The story of the Saint Andrew’s Society of Saint John, New Brunswick, the oldest Scottish Society in Canada begins with its organizational meeting on 08 March 1798. At this meeting a constitution was adopted, which stated, as the twin principal tenets of the Society: first, benevolent assistance to the natives of Scotland and their descendants; and second, cultural longevity. A slate of officers was elected: William Pagan, President; William Campbell, Vice President; Francis Gilbert, Treasurer; and John Black, Secretary. On 03 May 1798 the first quarterly meeting was held, and since that time there has been an unbroken chain of quarterly and anniversary meetings.
From the founding of the Society it has been a rule that at the annual celebration on St. Andrew’s Day, attending members are to have a St. Andrew’s Cross on their breast. The first badges of this nature were of silk with a St. Andrew’s Cross worked in, Around 1850 a die was obtained and large silver crosses were struck from it. In later years these crosses would become known as “coffin plates”.
In 1856, one hundred newly designed badges were imported from Edinburgh, Scotland, along with the original die. Four of these badges are still in existence, the Society having two, the Murdoch Medal, worn by 1st Vice President, and the Ledingham Medal, which is worn by the 2nd Vice-President.
New Badges were introduced in 1889. In the centre of the badge is a representation of St. Andrew on the cross within a semi-circle of thistles; above is the motto “Nemo me impune lacessit” which translated reads “No one can harm me with impunity.” On the bar is the date of the formation of the society, while on the clasp are the words “Saint Andrew’s Society, Saint John, N.B.” with thistles and a crown. The badge is supported by a blue ribbon. In 1895 new regalia was adopted for the officers of the Society: a shoulder sash of royal blue velvet edged in white silk and embroidered with a thistle, having a silver St. Andrew’s Cross where the ends of the sash are joined. The President’s Chain of Office was introduced in 1909. And a number of other items have been added through the 1900’s.
The first recorded annual celebration and dinner of the Saint Andrew’s Society was held 30 November 1820 at Mr. Cody’s Coffee House, a noted eating establishment of that period. The highlights of the menu were barley soup, a Scottish national dish – haggis; and a sheep’s head. After dinner, music, singing, story-telling, and toasting were enjoyed.
Over 30 toasts were proposed at this celebration: the memory of St. Andrew, the King, the Auld Kirk of Scotland, the immortal memory of Sir William Wallace, the British Constitution, and the Sons of St. George, St. David, and St. Patrick, among them. Those toasts were also responded to by appropriate speakers. For example, the toast to the Sons of St. George, St. David, and St. Patrick were responded to by the Presidents of St. George’s and St. Patrick’s Societies, who regularly attended the Saint Andrew’s Society annual celebrations. After the annual celebration had been adjourned, the members piped the President to his home.
In 1842, instead of having their traditional dinner, the Society held a joint charity ball presented by the Saint Andrew’s Society and the newly-formed Highland Society of News Brunswick. This ball was attended by 230 people. In 1850 the Society added a new feature to the annual celebration. By previous arrangement, at 9:00 p.m. on St. Andrew’s Day, by telegraph, greetings were received from sister societies in Halifax, Fredericton, and New York, and were reciprocated in like manner by the Saint John Andrew’s Society in Saint John. By 1852 the Society had added Toronto, Montreal, Boston and Philadelphia to their rapidly growing list. This custom is still carried out today with greetings coming from as far away as Jakarta, Glasgow, Buenos Aires, and Hong Kong. In 1881 a Temperance Annual Celebration Dinner was held, and in 1889 the first Scottish Night took place.
