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Lord Strathcona's Banquet

 

Strathcona Hall

On the evening that the New University building opened in 1906 the Chancellor of the University, Lord Strathcona, gave a legendary banquet in Strathcona Hall, a temporary building put up on Gallowgate. The Hall allowed 2500 to dine, cost £3400 and witnessed the greatest feast that the City has seen. Such was the snobbery of the day that the menu was entirely in French and only Foreign alcohol was offered. Clearly a good deal of alcohol was consumed because that following day the Rector had some sharp words on the subject.

 

Marischal College 1906 - Footage of 27th September 1906 Aberdeen Quater Centenary Celebrations when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited Aberdeen to open new extension to Marischal College Aberdeen University.
On the evening that the New University building opened in 1906 the Chancellor of the University, Lord Strathcona, gave a Banquet in Strathcona Hall, a temporary building put up on Broad Street. Conveniently the City had just levelled Gallowgate slums close to the University and the derelict land provided the Ideal Site, The Hall was constructed of timber and decorated with garlands of flowers and greenery and allowed 2500 to dine. It cost £3400 and witnessed the greatest feast costing £4,500 that the City has seen. The food was cooked by Lyons in London and Shipped north by special Train, Such was the snobbery of the day that the menu was entirely in French and only Foreign alcohol was offered. Clearly a good deal of alcohol was consumed because that following day the Rector had some sharp words on the subject.  It is likely that Strathcona Hall was built in the Gallowgate adjacent to the Middle School Sportsfield Site and in front of St Margaret's Church.

Strathcona Hall - was a massive temporary wooden structure and seated 2.500 people with a forum stage and was re-arranged for a series of official Marischal College University Quater Centenary functions on 27th September 1906.  It could hardly have been contained in the Broadgate considering the interior pictures of it.  It may have been located in the Gallowgate area near the Middle School Site.  Probably the sports ground in front of the school as shown on contemporary period postcards. 

The scene here shows the completed new Facade and Quadrangle and the likely site of Strathcona Hall at the top of the picture in the Gallowgate

Donald Smith was born at Forres in Scotland on 6 August 1820, a son of Alexander Smith and his wife Barbara. In 1838 he emigrated to Canada to work for the Hudson's Bay Company. He married Isabella Hardisty in 1853 and they had a daughter Margaret. Now Chief Trader in the Company he moved to Labrador and then to Montreal.  He played a prominent part in the pacification of the Red River uprising and became a politician.  By now he was a rich man and became Governor of the Company in 1889 and had many business interests including the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1886 he was Knighted and created Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal of Glencoe and Colonsay in 1897. The Regiment he funded and which was named after him fought in the South African War. He died in London on 21 January 1914. His funeral was held at the Westminster Abbey and he is buried in Highgate cemetery.

 

DONALD ALEXANDER SMITH, named after his grandfather on his mother's side and his father, was born on the 6th of August, 1820, in Forres, a little town in the County of Elgin, one of the 4 shires, Aberdeen, Kincardine, and Banff being the others.  These have always formed the inner ring of the satellites of Aberdeen City and University. "How far is't call'd to Forres?" asked Shakespeare's Banquo. A very long and steep way indeed from the humble house there on the Mosset burn-side where Donald A. Smith first saw the light of day, to the House of Lords and the headship of the University between the Dee and the Don at the late harvest-home and climax of its glories in 1906!
 

Luxuriance seemed out of place in the austere surroundings of Aberdeen; but the Aberdonian is not without a modest consciousness of his superior fitness to survive in a stern world. "Tak' awa Aberdeen," he says "and twa' mile roond aboot and whaur are ye?" It took a race of steel to wring bread from that grim "North" ocean with its throat-cutting "haars" and wild storms, and from those peaty moorlands spread thin over the rock.  But now the Dorian mood of this hard-living and tight-gripping folk had changed for once to the most Corinthian abandon of lavish gaiety and revel. It was in keeping with their character that their rare Saturnalia should frolic around the knees of Athene. Nothing could be too good for the old University, the mother of their glory and their gain! For her the sacred "saxpences" might well be spent. So, like an aloe tree, the Granite City on the cold North Sea had at last unclosed its slumbering flower after 400 years of greyness. Colour ran not everywhere in the profuse decorations of the principal streets as well as in the gorgeous robes of academic dignitaries who, to honour this occasion, had flocked from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.

