Scottish Associations in North America

Scots, a nineteenth-century observer from London, England, was keen to point out, ‘herd together … not touched, except by each other.’ These words resonate loudly with many a Scot abroad: their propensity to come together with fellow Scots is, in fact, a defining characteristic of the Scottish diaspora. Nowhere is this more evident than in the many Scottish clubs and societies that were formed around the world.

Their birthplace overseas is in Boston, where the Scots’ Charitable Society was established in early 1657 as a ‘Poor Boxes Society’ with the express purpose of providing ‘benevolence … for the releefe of our selves being Scottishmen or for any of the Scottish nation whome we may see cause to helpe’. Charity for fellow Scots in need lay at the heart of activities, following the principles already established by Scots in London, where a Scots Box mutual aid society was probably used as early as 1613, and later transformed into the Royal Scottish Corporation. But it was with the establishment of the Boston Society that a trend was set in motion in the New World that was to reach its peak in the early twentieth century and span the globe.

Philip Livingston, first president of the New York Society.
Philip Livingston, first president of the New York Society.

It was in Charleston, South Carolina (1729), Philadelphia (1749), Savannah, Georgia (1750) and New York (1756) where the first new associations developed in the United States in the course of the eighteenth century, adopting the name of the Scottish patron saint, St Andrew. The foundation of the New York Society sheds some light as to how and why such organisations were set up. It was on 19 November 1756 that ‘a number of gentlemen, natives of Scotland or of direct Scottish descent’, came together to ‘form themselves into a Scotch Society’. The argument was brought forward that, after Charleston, Philadelphia and Savannah, New York too needed an organisation concerned with the welfare of Scots in the city. So the ‘declared purpose’ of the new society was ‘to be the charitable relief of those fellow-Scotsmen, resident in New York, who might be in want or distress.’

After the first meeting a constitution, modelled on that of the Philadelphia St Andrew’s Society, was prepared to reflect that objective, and the Society’s first President, Vice-President, Treasurer and Secretary were elected, as was a Board of Managers.

It comes as no surprise that among the founders of the New York Society we can find some of the city’s most prominent Scots. Its first President was Philip Livingston — later to become one of the signatories on the Declaration of Independence and a founder of King’s College, which became Columbia University. Livingston’s roots in Scotland are in Stirlingshire, and there are suggestions that Philip’s grandfather emigrated to New England as a result of religious persecution. Philip himself was born, in 1716, at Albany, New York. The biographies of subsequent Presidents of the Society and other members are equally illustrious: it was clearly the Scottish elite who set up associations—but they did so with the wider migrant body in mind and to do good. The St. Andrew’s Society of New York has a list of such notable members.

As important as charity was to the development of Scottish associations in North America and elsewhere around the world, societies and clubs never came without a social dimension. Associations, particularly as a result of annual festivals such as St Andrew’s Day, were simply also about having some fun.

Tossing the caber at a Highland Games event.
Tossing the caber at a Highland Games event.

Or, in the words of many original association rulebooks: they were set up ‘for the promotion of social intercourse and friendship’. Many of the big cities in America saw the annual hosting of lavish dinners. In 1905, for example, the Scots Charitable Society of Boston came together at the Somerset Hotel and speakers of the gathering included Andrew Carnegie.

A little earlier, in the course of the nineteenth century, the idea of social activities was increasingly entwined with sports when a plethora of Caledonian societies were set up throughout the United States and around the world. From caber tossing to Highland flings, the events were prominent annual displays of Scottish identity and the tradition still has a strong following to this day.

It was through charity and sporting culture, therefore, that the Scots have left a lasting legacy around the world, and their associations played a pivotal role in this. Without them the Scots would not have left the visible imprint they have.

Guest post by Dr. Tanja Bueltmann, Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University and historian of the Scottish diaspora. Follow Bueltmann on Twitter and read more of her work at The Scottish Diaspora Blog.

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