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The Royal Caledonian Society of Melbourne
Chapter VII


Many Scottish singers appear - "Excellent bioscope pictures" - Foundation of Victorian Scottish Union - George Gibb as first President - J. S. Yorston's long service begins - That word "English" again - Death of George Gibb - New Officers - Andrew Thomson supports immigration.

WHAT a quandary Scottish societies would be in if they lacked, for any length of time, a fair supply W of entertainers! Actually, though, Victoria has always been well off in this regard-the one group seems to have stimulated the other.

So it was at the turn of the century. A Caledonian Brass Band (supported by the Melbourne Society) was in full cry; the Caledonian Choir had discovered fresh vigour, and Scottish singers in plenty were advertising their willingness to appear-they included Misses Maggie McCann, Marguerite Henderson, Elsie Liddelow, Jean Clarkson, Mabel Mattingley, Bessie Pelling, Lillian Adams, Mrs W. E. Oldfield, Rufus Ferguson, and the humorous Ad Cree.

Concerts were, in fact, very much a vogue of the day. That was before the advent of the radio and the motion pictures, although, to be sure, at the annual meeting of the Melbourne Caledonian Society in 1906 members enjoyed seeing some "excellent bioscope pictures".

Sometimes the concerts were of a complimentary nature. One in 1904, for example, was in the nature of a benefit to the talented actress from Edinburgh, Eloise Juno, who had done so well with the dramatic performances of Rob Roy. Another, given later, realized 158 for Maggie McCann, the Scottish-born singer who had charmed many audiences in Australia and who had decided to go abroad.

In addition, the Society filled the Town Hall to overflowing in June of 1905 for a reception to the celebrated Scottish singer Jessie Maclachlan. President Gibb was in especially good form on that occasion, partly no doubt because of the visitor's charm, and partly because Piper Robert Morrison had just produced a new melody, "The George Gibb March". At any rate, the President took Miss Maclachlan on his arm, in gallant style, to the Town Hall stage, and afterwards presented her with the special medal of Society.

That medal, by the way, had been struck by the Society in 1891. Examples had been presented only to Sir Hector Macdonald and some few other special guests before Miss Maclachlan's visit.

Concerts aside, the Society went on with its Hallowe'en Festivals (usually for bairns ) and St Andrew's Dinners. At one dinner of the period guests included the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Cr Pleasance (who said he highly appreciated "the great debt which the City of Melbourne owed to Scotsmen"), Mr W. A. Watt, Mr W. H. Irvine, and Sir John Forrest. At another such function, at which the chief speaker was the Rev. P. J. Murdoch (father of Sir Keith Murdoch), so much oratory developed that the report of the proceedings spilled over nine pages of The Scot.

In view of all this activity, it was not surprising that a suggestion arose for the forming of a federation of Scottish societies. A hint on the point was given in The Scot for April 1904 (it emphasized the need for a committee from various societies to control dancing competitions, etc.), and the Rushworth Caledonian Society, of which James Burt Stewart was Hon. Secretary, promptly took up the matter and called a conference to consider it.

That convention, held at the rooms of the Melbourne Caledonian Society-then at 31 Queen Street-on 2nd September 1904, marked the genesis of the Victorian Scottish Union.

Thirty-six delegates attended the convention - a group photograph shows that Burt Stewart was the only one lacking either whiskers or moustache-and the societies represented were those of Melbourne (Caledonian and Thistle), Geelong, Bendigo, Terang, Rushworth, Noorat, Hamilton, Mansfield, Drouin, Footscray, and Williamstown. George Gibb was elected Chairman and Hector MacLennan Hon. Secretary. The chief outcome of the meeting was a decision, sponsored by Rushworth, for the forming of a Union of Scottish societies, details of the scheme being left to a committee.

Later, delegates were entertained at lunch by Mr Gibb and his fellow-officers, after which (says The Scot), "with cheers for the Chairman and the Melbourne Society, one of the most notable gatherings ever held by Scotsmen south of the Line broke up".

A draft constitution for the new body, formulated by the legal-minded Burt Stewart, was adopted at a committee meeting held at 31 Queen Street on 4th November 1904 and ordered to be presented to a later general meeting. It included recommendations that the name of the new body should be the Victorian Scottish Union, that its aims should be educational and benevolent, and that the date of the establishment of the Union should be fixed by the general conference.

Mr Stewart's scheme was ratified at a meeting held in Melbourne on 8th September 1905. That date, therefore, ranks as the birthday of the V.S.U. Practically all Scottish societies in the State were represented at the meeting. Notable exceptions were the Maryborough Highland Society (which appears to have overlooked the matter) and the Hamilton Caledonian Society (which had developed a mild grievance at the initial meeting). Both exceptions were regrettable, for the Maryborough Society was the second oldest in the State and the young Hamilton Society, under D. Laidlaw as Chief and A. P. Mackenzie as Secretary, was strong and active.

At the first Council meeting of the Union (November 1905) Mr Gibb was elected President, Mr Stewart VicePresident, Mr H. J. Tait (Melbourne Thistle) Treasurer, and Mr W. P. Jarvie Secretary pro tem. Messrs. D. R. S. Macgregor and J. S. Yorston were appointed Auditors.

Not the least significant choice was that of Mr Yorston. A native of Bressay (Shetland Isles) he had reached Australia as a youth in 1898, and at the age of 26 had been President of the South and Port Melbourne Thistle Club. Now, as a foundation officer of the V.S.U., he was to begin long and honorable service with that body, including periods as Treasurer, President and Chief. Indeed, Jim Yorston was to be a highly useful citizen on several counts as builder, municipal councillor, and champion of Scottish affairs-and even when his sight failed, as it did in 1932, he retained his energy, enthusiasm, and unfailing goodhumour in the discharge of public duties.

