By Angus Edmonds

Whatever else Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has or has not achieved, it has raised awareness of how difficult it can be to determine the exact origins of human institutions and organizations. Eye witness accounts, as those involved in police and court work know too well, are not the reliable sources they appear to be. Documents sometimes hide as much of the truth as they reveal – meeting minutes are notoriously vague and often conceal the ‘heat’ of debate in the ‘cool’ formality of recorded decisions.

Although a work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code addresses historical matters some hundreds of years past, indeed ultimately two thousand years past to the earliest days of the Church. The Society of St Andrew of Scotland (Queensland) Limited has a history of close on sixty years (2007 will be the Society’s Sixtieth Jubilee year), a trifle compared to the age of the Church. Yet, we face the same problems of identifying how and when the Society came into being.

All the original founding members have now passed on, so there are no ‘eye witnesses’ as such. Some of us had fathers or close friends who were founding or very early members of the Society and recall (as best we can) what they have said about the beginnings of the Society. There is some documentary evidence, but none from 1947 itself, and no minutes of the Society exist from the early days (as the Society operated without the use of minutes, as the late Rev Dr J Fred McKay attests).

In any case, as already noted, at the best of times, official minutes are somewhat sterile, giving little or no hint of motives behind certain decisions. That is a truism for many clubs, societies, and associations. In this particular instance there was probably good reason for the record to be ‘silent’ as a stated reason could have been litigious and, at best, would have caused bad blood within Brisbane’s Scottish community.

One of the eye witnesses, a founding member of the Society, and Australian legendary figure, the late Rev Dr J Fred McKay AC, gave the Society his understanding of the circumstances surrounding the formation of the Society in his address at the St Andrew’s Day Dinner in 1997. Indeed, he had been specifically asked to speak about ‘the origins of our Society.’ Given his status in the Society and nation, most of us readily accepted his version, and extracts of his address were printed in the 1998 ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ and later reproduced elsewhere.

Although questions remain about certain aspects of his story, Fred McKay’s version is worth relating at length in his own words:

“The miracle about our Society is that its roots were put down in a chancy and unpredictable time in Australian post-war history. …

It was just a few months after Hiroshima and other war-time agonies – when thousands of normal citizens in military uniform were coming back home to start life all over again… One 42 year old fellow, returned from Morotai, was somewhere amongst this mob, struggling at the University of Queensland to complete his medical degrees. This man, Group Captain Gordon Grant, was daft enough to spend precious time in the midst of his studies to try and plant the roots of a crazy Society of St Andrew of Scotland. But he did. …

In 1944 when Gordon Grant was commanding an Advanced RAAF Detachment as part of the 7th Division AIF at Morotai he met a young engineer called Ian McKenzie. Gordon heard him one night playing ‘Flowers of the Forest’ on his chanter in an army tent. They sat together on the same bunk. They talked about starting new things when they got home.

Ian McKenzie did not get home. He was killed at Tarakan in the first moves of the Army towards the Philippines.

The solemn fact of history remains that a young 24 year old Army sapper Ian McKenzie and a 40 year old Air Force man Gordon Grant shared a mighty dream together in a flapping tent at Morotai. They pledged together – “We must keep the skirl of the Scottish bagpipes alive back home and we must get ex-Scottish servicemen to put on their kilts to stir up the Scottish ideals which are so precious.” It is said that Ian McKenzie scribbled these kind of words on a piece of brown paper. It was probably burned with him in his tunic pocket at Tarakan.

Gordon Grant came home with a new fire in his belly. He was sometimes hard to get on with. He could be stubborn. His pride was now and then a bit overwhelming. But it was this man who kept on talking about a Scottish a Society when he returned from the war. And he never forgot Ian McKenzie playing his chanter in an army tent while Japanese Zeros were flying along the Morotai coastline. …

The years 1946-47, in the face of everything, had their occasions of wonderful family excitement. Babies were born everywhere! Baptisms were real party events.

Gordon Grant had married a bright-eyed lass called Louise Beryl Irwin who worked in the Brisbane GPO. It was a baptism on 4th February 1947 that took a group of us into their home at King Arthur Terrace in te suburb of Tennyson. …

Gordon Grant was a man of abounding Scottish hospitality. Scotch whisky without ice! We talked for 3 hours – Bill Bolton, Andy Muir, George Cameron, Alex Meldrum, Swithin Wylie, Bib Byrnes, and I made the seventh. Bill Bolton offered to meet any early expenses. Andy Muir had already worked on a very simple two paragraph constitution. It appeared that words were bonds. No Minutes. The virgin roots of our Society were being well and truly planted in hearts and minds.