In the early years, annual celebrations were always preceded by a service at the Kirk. In 1893 the members were piped to the Kirk for the first time. Because of the war, in 1915 the annual celebration took the form of a smoker at Bond’s Restaurant, the smoker being a scaled down version of the annual dinner, with the entertainment provided by the members themselves. In 1957 a new annual celebration was added and ladies were invited for the first time; this was the first Burns Dinner held at the Admiral Beatty Hotel on January 25. A Burns Dinner had been held in 1859 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Burns’s birth, but it was not an annual affair. During the two centuries of its existence, the annual celebration of the Saint Andrew’s Society has had many famous keynote speakers: the Hon. Joseph Howe, premier of Nova Scotia politician and Canadian statesman; the Rt. Hon. Arthur Meighan, Prime Minister of Canada; Donald Gordon, President of the Canadian National Railway; Sir Edmund Beatty, Admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy; Clarence Campbell, President of the National Hockey League; Tommy Douglas, Leader of the New Democratic Party; and Knowlton Nash, a well-known broadcaster and journalist, and Hon. Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, Chief of Clan MacPherson, to name several.
Over the years the celebration has been held at many locations, many of which no longer stand: Mallard House (north-side of King St., below Germain St.), Cody’s Coffee House (corner of King and Prince William St.), the Saint John Hotel (head of King St.), the Victoria Hotel (85-87 King St.), the Hotel Dufferin (48-60 Charlotte St.), the Mechanics Institute (9-11 Carleton St.), and at the Exhibition Building (287 Sydney St.) In recent years, the annual celebrations have been held at the Courtenay Bay Inn, Haymarket Square and the Riverside Country Club in nearby Rothesay. The larger Burns Night Celebrations have taken place at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre, Market Square.
In its first 10 years, the Saint Andrew’s Society of Saint John dispensed £462 in relief and loans to 89 individuals. In the following decades, this example of Scottish goodwill was improved upon so that by 1858 the Society had relieved 2,541 cases while expending £3,850 in funds. By 1900 the Society had reviewed and acted upon 5,901 applications for assistance totalling $32,925.00.
This trend remained constant through the first half of the 20th century, abating only when social assistance became more readily available from federal, provincial and municipal governments. Here are examples of the charitable acts of the Society. In 1854 £5 was given to a Mr. Andrew Smith, who had lost his sight and his right arm. This money enabled Mrs. Smith to set up a small shop on the Marsh Road so that the Smith family had some means of support. In 1857, a £5 gift enabled a Mrs. Patterson to build a small house in South Bay, and the same small amount enabled a Mr. Scott to bring his wife and family from Scotland. Later that same year, £2, went a long way toward to the funeral expenses of a Mr. James Wilson. The following year the Society gave a Mrs. Feriley £3 enabling her to move back to Scotland. In 1911, Mary H. Davidson was charged with infanticide and concealing a birth. Despite of the shocking nature of the charges, the Society paid Mr. Homer D. Forbes $50.00 to defend the girl. She was acquitted.
Contributions by the Society to the community over the years have taken many forms as well. In 1916 it donated $1000.00 to the Canadian Patriotic Fund in support of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe. Six years later it established the War Memorial Scholarship of $100.00 per annum to benefit students of Scottish descent. The first recipient (1923) was Kenneth Douglas Sheldrick of Kingston. In 1928 the society honoured Robert Foulis, inventor of the steam fog horn, by erecting a monument to his memory in Fernhill Cemetery.
The contributions of the Society were indeed wide in nature and scope. Canada’s centennial year, 1967, was a year of many notable donations: $1000.00 was forwarded to the Kiwanis Junior Pipe Band for travel expenses to an international competition in Scotland; a guest book was presented to the City of Saint John commemorating the amalgamation of Saint John, Lancaster, and Simonds; a concert grand piano was donated the Saint John Campus of the University of New Brunswick. In 1973 the Society donated the 10-volume Scottish National Dictionary to the Saint John Regional Library. Over the years the library has received over 125 books on Scottish culture and 30 pieces of audio-visual information.
In 1982 the Society made a genereous financial contribution to the Radiation-Oncology Department of the Saint John Regional Hospital in memory of Dr. J. A. Caskey. In 1990 a similar contribution honouring the late Dr. G.D. Smith was presented. In 1992 the Society erected St. Andrew’s House on University Avenue as a senior citizens’ apartment complex. This building also serves as the permanent home for the Saint Andrew’s Society of Saint John.