Nairobi was founded by the British in 1899 to serve as a rail depot on the railway that connected Mombasa to Uganda. From this early settlement Nairobi grew quickly and, in 1907, became the capital of British East Africa. Despite this expansion it was not a principal destination of permanent settlement for Scots – though a significant number of Scots did make their way there nonetheless. In fact, it was Sir William Mckinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company that facilitated, and effectively made possible, British control of Kenya and Uganda. Born on 13 March 1823 in Campbeltown, Argyllshire, one of Mckinnon’s main interests was shipping and that is where he first made his name, establishing one of the greatest shipping companies in the world by creating a large network around the coast of India, the Persian Gulf and the East Coast of Africa, with branch lines connecting as far as Australia. The British East Africa Company was formally incorporated in early September 1888 with Mackinnon as Chairman. He was also a religious man and, in 1891, founded the East African Scottish Mission. McKinnon’s story highlights the legacy Scots left in the region.
The Scots who made home in Nairobi soon decided to establish a Caledonian Society. In the summer of 1904 a notice addressed to Scotsmen appeared in the local press, calling for ‘all Scotsmen or descendants of Scotsmen desirous of forming a Caledonian Society’ to come to a meeting at the home of Commissioner of British East Africa, Sir Donald Stewart. As later reports reveal, the Society was ‘of a benevolent and social nature … to promote the interests of “brither Scots”‘. It is to this society that I want to turn attention today in celebration of St Andrew’s Day, exploring how, in the very early days of settlement in Nairobi, the Scots there came together to honour their patron saint in this remote corner of the Scottish diaspora.
As was common elsewhere in the Scottish diaspora, St Andrew’s Day in Nairobi was usually celebrated with a dinner, for which a fitting bill o’ fare was served. In 1904, when the Caledonian Society’s first dinner was held at Nairobi’s Railway Institute, there was certainly no doubt for the local paper, having seen the menu, that ‘there are great times in store for “brither” Scots’. As was reported after the event, the dinner included ‘sheep’s heid broth’ and haggis with ‘tatties an’ neeps’. And of course there was ‘A wee Drappie tae Slocken ye’. Perhaps the latter helped make the event ‘one of the most enjoyable functions which has ever been held’ in Nairobi.
Numbers were still small in those early days – a little over 60 guests sat down for the dinner in 1904 – but this is quite a respectable number given the short life of the settlement and the small number of European settlers overall. Mr H.A.F. Currie, manager of the Uganda Railway, was in the chair in the absence of Sir Donald Stewart, the President of the Society. One of the main toasts of the evening was that to ‘Oor Native Land’, and given by a Dr Stordy. While there is not enough evidence to be certain, in all likelihood this was Edinburgh-born Dr Robert John Stordy, who came to British East Africa in the late 1890s to work as Veterinary Officer (click here for details). Stordy began his toast noting that he would do his best ‘to recall to your minds the memories of dear auld Scotland’. And that is exactly what many a St Andrew’s Day toast was all about: re-connecting the Scots abroad with the old home. And indeed, Stordy’s speech in 1904 ‘with much dramatic power, wit and powky humour stirred his audience to a considerable pitch of enthusiasm.’ The same was achieved, no doubt, by the band of the 3rd Kings African Rifles, which played a range of Scottish songs throughout the evening. So merry were the festivities that they continued well into the early hours of the morning.
By 1913 the Nairobi Caledonian Society had expanded and branches also gathered to celebrate St Andrew, for instance in Nakuru, where a good 40 Scots gathered at the Nakuru Hotel. But they were by no means alone in their undertaking as greetings were received from fellow Scots not only from Nairobi, but also from Mombasa. The former sent a message saying ‘The Scottish lads o’ the capital greet ye this nicht.’, while ‘Mombasa Scots are speering for ye. St Andrew’s abune them a’. A glorious nicht chiels.’ It was greetings such as these, sent all over the Scottish diaspora on St Andrew’s Day, that helped cement a sense of Scottish community abroad – a community that the Scots in British East Africa were clearly part of.
So in the spirit of the many greetings sent: a happy St Andrew’s Day to all Scots, near and far.