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Winnipeg Robert Burns Club

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 article. -Editor.

Recently 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 club.

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. 25, 1908.

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 chair.

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 Winnipeg.

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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