 

The summer had been as abominable as only a Scottish summer can be.  Fine weather is apt indeed to be rare in Scotland. It is, in the immortal phrase of Andrew Fairservice, one large "Parish of Dreepdailie" where, if ever a dry day happens to stray along, "the Saabath," or in this case a University Quarter-Centenary celebration "comes and licks it up." The Festival was blessed by the one lucid interval of the year's weather, and at such times the humid atmosphere is not a curse. It gives a glamour of depth and distance to the landscape. Nothing is hard or prosaic; everything seeming to have the gloss and lustre of a pebble under water. Hill and dale are steeped in a transfiguring medium of large soft light and clean bewitching air. When the sun takes the pains to shine in Scotland he has something worth while to illumine. He did shine during all these festival days, whose perfect sweetness was surpassed only, if possible, by the nights when the sullen sea softened into azure and rippling silver beneath the smile of the big benignant harvest moon. The innermost citadel of old Scotland's dourness had blossomed into the joy and beauty which is at the heart of that wholesome austerity. It was as if a magician had waved over the drab old town his liberating wand and sung the incantation of the Canticle: "The winter is past, the rain is over and gone. ... the time of the singing of birds is come".

 

A magician had indeed been at work, an aged Merlin, who looked the part, the Lord Chancellor of Aberdeen University at this moment of its tardy but dazzling apogee, the contemporary of well nigh a quarter of its secular duration. It would have been quite impossible to find a more appropriate or symbolic figure for that high place at that historic hour. The man was in every sense at home there and in his glory.

 

Some 5’-9” of the toughest kind of human stuff, usually with a tall grey hat on top, but now with gold-tasselled Mortarboards matching the purple and crimson robes of the great occasion, a very unassuming and benevolent figure of a man; soft voice with just a lingering suspicion of the original caressing Highland accent, persuasive and homely yet flowing and musically rounded speech, the express echo of sweet reasonableness, full of a grave and simple courtesy; and then that unmistakable dome of mingled sagacity and power in the massive head bearded and crowned with snow, with the strong straight nose, forehead broad rather than high, and the mild light of forward-looking grey-blue eyes under the formidable penthouse of tremendously bushy leonine white eye-brows.  A head for wise counsel and action, both cautious and bold; the right centre for a board of Venetian or English Merchants, a group of Senators, or the constellation of an Academic Sanhedrim. Such was the impression made upon the eye by this octogenarian Merlin, who almost 70 years before had left Aberdeen a humble peasant lad to seek his fortune in the Canadian Wilderness and who was now Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, one of the foremost builders of the British Empire.  On this occasion he performed 2 deeds that to many of those gathered about him had in them a touch of the miraculous, and that raised this festival to a lustre quite unique among its kind.  He had, for one thing, brought the King to Aberdeen. His Majesty, was, it is true, in a way an Aberdeenshire Country Gentleman. His favourite residence, as his mother's before him had been, was in the valley of the Dee with its glorious mountains, the grandest valley in all Scotland. He could, therefore be the more easily moved to confer a special distinction upon the chief City of a District which he and his family had long peculiarly identified themselves.  But, we may well suspect, that was not the really determining cause of his presence.  King Edward VII was, among his other Royal qualities, an infallible judge of men, and had the greatest esteem and even affection for Lord Strathcona.  He called him "Uncle Donald."  He had found him in time of difficulty a real Pater Patriæ and therefore the right sort not only of "King's Cousin" but even of King's Uncle. For during the trouble in South Africa 6 years before Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal had for the 1st time in many 100 years from the spring of rejuvenation beyond the Atlantic revived the best feudal traditions of the British House of Peers, and, as a free-will offering to the Empire which he had long served with all his heart and strength, had entirely at his own costs raised and equipped a splendid regiment of Canadian Cavalry. That was the kind of man whom the King delighted to honour.
 

