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The Northern Highlands in the Nineteenth Century

The Northern Meeting

The Northern Meeting dates from 1788, in which year it was instituted. A printed notice which once came into our hands contains the original constitution and regulations. A meeting was held at Inverness on the 11th of June 1788 at which were present - Colonel Hugh Grant of Moy, Mr Cumming of Altyre, Mr Macleod of Geanies, Mr Munro of Culcairn, Mr Fraser of Relick, Mr Fraser of Culduthel, Captain Alexander Mackenzie, 71st Regiment; Captain William Wilson, 39th Regiment; Mr Baillie of Dochfour, Captain Grigor Grant, Lieut. John Rose, and Dr John Alves (who was appointed the first secretary). These gentlemen resolved to form an Association with the view of holding "an annual meeting of gentlemen, ladies, and their families," not for a couple of days merely, but to extend over a whole week, "and that for the purpose of promoting social intercourse." The fee was to be one guinea, payable by "every gentleman or lady being the head of a family"; and to ensure regular attendance it was agreed that every absentee member should pay a fine of two guineas. This rule, it appears, was not allowed to remain a dead letter, for the first year no less than £40 was added to the funds in the shape of fines. Officers absent on duty were exempted from penalty. The whole business was to be conducted by stewards, of whom the first set were—Mr Cumming of Altyre. Mr Fraser of Cu’duthel, Mr Fraser of Relig, and Mr Macleod of Geanies. At that time Highland games were not thought of; the sole object of the Meeting was to foster social enjoyment. Dinners and balls were to be held during the week. The company, ladies and gentlemen, were to dine together in full evening dress, "the first day at Mr Beverley’s Hotel, the second at Mr Ettles’s Hotel, and thereafter at the inns alternately." Dancing was to commence precisely at 8 o’clock, and to stop precisely at twelve. From the first it was resolved to keep the company select, and the stewards alone had the privilege of introducing strangers. Mr Cumming of Altyre was directed to write to Captain Graham, Master of the Ceremonies at Edinburgh, for a copy of the regulations adopted there, and to deposit these as the regulations of the Northern Meeting. The Provost of Inverness was to be applied to for the use of the Town Hall for the balls and the room above for the tea-room. Each morning a public breakfast was to be held "for as many ladies and gentlemen as choose to resort there." One rule is rather curious—"That no subscription paper for any public or private work or undertaking shall, under any pretext whatever, be obtruded on the company when met collectively; and that whoever presumes to infringe on this regulation shall be subject to a fine of one guinea." The members believed that hunting would be desirable to fill up the mornings; and so Brodie of Brodie and Macleod of Geanies were requested to apply to the Duke of Gordon and Sir Robert Munro of Foulis for the favour of their huntsmen and hounds. The proposal to form the Northern Meeting seems to have been taken up with great eagerness; for before the first meeting held in 1788, between 80 and 90 members had joined from the counties of Inverness, Ross, Nairn, and Moray. For many years the Meeting was held in the second week of October.

The original meetings of the Association were very different from the present, and perhaps even more agreeable. A formal ball every evening was found to be rather heavy, and so, in order to obtain lightness and variety, it was resolved the second or third year to have only two dress balls, namely, on Tuesday and Friday. On the other evenings the company were to assemble in undress to play cards and dance. The gentlemen of the Meeting wore a gay uniform. Whether such uniform was used from the beginning does not appear; but an old authority states that a year or two afterwards it consisted of a grass-green coat with a buff edging, white metal buttons, and black velvet cape, with four silver embroidered or vellum button-holes. The, waistcoat was buff or fancy coloured; the breeches buff or black silk; and the buttons had the letters N.M. engraved upon them. A gay time it must have been when the members sported through the Highland Capital in this dashing costume, following the Duke of Gordon’s hounds in the morning, dining and dancing in the afternoon and evening. In 1810 we learn that on the motion of the Marquis of Huntly it was resolved that all the members should appear in blue coats from the Inverness Woollen Manufactory. This was to encourage local industry. The stewards at first wore badges; subsequently they were provided with wands; then tartan sashes were substituted; and latterly they returned to badges. About the year 1816 horse-racing was added to the programme, and some years later a course was formed at Duneancroy. But the members never regarded the races as properly part of the Meeting. They subscribed for them, and offered pieces of plate for the winning hones; but finding this a tax upon their funds, they ultimately withdrew their subscriptions and the races were discontinued. The races now held at or about the Meeting time are on an independent basis. The practice of holding Highland games seems to have been commenced about 1840. At first they were got up by a separate subscription, and were held in the Academy Park. Then they were transferred to the Longman, where there was ample space. In the early sixties the present Northern Meeting Park was acquired from the late Sir Alexander Matheson of Ardross, and enclosed with a wall. A handsome pavilion for the accommodation of members and their friends was erected, and a second pavilion was subsequently added.

At an early stage the Association resolved to have a building of its own for the annual assemblies. The Town Hall and the Guildry (as the upper room was called) were probably found to be too small to accommodate the company. A piece of ground was acquired in Church Street, on which a building was erected; and this, rebuilt and added to, forms the present Northern Meeting Rooms. In 1801 a serious misfortune occurred. A candle manufactory was in close proximity to the building, above which a powder magazine was kept! In those days the public regulations with reference to explosive articles must have been extremely lax. One night the heat of the candle factory reached the powder; an explosion ensued, causing the loss of seven lives and injury to many other persons. The buildings of the Meeting, as well as the factory itself, were greatly damaged. The Rooms, however, were soon rebuilt, and in 1845 or thereabouts assumed their present form. Internally they have been greatly improved since that time.

The annals of the Meeting in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century are set forth in the pages of this volume. Year after year the members assembled, passed their time in "~social intercourse," and parted. From 1788 until the present time, the Meeting has continued to be a favourite gathering both for county families and autumn visitors. In 1795 a proposal was made to adjourn the Meeting for the year, so many members being necessarily absent in the service of their country. This proposal, however, was negatived, and the Meeting was held annually during the Napoleonic wars - although for years a considerable amount of fines had to be remitted to members "necessarily absent." In 1796 a paragraph appeared in the Edinburgh newspapers, stating that considering the circumstances, the Meeting of that year had been well attended. It had passed off very successfully, "with a brilliant assemblage of beauty and fashion." The year 1832 was a blank in the history of the Meeting, the gathering having been adjourned in consequence of the prevalence of cholera; and in 1900 the balls were put off on account of the losses and disorganisation caused by the South African war. In the latter year, however, one day was given to Highland sports. The fines for absence have long since ceased to be exacted, and the terms of admission have more than once been changed. The uniform is also a thing of the past, but the Highland dress holds its own. The Meeting continues to flourish, and promises to continue for a long time to come as a fashionable and successful Highland institution.

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