In its first year of existence the Scottish Union set its hand to three things in particular: 1-Regulating and controlling Scottish sports; 2-Establishing scholarships for children of Scottish descent; 3-Attacking the use of the word "English" for matters concerning the whole of Britain. In this last-mentioned enterprise The Scot joined heartily: it asked Melbourne daily newspapers (which had offended) what they would say if Sydney persisted in speaking of "New South Wales" when it meant the whole of Australia!

At the first annual conference of the V.S.U., which was held at Rushworth (out of compliment to Burt Stewart ) in September of 1906, Mr Gibb was re-elected President in spite of the fact that illness prevented him from attending.

That illness, in fact, brought the Gibb epoch to a close. Two months later, when his health failed seriously, he resigned both Presidencies-Caledonian Society and Scottish Union-and went back to Scotland, where he died, at the early age of 48 years, in January of 1909. Thus, amid many expressions of regret, a dominating figure in Scottish affairs vanished from the scene.

Extraordinary elections became necessary in both organizations. Thomas Skene, M.P., took the Presidency of the Caledonian Society and Burt Stewart succeeded to the Chair of the V.S.U., with William Hampton ( Bendigo ) as VicePresident.

The new President of the Caledonian Society was a 61year-old Australian-born Scot who had followed pastoral pursuits in the Hamilton, Portland, and Stawell districts, and, after rendering public service in each area, had become member for the Grampians electorate in the first Commonwealth Parliament. Lacking something of the "drive" of his younger predecessor, he appears to have functioned only in quiet fashion as the Caledonians' chief officer, leaving active work to the Secretary and Council.

It was President Skene's pleasure, at the St. Andrew's Dinner of 1907, to welcome Andrew Fisher (then Leader of the Federal Opposition and later Prime Minister), on the first of a number of visits which he was to pay to the Caledonian Society.

It was also a distinct pleasure on that occasion to receive a cordial message of greeting from the Earl of Rosebery. More than twenty years had elapsed since Lord Rosebery had presented his Cup to the Society (and in the meantime he had been Britain's Prime Minister), yet he had not forgotten old friends in Australia. He was, it is clear, a man with a warm memory.

Meanwhile, there had been changes in the Secretaryship of the Society. Midway in 1905 pressure of business caused Hector MacLennan to resign the position; he was given presentations in recognition of his seven years' service and A. C. Macdonald was appointed in his stead. MacLennan's resignation was much regretted. Equipped with a good business mind, a frame made sturdy by caber-tossing and wrestling, a strong sense of humour, and marked musical ability (he was with the D'Oyly Carte Company at the Savoy in Gilbert and Sullivan ), he had been an admirable Secretary and had teamed most efficiently with President Gibb and Treasurer Laing.

Within about three months A. C. Macdonald found the job too much for him and gave it up, whereupon W. P. Jarvie (an officer of the Scottish Regiment) acted pro tem. Then, as from 1st January 1906, the position was filled by James R. A. Milligan, a Canadian-Scottish accountant who had previously served the Society as auditor. A zealous and competent worker, he did well both as Secretary of the Caledonian Society and Secretary of the Scottish Union, and as manager of the Caledonian Choir as well.

The next President, Andrew Thomson (1908-10) carried out his obligations admirably. A genial fellow, who came to Melbourne from Scotland in 1873 (as representative of a publishing firm) he had been a member of Melbourne's Caledonian Society since 1884 and had given long and useful service to the Council. One of his first actions as President was to urge the forming of a Scottish Club in Melbourne, and another was to champion the cause of Scottish migration to Australia.

Both of those objectives were to occupy the close attention of the Caledonian Society in following years.
Another occurrence of a personal nature in 1908 was the death of James Munro, the man who was President when the Society was reconstructed in 1884 and who took the chair again in 1886-87. Seventy-six years of age when he died, Munro was a Sutherlandshire village lad who became a printer in Edinburgh, migrated to Melbourne at the age of 26 (in 1858) and, after working for some years as a printer, founded the Victorian Permanent Building Society, of which he was manager for 17 years. In 1874 he was elected as member of the Legislative Assembly for North Melbourne and in following years he held various ministerial offices, including that of Premier from 1890 to 1892. After that he was Agent-General for Victoria in London for a year or so. An important figure over a lengthy period, in business as well as in politics, Munro was reported in the "boom" period (1887-89) to have been a millionaire-and that, we may note with some astonishment, was when he was President of the Caledonian Society! At one time, too -perhaps by way of variation-he was President of the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society.

Curiously, the name of this Scottish Premier, President, and teetotaller cropped up recently in a book on crime. The fact is that in 1891 a man named Colston murdered a married couple at Narbethong (a village in the hills some 50 miles north-east of Melbourne), and then, while in hiding, committed several thefts in the district. It chanced that James Munro, Premier at the time, had a country cottage at Narbethong, and one night he had his son in his bedroom telling the lad about the Government's plans to capture the criminal. What he didn't know was that the murderer was at that moment, revolver in hand, glaring balefully at him from beneath the bed! When at last young Munro left for his own room the Premier accompanied him down the pasage, elucidating as he went another point in connection with the pursuit of Colston. He was absent only a minute or so, but that was time enough for the intruder to crawl out of hiding, grab the Premier's wallet from a bedside table, and dive through the window. Munro had a blurred vision of a disappearing form as he re-entered the room. "Then," says the historian, "he missed the pocket book, which contained k40, and he lifted up his voice in anguished bereavement."

Anyway, "Jimmy" Munro, the Scottish village boy who became Premier of Victoria and a near-millionaire, was a credit to the land of his birth and the land of his adoption; and a credit, as well, to the body which he served so long and so faithfully, the Caledonian Society of Melbourne.


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