The immediate purpose of the Royal visit was to open certain fine new buildings which now complete the Quadrangle of Marischal College, one of the two colleges in Aberdeen which together make the University, the other being King's College in the Old Town.  This beautiful façade with its noble towers was of course of granite.  But that hard stone has been incredibly spiritualized there into the lightest and airiest tracery; no bad emblem of what the old College has made of the very similar human raw material given to it for shaping. The Quadrangle was packed with ladies and academic personages in the full glory of their many coloured gowns and robes, seated on chairs in the brig, soft, mild, autumn sunshine - an assembly of some 4000, all turned towards the platform which had been raised across the new propylæa, watching for the King's appearance. He came at last, accompanied by Queen Alexandra, who looked the tall graceful young woman which it seemed her inalienable prerogative always to remain. The Principal of the University, the Rev. Dr. Marshall Lang, an orator by profession and endowed with unusual power of elocution, read an address of welcome.  The many who sat well forward could not hear the eloquent speaker. Then the King replied.  He seemed not to exert himself, but every word he uttered was heard by all present in that huge gathering. It was the voice of one born to rule, not a tall man but every inch a King.

 

But there was one other unique and almost barbaric dash of splendour that distinguished these festivities, a 2nd miracle which taxed to the uttermost the ingenuity even of the ancient wizard who was the Prospero of the Pageant. Those who had long known Strathcona were well aware that his dearest foible was a certain Highland hospitality à outrance.  He was, he reflected, the head of this great household.   All these distinguished strangers from the ends of the earth were his guests, and all the students and Alumni of the University were his family.  He must needs therefore; the inference was self-evident to him, break bread with all of them.  Without that crowning festive touch the whole proceedings would have seemed to this Artist in hospitality and magnificence to end in an intolerable anti-climax.  Accordingly he announced his intention to give a dinner on the required scale and issued orders to send out the invitations. He was naturally told that the thing was a sheer impossibility. His little party would consist of some 2500 persons and there was no Hall in the City of Aberdeen large enough for such a feast. They did not know their magician. Once he had made up his mind that a thing had to be done he did not recognize any more that Mirabeau of Napoleon the existence of the word "impossible."

 

If there was no Hall  - why not build one?  Was there no open space conveniently close to their doings which might be utilized for their banquet as well as for the main purpose of the Quater-Centenary? There was in fact just the space required, an ample piece of ground, adjoining Marischal College.  In a very few days the needful edifice of wood arose out of the ground, as it were, like Troy to the strumming of Apollo's lyre.  Most of the larger assemblies, all indeed except the monster one we have seen in the Quadrangle, were held there, as well as the Gargantuan Dinner Party, the last astounding scene of all, in which these academic revels soared to their culminating point and burst in a star-shower of hilarity and effulgence.

 

This memorable banquet, the chef d'œuvre of the host on one very characteristic side of him was of course in every sense the most popular exhibition of the entire series of shows. It was peculiarly the affair of the Alumni and under-graduates, especially of the latter who could not be accommodated with seats at some of the functions. They made up for it now. Their Chancellor was resolved that they should have something to remember beyond a mere admission on good behaviour in best bib and tucker to the very end of the great feast. They sat down there in that vast hall with the best of company to a supper of the Pontiffs. The most generous viands were there, the finest vintages in overflowing abundance, turtles shipped from the far Carribees, 1st exhibited for object lessons in the board-schools before they achieved their final immolation in the sacred cause of learning in that delectable euthanasia.  It was a scene over which the imagination of Cervantes or Alexandre Dumas would have gloated. 

