsome shield which was presented in 1921 for bowling competitions under the Society's auspices-succeeded Robert Buchanan as President in 1919. He began well by having as his St Andrew's Dinner guests the Lieut.-Governor (Sir William Irvine), Lord Mayor Aitken, Rear-Admiral Grant, and Brigadier-General H. W. Lloyd; and during the rest of his year of office he carried through, in able fashion, many other social enterprises.

John Glen Currie, who succeeded to the Presidency in 1920, was another well-known City business man, and one who had given the Society long and valuable service. He in turn was succeeded by Alfred Peters, a physical culturist of impressive presence and considerable persuasive powers. Gregor Wood, the renowned singer, opposed Peters when lie stood for re-election in 1922, but Peters gained a second term, after which he gave place to that sturdy Scot of the printing trade, James Thomson Picken.

W. D. Leckie continued as Secretary. A sharp difference which he had in 1919 with W. H. Skinner, then President of the Scottish Union, caused him to resign from office in that body (after six years' service) but his relations with the Caledonians remained unimpaired.

Treasurers of the time did not have the Secretary's staying powers. When J. H. McConnell enlisted in 1916 his place was taken by a military man, Major W. J. McKirdy, but he unfortunately died in 1919. Robert Shand then occupied the office for a couple of years, and after him in quick succession came R. Shaw and H. C. Anderson.

Meanwhile, there joined the Society one who was later to serve for a considerable period as Treasurer and to render the Society valuable service in other ways: Edward Singleton McPhee. He and Jim Yorston are the only two "modern" officers who were on the Council in 1923; they (as well as George Dickson ) were elected to office in August of that year. The only present-day member who preceded them on the Council is George J. Scott (elected 1920), who is now an honorary member.

Serious losses to the Council in the early 1920's were those of Professor Wallace and Dr. Alexander Steven, both of whom had served the Society well but could not find time to continue. Dr. Steven, in addition, was worried by the illness of his son, Alexander Gordon Steven, and that gifted young poet died soon afterwards (1923). He is represented today by a bronze bust in the Melbourne Public Library.

A grave loss to Scottish circles generally, in the same period, was caused by the death of the brilliant piper James Center, who was credited with having won more than 2000 prizes. A benefit concert given by the Society for his widow produced a substantial profit.

Concerts, smoke socials, bay picnics (some by moonlight), house-boats in Henley Regatta, and a series of lectures all helped to keep members in good heart. The Caledonian Choir, alas, had faded out (leaving the field to an Essendon Choir) but the Society was doing well in other fields of music-it was sponsoring a Boys' Pipe Band under George Dickson, was using the Collingwood Pipe Band semi-officially, and was keeping in touch with Charles Herschell's pet hobby, the Kilties Brass Band.

A cheery "smoke-oh", held in 1920, had for its special object the honouring of those plucky airmen, Parer and McIntosh.

The national character of the Society found emphasis, too, in work with the New Settlers' League; in the establishing of a strong post to greet the Prince of Wales; in the providing of a championship medal each year for competition at Scotch College, and in the conducting of national essay competitions in schools and colleges.

Carrying its loyal impulses into domestic matters, the Society adopted in 1921 an Oath of Allegiance, which both old and new members were required to sign.

Only one exception was made: that was in the case of the tough old Jacobite, Theodore Napier, whose loyalty was undoubted but whose venerable head was still full of Bannockburn and Bonnie Prince Charles. Mr Napier, after being a member for the record term of 37 years, resigned rather than sign the Oath of Allegiance, and when the Council declined to let him go he showed his appreciation by making handsome donations to various Scottish charities. Moreover, at about the same time he presented the suburb of Essendon with the area of ten acres that is now known as Napier Park, and he showed his sagacity by stipulating that none of the native trees on the spot was to be destroyed.

It may be added, by the way, that Mr Napier gave sound financial support to the Boys' Pipe Band of the Society-but with the stipulation that the lads should wear the Royal Stuart tartan. On the same point, a story is told to the effect that when the youthful band once visited Mr Napier's home, on Bannockburn Day, the word went round that the host did not want to hear any "Campbell music", upon which George Dickson promptly scrapped the title of the band's chief melody, the Miss Campbell polka, and made it on the spot "the Miss Stuart polka".

