English and Scottish Ethnic Associations in North America: A Comparison

By Tanja Bueltmann

In 1901 their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York embarked on Royal tours of both Australia and Canada, visiting locations throughout the two countries. At the end of September 1901 their journey brought them to the Canadian capital, Ottawa. Pavilions had been erected in the city, special Reception Committees were at hand to welcome the Royal couple, and there was a procession to the Parliament grounds. Four thousand school children flanked the main route, singing the national anthem and waving ‘their flags with great heartiness’. ‘On reaching the pavilion the Mayor … read the civic welcome. [And] then followed the presentation of addresses’ from several cities and organisations. Among the latter were presentations from both the Ottawa St Andrew’s and St George’s Society – the two associations united in dispensing a cordial welcome to the heir apparent, his wife and entourage. ‘As Scots and descendants of Scottish men, from his Majesty’s ancient kingdom of Scotland’, wrote the President of the St Andrew’s Society, ‘we rejoice that this Crown still unites Canada and ourselves with the country of our birth and origin, as well as with the kingdoms and possessions of the British Empire.’ – thus following, it seems, the motto of the Ottawa visit (see photo). Similar sentiments were expressed by the members of the St George’s Society, who stressed that ‘the national societies of Canada, although nominally separate, are … heartily united in devotion to the crown’.

The Royal Tour provides, of course, a very specific context for these expressions of loyalty to the old world, the crown and Empire. The St Andrew’s and St George’s societies’ involvement in the proceedings nonetheless highlights the important role ethnic associations played not only for their members, but also in wider social life.

Emigrants carried a rich array of associations with them to the new worlds in which the settled, often coming together along ethnic lines shortly after first foot fall. Yet while a key aspect of expatriate community life, two of the richest examples of this formal sociability, that of the English and Scots, have received only patchy attention. While Scottish associationalism, though understudied, has at least been an acknowledged feature of the Scots’ ethnic behaviour abroad—kilted lads and bagpipes providing a suitable iconography here—English associations have not been viewed in the same light: they have largely been dismissed, for instance by Charlotte Erickson, as elitist and out of touch with the larger immigrant community. More broadly, this view also reflects the frequent dismissal of ethnic associations as harbourers of nostalgia and romantic sentiments, their activities being perceived by many to simply replicate old world traditions for the purpose of keeping alive the memory of the native land. This view has been challenged recently by scholars like those of the English Diaspora project who recognise that ethnic associations serve much more varied purposes, providing a unique means to capture the experiences of migrants, their activities and networks. A comparison of the evolution of English associations and their activities with those of the Scots,  will help us better undestand the importance of English ethnic associations.

The first Scottish society in North America was the Charitable Society of Boston, which was set up in 1657 to provide relief for local ‘needy Scotch people, after proper investigation’.  One of the Society’s main roles in the eighteenth century became the provision of relief for the aged on a long-term basis—essentially a type of pension. The Society also maintained the Scots Temporary Home and a plot on the Mount Auburn Cemetery, setting the scene for the dispensation of Scottish charity through ethnic associations.

By the mid-eighteenth century St Andrew’s Societies had then been established in Charleston, South Carolina in 1729, in Philadelphia in 1747 and in New York in 1756.  What makes this establishment pattern of Scottish ethnic societies along the eastern seaboard of what were then still the original 13 colonies of the British Empire of particular interest is that the English followed very much the same pattern: Charleston’s St George’s Society was founded in 1733, New York’s in 1770 and Philadelphia’s Sons of St George’s Society in 1772. Perhaps an element of competitive ethnicity at play?

The first step towards the organization of the Charleston St Andrew’s Society was taken at a meeting of gentlemen ‘chiefly natives of Scotland’, who had come together on 30 November 1729 for the purpose of celebrating St Andrew’s Day. As the preamble of the Society’s rules highlights, it was founded on wide-ranging philanthropic principles designed to aid newly arrived Scottish migrants in distress. This focus on benevolence is a key characteristic of both Scottish and English associationalism in North America. Typically, for instance, the founding statutes of the Philadelphia’s Society of the Sons of St George declared it existed ‘for the ADVICE and ASSISTANCE of ENGLISHMEN in DISTRESS’. The Scottish and English associations’ most practical application was the provision of support for immigrants,  and one often underpinned by a patrician sense of benevolence felt by the societies’ leading members.

But such characteristics and development patterns were not uniform throughout the English and Scottish diasporas. In Canada, for instance, ethnic associations were slower to emerge—this being a direct result of migration trends: Canada was not one of the principal destinations migrants until after the American Revolution.  The first recorded Scottish ethnic association in Canada appeared in 1768, when the North British Society (originally called the North British Society, or Scots Club),  was founded in Halifax Nova Scotia.  Apart from the St. Andrew’s Society of St. John, New Brunswick, established in 1798, other Scottish ethnic associations only emerged in Canada during the early nineteenth century, with their establishment often coinciding with the incorporation of major urban centres, such as Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, all of which had St. Andrew’s Societies by the 1840s.  Similar patterns are again traceable for the English. During the first-half of the nineteenth century, St George’s societies also spread with mass migration. In Canada, equivalents of the early American societies thus appeared in Toronto (1834), Quebec (1836) and Ottawa (1844).

For both groups sociability was a key factor for the establishment of ethnic associations, and one shaped by the class of participants. This explains, too, why activities differed. While the middle classes enjoyed lavish, civic dinners, working men organised earthier pursuits. Canada’s Sons of England in the prairie towns of the mid-west, for example, organized coyote hunts,  while the Sons of Scotland could be found enjoying picnics and football matches.

The English, like the Scots and many other ethnic groups, developed a lively scene of ethnic clubs and societies – and one that deserves to be fully recognised.