 

Not only the Musicians and the Toast-master of the Lord Mayor of London - the finest voice available and brought down at a higher fee than would have fetched a great physician, but cheap at the price, and also the very waiters, 700 strong and all Cockneys, had been spirited up from the vasty deep by this Gaelic counterpart of the Cymric Owen Glendower.

 

Indeed it was quite true that in his work-a-day mood nobody could inspect both sides of a "bawbee" with a more reluctant circumspection of ceremonious leave-taking than this philanthropist, or defend his old stocking against the blandishments of impecunious plausibility with a more impregnable courtesy. That was just what emboldened him after his country fashion to come out strong on high days and holidays.  He had like all true-bred North Britons a holy hatred of small dribbling leakages but was capable when thawed out by the heat of a great occasion of coming down like a highland "spate!" Surely this was such an occasion.

 

Who was this Count of Monte Christo and Mæcenas in one, so splendidly aware of the dignity and significance of Learning, the friend of Emperors and the cynosure of all eyes, who for Queen and Country could send in time of peril a regiment of his own equipping from beyond the Atlantic, and feed a sharp-set multitude of poor Scottish scholars at home?  In the high place on which he shed lustre that night, reserved as it was by immemorial tradition for the most illustrious figures in the proud Scottish Peerage, he was the successor to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon. His Grace while he lived had the clearest titles to that exalted position. He had been the local magnate. His birth and broad acres had made him beyond question the foremost dignitary of the region which owned the University of Aberdeen as its intellectual centre.  He was the undisputed "Cock of the North," Chief of the warlike Clan of the Gordons, the bearer of the most ancient kind of historic name. The present Lord Chancellor too, here in the North had his foot no less firmly upon his native heath.  He, if any man, could claim to be bone of the sturdy bone of the people who look to the Northern University as their centre of illumination. But his Clan was of the bog-myrtle of the bracken rather than the oak, a sept much more numerous and widely sown than the Gordon's. His name was vastly older than the Duke of Richmond's. It was plain Smith, not heightened to Smythe even for patronymic. The personal notches in it, cut by the baptising Highland minister, were the 2 commonest individualizing marks by which a reverend shepherd could summon one of his Highland flock - Donald Alexander.

After the departure of their Majesties to Balmoral, the University Chancellor, Lord Strathcona, entertained around 2500 invited guests in a temporary timber and canvas structure specially designed for the occasion.  Dignatories sat at 73 tables and were served 9 courses by 500 waiters, including a tortue claire soup which took 90 turtles to make.  The evening concluded with an impressive fireworks display for the general public at the Broad Hill.  The total cost of Strathcona’s extravaganza was £8518, the equivalent in today’s money of £610,000. 

At that enormous dinner-table of his which we have seen, there was not a single guest sitting, not the youngest undergraduate there, who owed less to Universities than the Lord Chancellor. He was a graduate of the University of Labrador before becoming a D.C.L. of Oxford and an LL.D. of McGill and Aberdeen. The classroom of his many long freshman years had been one of the remotest of the Hudson's Bay Company's Labrador stores, in which he had sold much tobacco and much tea to Eskimos and Naskapi Indians.  But he was not one of those rich wiseacres self-made as they suppose and rather botched in bits, who think that because they are coarse men, the muses and their thread-bare ministrants may go hang.  He did not bow down before the great god "big business," and sing: "I will have no other gods before thee, radiant being."  He knew, to go no higher than the lowest rung of Jacob's ladder, that you cannot have shops or railways or light, heat, and power companies, the improved means by which you march so proudly to your unimproved ends, without mathematicians, and no mathematicians without poor old professors like Euclid, Sylvester, James Watt, David Thompson and Clark Maxwell: in short, that if the Professor does not usually make money himself, being too much engaged with vastly more important and interesting things, he is the milldam reservoir of light, and therefore of heat and power. Lord Strathcona was perfectly aware that his indirect debt to Universities was immense. He paid it magnificently like the honest, affectionate Highland Scot that he was.

