A cup o' kindness for London Scots

Auld Lang Syne insists that we must help our old acquaintances and that's just what one charity in London has been doing for Scots … for 400 years

COME, let us step back in time. Wind the clocks back 400 years to a tavern in London's Covent Garden where men with broad Scots accents, harsh to the local ear, have tramped through fetid streets of straw, mud and sewage to warm themselves by a crackling fire, feast on cold mutton and sink tankards of strong ale, which, after all, is so much safer than the local drinking water. Perhaps one or two give a cursory glance in the direction of the wenches who'll provide company for a penny, but their intent this night is not for their own comfort and satisfaction, but that of their fellow countrymen.

London may be booming with business, and the excited expectation of the opening of William Shakespeare's new play The Tempest, but not for everyone are the streets of the capital paved with gold. There are many within the small community of Scots who travelled down with King James VI seven years previously who are now struggling, hungry and destitute.

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For the Scot in London was once a rarity. In the 1560s there were only between 40-60 Scotsmen officially recorded as resident in London, at a time when the city had 3,300 Flemish. The arrival of a Scots king to the throne had prompted courtiers, poets, musicians, goldsmiths, clockmakers, wool merchants, weavers and tailors to travel south from Edinburgh, with many taking up resident near the Old Scotland Yard. Merchants and craftsmen migrated towards the guilds of the City of London.

At the time Scots were, in the words of Sir Edwin Sandys, "better than aliens", however "not equal with natural subjects". The men who gathered in the Covent Garden tavern were concerned for their fellow countrymen who no longer had food to eat. For at the time the Poor Laws were such that any person in need of assistance must receive it from the parish in which they were born – impossible for those without the means to buy bread never mind a seat on the long carriage ride north.

To address this problem a group of successful Scots set up a charity whose fund box is still in existence today, while being of questionable authenticity. The Ancient Scots Box was made of oak, with the date, 1611 inscribed on a brass plate while on the lid was a verse from Psalm 133:

Behold How Good a Thing It is

And How Becoming Well

Together Such As Brethren Are

In Unite To Dwell

Those who attended each meeting made a financial contribution so that "small sums were lent on bond to the poorer members without interest, aid afforded in sickness, and burial expenses paid". Under the group's rules the garrulous behaviour of the typical drunken Scots was turned to the benefit of the many as "for every Oath or curse" brought a fine of two shillings while "striking or giving abusive language" warranted a fine of a magnitude to be decided by the group dependent on the seriousness of the transgression.

What began in a London tavern in the year that the King James Bible was first published continues today. Over the past four centuries the charitable assistance of Scots in London to their fellow Scots evolved into ScotsCare, a charity with funds and assets in excess of 40 million which provides financial assistance, friendship and support to Scots in need who live within a 35-mile radius of Covent Garden, where the charity was founded and, until last year, had its headquarters.

Sixty years after that first meeting, in 1664, the charity expanded when James Kinnier, a weaver, persuaded 19 of his fellow Scots to set up a royal charter and petition Charles II for permission to set up a hospital or workhouse for destitute Scots in London. The arrival of the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London, the following year, increased the need for charitable giving. During the plague the charity buried 300 Scots "with as much decency as the publick Calamity would permit".

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The Royal Scottish Corporation, as the charity became known, took on new members and contributors following the Union of 1707, when many more Scots moved south and signed up with the charity as a means of insurance against hard times ahead. Yet not all liked the manner in which Scots in London would stick together. James Boswell wrote that the "Scotch who come up to London are like galley-slaves chained together. They only coast it and never get into the main ocean … when a Scotsman asks you to dine with him here, instead of letting you see English company, he asks at the same time a number of the very people whom you see at home".

While there will be those curious as to why, in the days of a solid welfare state, a charity for Scots in London still exists, the staff say it is a question never asked by the recipients of its aid. Where in the 1560s there was less than 100 Scots in London, today there are an estimated 340,000, of whom 10 per cent live in poverty and face chronic illness and loneliness, or a combination of all three.

