Earliest Years

The original Cambridge Caledonian Club is believed to have been founded around 1830 by Lord Lindsay, then an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Lord Lindsay went on to become a renowned art historian and collector, and accomplished genealogist, publishing, among other works, the three-volume Lives of the Lindsays, and has been posthumously described as ‘one of the most accomplished and learned men of his time.’ The scion of a family dating back to the Norman Conquest, and prominent in English and Scottish history since the late 11th century, Lord Lindsay succeed his father as the 25th Earl of Crawford and 8th Earl of Balcarres in 1869.

The earliest surviving archival evidence of the Caledonian Club appears in The Morning Post on Tuesday 10 December 1867. A report on the anniversary dinner, it records as Vice President a certain Mr. W. A. Lindsay. The nephew of founder, Lord Lindsay, William Lindsay CVO JP DL FSA was also elected President of the Union the same year and went on to have a successful career both at the bar, taking silk in 1897 and being elected as a Bencher in 1906, and as an officer of arms, rising to the office in Clarence King of Arms in 1922; he also served as a magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant of Devonshire. At Cambridge, William was a contemporary of Lord Lindsay’s son, the Hon. James Lindsay, later The Earl of Crawford and Balcarres KT FR FRAS, who went on to become a famous astronomer, book collector and philatelist.

Other members of the Committee recorded as present at the dinner in Michaelmas 1867, noted as having been prevented by circumstances undeclared from taking place on its customary day, St Andrew’s, include Viscount Dalrymple, later the 11th Earl of Stair, and Messrs Kinnaird and Balfour. The former, later The Lord Kinnaird KT, a tennis blue and University swimming and fives champion, went on to play football for Scotland and, despite never managing to make the school XI at Eton, went on to be described as ‘without exception, the best player of his day.’ Modern commentators sometimes regard him as the first football superstar, and his record nine FA Cup Final appearance remains unbroken (his record five wins stood until 2010). Lord Kinnaird went on to be President of the Football Association for 33 years, during which time football rose out of obscurity to become the national sport, and also served as the President of the YMCA and Lord High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland.

The latter, who later became The Earl of Balfour KG OM PC DL FRS FBA, better known to history as Lord Balfour, went on to give his life to public service, and became one of the great statesmen of the age. He served as Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, succeeding his uncle, but is perhaps most famous for his time as Foreign Secretary under David Lloyd George, during which time he issued the Balfour Declaration in a letter to Lord Rothschild dated 2 November 1917, announcing the support of the British Government for the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’. Already Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, Balfour went on to succeed his brother-in-law Lord Rayleigh as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1919.

A more detailed report on the proceedings of the anniversary dinner of the Club subsequently appeared three years later in The Glasgow Herald. The exuberant evening is reported to have included piping and reels, followed by toasts and song aplenty. The Loyal Toast is reported as being drunk, as is only proper, with ‘the utmost enthusiasm’, and was followed by further toasts to, among others, the Clans, the founder of the Club, Lord Lindsay, and both the President and Secretary. A hearty rendition of auld lang syne helped to bring proceedings to a close, in a tradition still upheld by university Caledonian societies everywhere today, although the restoration of the ‘imposing uniform of the Club’ remains a work in progress…

Members of the Caledonian Club in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also seem to have had enjoyed busy social calendars beyond Cambridge, with multiple appearances of Club members on surviving guests list of invitational balls and dances, including the Ladies’ Fancy Dress Ball in Cheltenham (1879, 1881 and 1909) and the Emigration Society Dance in Bristol (1896). This tradition of exchanging invitations to balls is one the Society continues to encourage today, particularly between universities Caledonian societies.

The Dark Ages

Despite its rich early pedigree and evidence, if patchy, of its continued existence into the 20th century, the Caledonian Club suddenly recedes from view again during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, with scant mention in surviving material. The University Archives hold a copy of a handwritten letter from a Mr A. J. Gobbett, Treasurer of Shelford Memorial Hall, to the Senior Proctor, Prof T. G. S. Combe (Pembroke), seeking support in compelling a Trinity scholar to settle his accounts with the Hall for several dances on behalf of the ‘Cambridge University Caledonian Reel Club’ (a name for the Club otherwise unattested) which they had recently hosted. A copy of the reply sent to Mr Gobbett by Prof Combe may be seen here. This letter, dated 1963, is the last archival mention of the Club until 1984, when the Assistant Registrar wrote to the University Marshal’s Office concerning an enquiry received from Barclays about a sealed wooden box the ‘University Caledonian Club’ had on deposit with the bank. Rather peculiarly, neither the University Registry nor the University Marshal’s Office could find any record of the Caledonian Club, or any Scottish society, except the letters concerning the unsettled debt some 20 years prior. Perhaps the Club was laying low… As for the box, what it contained and what became of it remains a mystery.

Recent History

The Club, now renamed the Cambridge Caledonian Society, seems to have reappeared around the turn of the 21st century. This clipping from the Cambridge Evening News, dated 25 February 1995, is reminiscent of similar reports in the Saffron Walden Weekly News from the 1950s, and suggests that the tradition of members of Club providing instruction and support to newcomers to Scottish dancing (in this case members of the local Women’s Institute) was making a welcome resurgence. By 2010, the Cambridge University Caledonian Society is recorded again as having had a presence at the Student Union Freshers’ Fair in Michaelmas, and to have returned to hosting regular balls and other events; by 2014, membership of the Society is reported as being over 300 people.

CREDIT: Barcroft Media

The newly reinvigorated Society subsequently received national attention in 2015 when this photograph was published in a Daily Mail article to depict the ‘bizarre but wonderful’ culture of the University of Cambridge. The same picture was published again in June 2023 in a piece by The Telegraph on the influencer Caroline Calloway, after she admitted in her memoir Scammer to having forged her academic credential to secure admission to the University. At Cambridge, Calloway became known for her glamorous party lifestyle, and the social media content it generated; she is pictured here reeling with a friend at a Cambridge Caledonian Society Ball at Girton College.

CREDIT: Barcroft Media

Such balls were a mainstay of the Society’s activities until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought all dance practices, dinners and balls to a sudden halt. But, as restrictions were eased, the Society once again picked itself up, taught a new generation of Cambridge students how to dance, and, in Michaelmas 2023, hit its stride with a sold-out Winter Ball at Westminster College, including guests with only a Term of reeling behind them, and visitors from Oxford, Durham, and London.