Click here to see British Pathe footage of the Ball from 1962.
The Royal Caledonian Ball started sometime in the 1840s as a private gathering given by the Duke and Duchess of Atholl for their Scottish friends who resided in London. By 1849, still at their invitation, it became a subscription dance for the purposes of collecting funds for Scottish charities, albeit with a decidedly Highland bias. Records show that the ball has been held annually ever since; cancellations only occurring with events beyond the committee’s control! No balls took place during the Boer War, following the death of Edward VII in 1910 and during the First and Second World Wars. Over more than one hundred and fifty years it has grown into one of the highlights of the London Season and a most successful vehicle for raising large sums of money. It must by now have a good chance of ranking as the oldest charity ball in the world.
From 1930 the ball has been held at Grosvenor House, this hotel having the largest ballroom in London and capable of dealing with up to a thousand Scots who descend on the capital to reel the night away. A record attendance was achieved in the 1980s of more than thirteen hundred but this is unlikely ever to be overtaken with the modern fire regulations in place. Indeed at the time everyone agreed that it was rather too many for the Great Room to cope with, rather a squash, leaving many participants hot and bothered.
In the 1930s, as a treat, it was a very popular custom for children with their nannies to be allowed on the Balcony to watch the set reel, which formally opens the ball, in the Great Room below. Lady Dalmeny revived this fantastic tradition in 2010 and it is delightful to look up to the Balcony and see a row of eager faces watching their parents dancing below. It is also a timely reminder of the enduring traditions of the Ball, three generations can often be found on the dance floor at once.
Since the days of Edward VII the ball has been honoured with the Patronage of the reigning Monarch and the ball can celebrate over 50 years of Patronage by Her Majesty The Queen.
The president had traditionally always been the current Duke of Atholl, who annually attended the dance and usually brought with him his own private army, The Atholl Highlanders, to play before the ball and to pipe onto the floor everyone taking part in the ceremonial set reel before performing an eightsome reel. This is a dance of Atholl origin and was introduced in 1890, before which it was the practice to arrange quadrilles. However, as the present Duke of Atholl lives in South Africa, we have been fortunate in securing the services of firstly the Earl of Erroll as our president and now Iona, Duchess of Argyll.
The money raised by the Royal Caledonian Ball allows a substantial sum to be given to Scottish charities each year. The Committee feels that it is more important to give aid to people rather than things and so it is the young, the elderly, the homeless, the cancer sufferers and the disabled and disadvantaged in any way who receive help to improve their lives through our donations. An article on charity balls published in a leading daily newspaper some years ago gave the impression that only about £10 from every ticket sold actually went to good causes. For many years the ball has succeeded in giving 60 – 80% of the cost of a ball ticket to the chosen charities and, thanks to gifts towards the expenses of this dance from generous sponsors, we hope to be able to continue to improve on this percentage.
Over the last ten years, the Ball has donated over £300,000 to Scottish charities and worthy causes.
In recent years, the ball has supported a number of charities, including The Queen Victoria School in Dunblane, Borderline, The Erskine Hospital and St Catherine’s Homeless Project in Edinburgh.