Now a signal honour came to the Society: it received the Royal Charter.

This matter was first raised, in March of 1920, by Alfred Peters, and less than a year later (February 1921) advice was received that His Majesty King George V had been graciously pleased to grant the Society's petition. Council, of course, expressed warm pleasure at the development and carried a vote of thanks to Mr Peters for his part in the movement.

Possibly it was because of the new dignity that had come to the Society that the Council, at this stage, took frequent occasion to discipline members. Setting its face against misbehaviour of any kind, it sat in judgment upon every member who was alleged to have offended, and either reproved or expelled those found guilty. In one instance the Council actually demanded (by a majority decision) the resignation of one of its own number, and when an appeal was lodged it was rejected.

Obviously, the Council of the day was resolved to maintain decorum among both members and officers.

One of the first of kindred societies to congratulate the Royal Caledonian Society on its new title was the composite body with which it had been so long closely associated, namely, the Scottish Union. That organization was still going along pretty well. When Willie Leckie resigned the secretaryship in 1919 the office was filled for a couple of years by Piper Louis McLennan, and he was succeeded by Archibald Stirling Whyte, a dynamic and resourceful newspaper man. Meanwhile-from 1919-the Presidents had been Dugald Rankin (Colac), the Hon. Donald Mackinnon (Prahran), Alex. McKenzie (Ballarat), and Senator William Plain (Geelong); and now (1923) one of the Royal Caledonian Society's own officers, J. S. Yorston, held the Union's chief office.

(Here a few words may be interpolated about that sturdy Scot, "Bill" Plain. Son of a Scottish farm-manager who was trying to raise a large family on 1 a week, he had a "fortune" of precisely 1s. 6d. when he landed in Australia; but, by working hard as a farmer in the north and west of Victoria, he became well established in time and graduated from the State Parliament-in which he was a Ministerto the Senate. Also, he was the father of ten children at the time when, in 1922, he became President of the Scottish Union.)

Soon after acquiring the Royal Charter the Caledonians gave their friends further cause for congratulation. They did so by purchasing the freehold of a City property.

Although accommodation at Queen's Walk was reasonable, the ambition to own premises remained keen, and so when the matter was raised in 1919 by W. F. Gall, a member of the Council, support was readily given. Discussion developed into a proposal to buy a building in Flinders Street (price 40,000) and to this end the Society called into conference the Yorick, University, Masonic and Celtic Clubs. After one meeting the project was abandoned as unworkable.

Going on alone, the Society looked at premises at 54 Russell Street, and in November 1921 it was decided, on the initiative of W. F. Gall and W. McGregor, to purchase the property for 10,500 and to finance the undertaking by debentures. The voting on the motion was ten to two.

J. T. Picken at once headed the debenture list for the Council with 100 and in due course members generally subscribed well. One invested the whole amount of his war gratuity: 130. Old Theodore Napier rallied to the cause to the extent of 500.

Unfortunately, trouble developed in the following year between President Peters and the councillor who had done most towards obtaining the new property, W. F. Gall. So serious was the difference that Gall sought the President's resignation, and when that wasn't forthcoming he himself resigned.

Precisely eleven years after entering the Queen's Walk premises the Society gave those rooms a Caledonians' farewell and migrated to Russell Street, where, on 18th June 1923, the new premises were officially opened by the Prime Minister, Mr S. M. Bruce (now Viscount Bruce) in the presence of a large gathering.

Mr Bruce said in his speech that he had the greatest respect for Scots, who were invariably keen, not mean, and were possessed of dogged determination, energy, and ability.

After various other speakers, including Messrs. Groom and Bowden, M's.P., had given addresses, the Prime Minister opened what he termed "this fine commodious building" with a gold key presented by the Society, and the function ended with James Picken's reading of verses by Allan McNeilage.

Here are some of the McNeilage lines:

Noo ye have gotten a hoose o' yer ain
Hearty good wishes tae send ye I'm fain;
May ye live lang tae bide here, in peace an' content,
Wi' nae landlord tae fash ye each week for the rent.

Allan's point was well taken: the Royal Caledonian Society had, indeed, "sacked" its landlord.


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