Royal Celtic Society ArmsThe Royal Celtic Society

For nearly 200 years, the Royal Celtic Society has been at the cutting edge of activity to support the language, literature, music and culture of the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland. The Society holds regular events for members, awards medals for excellence in music and literature and sponsors a wide range of organisations dedicated to the traditions, language and arts of the Highlands and Islands.

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Charles and May McKerrell of HillhouseMay McKerrell of Hillhouse, a long standing member of the Royal Celtic Society's Council and an experienced researcher, has kindly undertaken to examine the Society's extensive archive, which dates back to its foundation in January 1820.

This is a lengthy job and we are grateful to May for offering her expertise in a project that we anticipate will reveal much about the Society's long history, from its foundation nearly 200 years ago until the present day.

Among the detail she has so far uncovered from the Society's early years is the fact that the first meeting of what was then known as The Celtic Society was held on 4th January 1820 in Oman's Tavern in Edinburgh's west end. This hostelry stood on or very close to the site now occupied by New Register House, the principal repository of Scotland's records and home to the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms.

The meeting was convened by one William Mackenzie, an army officer who was apparently the grandson of an imprisoned Jacobite of the Forty Five.  The membership grew rapidly in those early days with many of Edinburgh's great and good joining the Society's ranks; only three weeks after that initial meeting, Sir Walter Scott was admitted to membership.

The pivotal role The Celtic Society played in George IV's historic visit to his Scottish capital in 1822 is widely documented; what is perhaps less widely known is that it was The Celtic Society which funded the statue of the king, which stands to this day at the crossroads of George Street and Hanover Street in Edinburgh's New Town.

May's most significant discovery to date reveals how the Society received its 'Royal' status.  The detail of this had long been forgotten, except for an assertion by a former Chairman that that Queen Victoria had granted a Royal Charter during the 19th century. It had been assumed that the original document had been lost and that this might be difficult to confirm.

After an extensive search, much of it in sources not directly connected to the Society, May discovered a letter dated 19th May 1873.  It is a hand written note from the then Home Secretary, Henry Austin Bruce, to his colleague in government and the Society's then President, the eighth Duke of Argyll.  Bruce has, he says "had the honour to put before the Queen" the Duke's request that "the Celtic Society, of which your grace is President, assume the title of Royal."  He goes on to confirm that "Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to accede to the request and to command that the society shall be styled the Royal Celtic Society."

We are grateful to May for rediscovering this gem of the Society's long history and look forward to further revelations as her research progresses.



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