Gordon Grant followed the same strategy in his targeted contacts high and low. With Harry Marshall and Duncan McWhirter at a luncheon at Rowe’s Restaurant opposite Rothwells. With Fergus McMaster, the big sheep man from Moscow station near Winton, at a morning tea at the Gresham Hotel. At the Queensland Club where Douglas Fraser, cattleman from Beaudesert, hosted Sir William Glasgow, Forgan Smith and Professor Bill Kyle. He drank coffee with my Elder RA Kerr, my doctor Harold Crawford and my friend John Peden from St Andrew’s Church at my manse in Toowong. The same strategy just went on.

Thursday evenings there were always special friends at Gordon Grant’s customary table (ed: at the United Services Club).

The whole movement was nurtured not by flamboyant advertisement or by public relations experts – but with quiet Scottish hospitality, Scottish honesty, Scottish heraldry, and Scottish humour. These qualities don’t perish. That’s why the roots of the St Andrew Society gave it something which is uncanny. We had no big general meetings in 1946-47. No Minutes. Our word was our bond.

In good time and in proper form we celebrated our first St Andrew’s Day Dinner on 30th November 1948 and Gordon Grant said the Selkirk Grace of Robbie Burns. And all this happened at the United Services Club. We could call that place our Edinburgh Rankinian Club!”

Earlier in his address, Fred McKay had this to say also,

“…as a newly ledged Pilot Officer in the RAAF (Gordon Grant) joined the historic United Services Club. In later years this Club became his home away from home, a few doors from his Pharmacy at the top end of Wickham Terrace. He served a term as President of the Club, and on Thursday evenings regularly had a dinner gathering with friends. That popular Club was to become the virtual official birthplace of te Society of St Andrew of Scotland.” (StoS Oct 1998, pp 10-14)

A rather more prosaic and shorter explanation (from W.R.J. Ron Riddel) of the beginnings of the Society appeared in the 1970 edition of ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ as follows:

“It was towards the end of the 1939-45 war when two friends from schooldays met outside the National hotel. Whilst chatting over mutual interests, the idea was born that Queensland needed an organization devoted to the welfare of the Scottish element in the State, and conducted with the dignity that Scotland deserves.

One was Bill Bolton, who generally agreed to meet the formative expenses of such an organization, and the other, who set about drafting a plan for selling the idea to the leading Scots in the community, was Gordon Grant.”

Another version is more spicy and controversial.

According to Ron Scott, the trigger for the formation of our Society was an unruly dinner at the Caledonian Society and Burns Club probably in 1946.

“Dr Alex Mayes was disgusted at the behaviour in front of the Governor of the day and he and his colleagues determined that there was a place in Brisbane for a Scottish Society that could maintain a certain amount of decorum and at the same time celebrate our Scottish culture.”

Iain Bruce, in a letter to Ron Scott, confirms Ron’s version. Iain’s knowledge of th events came from Joe McDiarmid, an early member of the Society and friend of Bill Bolton. Joe related to Iain that the ‘unruly dinner’ of the Caledonian Society and Burns Club “was held at the National Hotel circa 1946.” Iain continues,

“I think Alex Mayes, Bill Bolton and Gordon Grant were the prime movers in forming a new Society which would allow business and professional people who were of Scots descent to preserve and celebrate their Scottish culture in a more dignified manner.

It is of interest that the culture which they envisaged did not include the playing of bagpipes, and indeed very few pipers were members. Even twenty years later, piping played a minimal role in the annual diners at the United Services Club in Wickham Terrace, and one felt that the founding members looked with some degree of suspicion as the number of members who were pipers began to increase. I heard this often from Arch Galloway, who was not an early member, and also Don Mackie, who was nominated for membership by Arch circa 1960. I was nominated by Joe McDiarmid in 1969, and, of course, he had been a member for a long time through his association with Bill Bolton, not because he was a piper.”

It is understood that Dr McKay approached the grant family when researching his paper and perhaps they provided information about the formation of the St Andrews Pipe Band mixed with information about the Society.  The formation of the band and the Society, although quite distinct and separate organizations, were linked by a similar foundation date, a name containing “St Andrew”, and a common founding father in Gordon Grant.

A.J.H. Arch Galloway recalls in his memoirs, 

“(During War II,) some of the old 61st Battalion Pipers (ed: also known as Queensland Cameron Highlanders) joined the RAAF and with the foresight and help of Group Captain Gordon Grant, who ironed out all problems that may have existed, they formed a RAAF Command Pipe Band. After the War, some of these pipers (ed: and also pipers from 2nd/25th AIF Battalion) and again at the suggestion of Group Captain Grant, decided to endeavour to continue on as a Civilian Pipe Band, composed of ex-servicemen. A meeting was called in January 1946, and the band was formed. Among other things it was decided to call the band “St Andrew’s Pipe Band”. It was to be composed of ex-servicemen and it would adopt the Grant Tartan in honour of Group Captain Grant.