 

There was scarcely a family in Lord Strathcona's home country, however poor, some one or other of whose scions had not risen to some fair degree of distinction and the heights where the wider view is possible.  It would have been difficult to find a nest so low upon the ground that had not sheltered an eagle, to give the brood that came after heart and hope to soar, when their turn came, with fearless eyes against the sun.  No doubt there was something in the firm natural texture of the breed, in the happy blend of Saxon solidity and Celtic fire. But it was Aberdeen University above all that had done it. Its Chancellor, the Graduate of Labrador, owed much to it, though he had never sat in its class-rooms. It had done much to create the quickening atmosphere his youth had breathed, to labour and fructify the soil from which he grew, to establish and disseminate the tradition which had given wings to his career. 

 

Four Centuries before this celebration in which Strathcona played the leading part, Bishop Elphinstone, prelate and statesman, as zealous a patron of learning as Strathcona, and as liberal, too, had founded King's College with its gigantic crown. The tower of King's College had in truth been what it was meant to be, a Pharos to the North.  A steady light of truth and hope and enfranchisement had reached humble homes from there even to the distant Hebrides which had once menaced it at Harlaw, making young eyes glow amid the blue peat-smoke and young hearts beat high.  A shrine, too, it had been; rich in sacrifice.  Fathers and mothers had toiled and pinched to send their boys there. The boys themselves, who on scant fare had climbed the steep triumphal sacred way to the citadel and temple of knowledge, had been no less lavish of oblation. King's had a "right divine" to wear its granite crown. It had impartially wielded the highest prerogative of Royalty; proved a true fountain of honour and ennobled a whole people. Far and wide throughout its sphere of influence the bell-swinging in the crowned tower had proclaimed the evangel which Carlyle says Napoleon's cannon thundered over Europe "the careers open to the talents," "the tools to him who can use them."  Not to deaf ears!

 

So Strathcona did well to honour the grey Mother on whose breast he himself had not lain. He had set out, an old man's lifetime ago, from Aberdeen, in hob-nailed shoes and hodden grey. He was now in Aberdeen again, in the house of his fathers. He had travelled in a far country and returned, not like the lean prodigal, though they had brought forth "the best robe" for him; still less like a freedman of Egypt loaded with his late master's spoils. Say rather like a wise white-bearded king, bearing gifts of gold and precious stones, aloes and myrrh and frankincense, to do homage at a great birthday piously commemorating the past and hopefully greeting the dawn of a future yet more radiant.  He did well to do homage, and they did well to honour him.  He was the achieved type of the wandering Scot which was peculiarly their own. There seemed to be a kind of pre-established harmony between the University itself and that noble figure at its head in the mild glory of old age and slowly ripened majesty and power.  It is this man's life story that that you should seek to emulate, a story of more vital interest to the ordinary man than that of King or Emperor. From the humble home by the Mosset he had gone forth, trusting to his own powers for success. He had achieved his ambitions beyond his most ardent dreams, and he had come home rejoicing, bringing his harvest with him. 

 

We may, quite properly, question if any man in a single lifetime should be able to become a multi-millionaire. That is a question which undoubtedly will have to he faced. But no man can be held responsible for the system which has grown through centuries and has become established and accepted. There are many things which will probably he changed - social distinctions, Titles, House of Lords, etc. Men of the stamp of Lord Strathcona will never change them.  His pre-eminence and success are due to the fact that he had no desire to change them.  He found them established, and by his native shrewdness and executive ability and practical wisdom laid hold of them and made them his creatures.  His high position, his title of "Lord Strathcona," his commanding influence and his great wealth were simply the result of a man of genius manipulating the forces that lay ready to his hand.  Had he been born into another system the same qualities would have won for him an equally great though perhaps a different result.  We need have no scruple in subscribing to the general belief that he was "Canada's Grand Old Man."


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Last modified: 01/09/2013