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Willie Docherty, the chief executive, is robust in the charity's defence. "There are still somewhere in the region of 30,000 scots that live in poverty and we exist to help them – there is still the need because there are still homeless Scots, Scots who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and Scots where one partner has died and their pension is insufficient – there are lots of reasons why we would continue to exist."

Among the charity's current champions is the surprising duo of Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith and AL Kennedy, author and stand-up comic.

Yet as Duncan Smith said in a previous interview: "As a Scot in London, I feel particular concern for my fellow countrymen who have fallen on hard times." He said that ScotsCare was typical of the charities and community groups he had worked with at the Centre for Social Justice.

While Kennedy said: "London can be a magnet for the unwisely hopeful and the vulnerable. It can also be a lonely, unforgiving and potentially unsurviveable city. I'm happy to do whatever I can for ScotsCare."

Today, ScotsCare has a range of charitable activities. First there are the three sheltered housing complexes for elderly and disabled Scots in Whetstone, Wimbledon and Lewisham. "The people there are a little community of Scots," explains Docherty. "They like to celebrate Burns night and St Andrew's Day and it's a common bond."

Then there are the 250 older Scots on a low income or pension who each receive a monthly payment of 87 to ease life a little and fund the odd luxury. The other 600 separate cash payments, averaging around 150, are made to a variety of people such as single mothers for school uniforms, to pay for coaching or music lessons for their children or as funds towards a holiday. Grants are also provided to assist students and the unemployed in obtaining the training required to secure full-time employment. To the homeless they also provide clothing grants.

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When Docherty took over in 2002, after a successful background in urban regeneration projects, the charity was struggling to enter the 20th century, never mind the 21st. Volunteers visited people in their homes and the same form of assistance was given to everyone, regardless of their own ability – a 25-year-old capable of working was given the same assistance as a 75-year-old.

Today the charity employs 22 people, equivalent to 17 full-time staff and has recently launched a new volunteer programme, the '"Blether Buddies", who call up lonely and vulnerable Scots for a chat, which usually lasts 20 minutes.

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"The loneliness of the big city does get people down and it's amazing how effective a simple phone call or visit can be, what a difference it can make to a person's day" says Docherty. The charity is also trialling a series of lunches for elderly Scots.

Like every charity, ScotsCare, whose current president is Lord Dalmeny, the Earl of Rosebery has, over the centuries endured good times and bad.

Queen Victoria, who had sought solace in Balmoral in the Scottish countryside after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, was a great supporter of the charity, donating one hundred guineas each year for 63 years. However, she would have been less than amused had she been aware that in 1862 a serious case of fraud was uncovered and the secretary dismissed in disgrace.

Yet the financial prudence with which Scots were well known, prior to the near collapse of our two national banks, has been exhibited by the charity. It made a shrewd investment in the 19th century when it purchased a property in Fleet Street. In 1974 the property was sold for 450,000 (the equivalent of 7-8 million today). The capital was invested under the careful eye of Sir William Slimmings, the charity's financial adviser.

Today ScotsCare has a portfolio of stocks and shares valued at around 26 million, while its property portfolio, including its headquarters and sheltered housing, take its total funds, according to its most recent financial report to 43m.

While the financial crisis of the past few years may have wiped 40 per cent off the returns the charity receives, it still enjoys an annual budget of 1.6m, generated from 1.1m in investment returns and 500,000 in rent.

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The property and portfolio were ring-fenced in the mid-1990s by the board of trustees who, in response to new charity laws, were required to state what constituted their permanent endowment. As a result the funds cannot be spent but exist to generate an annual fund.

"We are in good financial health," says Docherty, "but we want to be around helping Scots in London for another 400 years and that requires a continuous investment, we can't be complacent and that's why we are dedicating ourselves during this year to increasing the number of legacies left to the charity."

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Worn and battered by age, the Scots Box remains ever open for those wishing to put in and, of course, for those in need, to take out.

• www.scotscare.com