Strong Scottish roots in Central Alberta

Today, Jan. 25th, is Robert Burns Day, which commemorates the birth of the national poet of Scotland in 1759. It is an event that is celebrated with special suppers and other festivities across much of the world.

The popularity of Burns Day is a reflection of the great Scottish diaspora. Literally millions of Scots have immigrated to new homes across the globe. The annual Burns celebrations are a reminder of the homeland they left behind.

Moreover, Robert Burns Day occurs exactly one month after Christmas.

With the dark cold days of mid-winter upon us, what better than to bring some good cheer, warmth and fellowship to break up the dismal season.

Red Deer and Central Alberta have strong Scottish roots. It has been estimated that in the past, one out of seven residents in the community were born in Scotland or were of Scottish descent.

The first person to build a cabin in the original settlement of Red Deer, upstream from the current City, at the Red Deer River Crossing, was Addison McPherson. He was a rough and ready frontiersman, who traded with the First Nations and later hauled freight from Winnipeg to Fort Edmonton and Fort Calgary.

McPherson’s holding were bought out by Robert McClellan. The stopping house that McClellan built was converted into the barracks at Fort Normandeau during the Riel Rebellion in 1885. The structure later became the region’s first Mounted Police post.

The local Scots, or the Scotch as they often called themselves, began organizing clubs and benevolent societies after the turn of the last century. The first group was the Caledonian Society, which was formed in the winter of 1908. Unfortunately, the group had some organizational glitches and was reorganized in November 1913.

The new association was the St. Andrew’s Society. It held its first Burns Night on Friday, Jan. 23, 1914 in the new St. Luke’s Anglican Parish Hall on Gaetz Ave. north.

The evening was a smashing success. More than 400 people turned out. There were performances by a bagpipe band, an address on Robert Burns by William Robertson, several recitations of Burns’ poetry, numerous songs and a dance at the end for the evening.

With such a strong start, Burns Night became a popular yearly event. For a few years, the Society also held an annual St. Andrew’s Night celebration on Nov. 30 – St. Andrew being the patron saint of Scotland. However, as the Christmas season grew longer and longer, St. Andrew’s Night was dropped and Robert Burns Night became the main annual celebration.

By the 1920’s, the St. Andrew’s Society Burns Night was one of the best-attended events in the community. Some years, the numbers attending were so large that the rented halls became uncomfortably overcrowded.

The tradition of annual Burns Night celebrations hit a rough patch with the start of the Great Depression. With the hard economic times, there was no longer a supper or paid entertainment and only a dance as the evening’s attraction.

By the time of the Second World War, the tradition of Burns Night seems to have ceased, at least temporarily. However, the festivities began to be held again in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly after the formation of the Red Deer Burns Club.

Other organizations that occasionally celebrated Burns Night were the Red Deer Rotary Club and the local Masonic Lodges. In 1964, Beacon Lodge #109 was formed. As this new Lodge used the Scottish rite, it is not surprising that it decided to make Burns Night one of the Lodge’s main events. It is a celebration that has been held every year, ever since.

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