In a presentation at the St Andrews Pipe Band Jubilee Ball, Ian Jenkins-Manning, provided this information:

“(Group Captain Gordon A. Grant) served during the war as Commanding Officer of RAAF Command South West Pacific Area. In that position he arranged for servicemen with pipe band experience to be posted to him so that a band could be formed. The band was unusual in that the usual Scottish dress did not feature at all.

Shortly after the war, members of  the RAAF Pipe band were encouraged by Gordon Grant to form a civilian band. The pipes were loaned to the band by members of St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Creek Street. Later it was arranged that these pipes become the property of the new ex-servicemen’s band and that was how the name “St Andrews” came to be adopted.”

One further piece of evidence, albeit hearsay, must be added.

I was told by Mr James Stevens, an early member of the Society, that the first Society of St Andrew of Scotland (Queensland) dinner was held in the Canberra Hotel and that, the Canberra being a ‘dry’ hotel, there was no alcohol served.  There was no wearing of kilts and no piping. It must have been not only a sober, but also a rather solemn occasion. James Stevens was a great raconteur, with a memory for detail, especially if the events recalled were far distant.

While it is certainly true that the early meetings of the Society were held in the United Services Club, Executive Council member and United services Club member, Robert Burns, has searched the minutes of the Club but found no mention of Society meetings or dinners in these early years.

So what to conclude?

While Fred McKay recalled much of the early days of the Society, and these recollections are invaluable, despite its great romantic appeal, he is surely wrong in associating Gordon Grant’s conversation with Ian McKenzie as the inspiration for founding the Society. It no doubt inspired Gordon Grant to form the RAAF band and the civilian band that resulted after the war, the St Andrews Pipe Band, the true legatee of Ian McKenzie’s dream.

The unruly dinner of The Caledonian Society and Burns Club in 1946 prompting Dr Alex Mayes, Bill Bolton and Gordon Grant to consider forming another Scottish society to hold a more respectable dinner has the ring of truth about it. It also fits with the story from Fred McKay about the Grant baptismal party in February 1947, again with many of those colleagues present, including Bill Bolton who guaranteed costs associated with the new society. The planting of the idea during that conversation outside the National Hotel following the ‘unruly dinner’ in 1946 was later germinated in that familial baptismal gathering in the Grant home, and sometime that same year (1947), with much of the ‘recruitment’, as described by Dr McKay, carried out by Gordon Grant, the Society was officially formed.

Yet, Fred McKay says that the first St Andrews Day’s Dinner was held on 30th November 1948 in the United Services Club.

To my mind, it is James Steven’s remembrance that the first dinner was held in the ‘dry’ Canberra Hotel that brings it all together:

• It makes sense that the first dinner would be held in the first year of the Society’s formation – 1947.

• However, this 1947 gathering might not have been the inaugural ‘annual’ St Andrew’s Day Dinner: it might have been a dinner at which as many of the twenty-six founding members of the Society attended to launch the Society.

• It makes sense that if the Society was brought into being in reaction against a boozy and unruly dinner, the over-reaction would be to hold it in a ‘dry’ or temperance hotel, the Canberra Hotel.

• It is also obvious that the dinner would be ‘dry’ in more senses than one, and that the following year, 1948, the dinner would relocate to premises where, albeit in orderly fashion, a drink could be served and consumed: the United Services Club.

I have tried to assemble and analyse as many of the pieces of the puzzle that appear to be at hand. My conclusions may well be wrong – particularly about the Canberra Hotel function – bu, given the evidence, my version of events is possible.

It may be that other members of the Society have other reminiscences or recollections of tales told to them about the early days of the Society. If so, let us hear other aspects of the story. Even at this time, some of us with information – even at second hand – are getting long in the tooth. It behoves us for the sake of those who follow that we try to tell the story as best we can – or leave important ciphers or clues for others perhaps to unlock the remaining mysteries of the Society’s own Da Vinci Code!

Post Script.
Queenslanders of Scots heritage were very busy in those post war years, and the name “St Andrew” is central to a number of activities and foundations, and very often the same persons are involved too. In 1946, the St Andrew’s Ex-Servicemen’s Pipe Band was established (the expression “Ex-Servicemen’s” later removed from the title). In 1947, the Society of St Andrew of Scotland (Queensland) was founded. Also in 1947, the Presbyterian Church of Queensland decides to build a war memorial hospital to be known as St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital. In 1948, the St Andrew’s Women’s Auxiliary is founded to help raise funds for the proposed hospital. Writing in ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ in 1949, Dr Harold Crawford, a founding member of our Society and later first chairman of the hospital’s board, appeals to the Scottish community for support by referring to the hospital as “the Scottish Memorial in Queensland.” The St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital finally opens in 1958, adopting the Saltire of Scotland (the St Andrew’s Cross) as its flag and a form of the Crawford tartan as its tartan.