Bristol’s Caledonian Society was founded in the early nineteenth century ‘for the relief of unfortunate but deserving Scotchmen’, spending much of its time on the provision of aid akin to poor relief for Scots. By December 1822, the association had at least 40 members, a number of Englishmen among them, who were staunch supporters of the Society and its objectives. As the then Caledonian Society president observed, ‘to the English members he felt more than ordinarily indebted, because they had supplied the deficiency of many of our own opulent resident Scotchmen, who had hitherto resisted the call of the wants and necessities of their less fortunate countrymen.’ Ethnic associationalism was not something that every Scot would automatically adopt, nor be forced to join, but overt criticism of those who did not participate was by no means uncommon. What the Bristol Caledonian Society hoped to do was stimulate ‘philanthropic feelings’ in all Scots, thereby activating their sense of patrician benevolence.
One of the Bristol Society’s leading members was James McMurtrie. Born at Dalquharran in the parish of Dailly, Ayrshire, McMurtrie’s father was manager of the collieries there—an occupation that also appealed to James himself. He first went to Liverpool for trade, however, but was soon displeased with the opportunities available there, thus heading north east to Newcastle upon Tyne. He subsequently entered into mining at the Towneley Collieries in Ryton, and eventually became manager of Earl Waldegrave’s Essex and Somershire estates (collieries), a role he held for about 40 years until his retirement in early 1903. McMurtrie provides an excellent example of the degree to which many of the Scots engaged in ethnic associations were not only ‘associational’, i.e. engaged in a plethora of clubs and societies, but also civic-minded, being keenly aware of the role of public volunteerism and small-scale political activism. Amongst other roles, McMurtrie was a member of Somerset County Council, acting as alderman, and served as president of the South Wales Institute of Engineers. His role in the Bristol Caledonian Society culminated in his election as president in 1906.
What makes the story of the Bristol Caledonian Society particularly interesting are the many cases of direct interaction between the Caledonian Society and other relief agencies, as well as the courts, in the city of Bristol. If, for instance, applicants for relief to the Bristol Corporation were found to be of ‘Scottish nationality [they] were sent to be tested by the agent of the Caledonian Society in Bristol’. This level of interaction was by no means unheard of, but its extent in Bristol was significant, and also demonstrates the level of recognition many Scottish ethnic associations received from wider society: in Bristol the Caledonian Society was clearly seen within a wider civic context as a partner in the provision of relief and benevolence. Within this remit, the Bristol Caledonian Society set great store by only aiding those who deserved support, also pursuing anyone who was discovered to have made fraudulent relief claims. In December 1828, for instance, Thomas Murry and Margaret Douglas were sentenced to ‘three calendar months to hard labour, for obtaining money from the Caledonian Society, by false representations’. Four years later a couple falsely claimedScottish ancestry to receive money. As was reported in the Bristol Mercury,
On Monday last, a common beggar, accompanied by his wife and two children, were brought before Mr. Alderman Goldney, in the custody of a policeman, charged by a member of the Caledonian Society, with imposing upon the Society … The Caledonian Society is a charitable association of Scotchmen, for the relief of such of their unfortunate countrymen as may happen to be destitute in a strange place; and, on the 9th instant, the man had applied to its Secretary, stating his name was Stewart, and that he was a sailor out of employ: he was relieved. In the evening, the woman came with her two children; she said her name was Campbell—that she was a sailor’s wife, and that her husband was expected daily in this port from Malta: she also was relieved. On the Monday following the whole party were detected begging from door to door, by a member of the Society, who immediately gave them into custody …
It may well be, of course, that the couple was generally in despair and only seeking a way out, but attempts to unjustly claim relief from the Caledonian Society were by no means rare. It was only a few years later, for instance, that the local press issued a notice to the public alerting them to the schemes of an ‘old man now in this city seeking charity’. This man, the notice went on, was ‘a native of Scotland, about 55 years of age, about 5 feet 9 inches high, of respectable appearance’, who ‘professes to be in ill health’. What makes the case especially interesting is the fact that he had previously been in Bristol a couple of years ago ‘with the same tale, but the Caledonian society discovered him to be an impostor, and had him apprehended, when he was committed to the tread-mill for six months’. The Bristol Caledonian Society, it seems, was not to be messed with.