Revealed: Secret history of Canadian chiefs’ visit to Edinburgh

Chief Clear Sky greeting city officials.
Chief Clear Sky greeting city officials.
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THEY are the forgotten soldiers whose pre-war trip to Edinburgh has long since been lost in the mists of time.

But now a new exhibition is shining a spotlight on a group of Canadian First Nations indigenous troops who made a surprise visit to the Capital in 1916, before heading to the Western Front.

Lothian Road circa 1890, showing Princes Street Railway station, where the Caledonian Hotel now stands.

Lothian Road circa 1890, showing Princes Street Railway station, where the Caledonian Hotel now stands.

Led by four chiefs in native dress, 165 men from a battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force steamed into the former Caledonian Station – now the site of The Caledonian Waldorf Astoria hotel – on December 11, ahead of a whirlwind tour of Edinburgh.

The men, who were temporarily based in the south of England, were just some of around 4000 native volunteers who joined the allied forces during the First World War.

Feeling an affinity with Scotland, this particular group had asked to visit Glasgow and Edinburgh before heading off to the front line – and it was a trip they would never forget.

On arrival in the city centre, they mustered, formed up, and marched along Princes Street, turning off at the foot of the Mound and proceeding up the slope towards the Castle.

For the locals, they made quite a spectacle.

The Scotsman reported at the time: “From the highest roof of Edinburgh Castle, four Indian Chiefs, head feathers streaming in the east wind, their bead covered garments of yellow, red and blue withstanding the rain-laden blast, looked round on the Scottish capital and its environs.

“Probably no stranger or more picturesque figures stood on the Castle summit. They and their comrades were cordially hailed by the residents of the Scottish capital wherever they appeared, as fellow citizens of the Empire.”

Inside the castle, the men signed the visitors book, and Chief Clear Sky – one of their leaders – demonstrated his surprisingly deep understanding of Scottish history. He was, it turned out, a graduate of archaeology and history.

A special luncheon followed, hosted by the Lord Provost, Lorne MacLeod, before the men were whisked off to the King’s Theatre for an evening’s entertainment.

At the end of the show, Chief Clear Sky was said to have delivered a patriotic speech to the audience.

The men never forgot their time in Scotland, and after the war reciprocated the kindness shown to them by raising money for the Scottish Red Cross and donating to build houses for Scottish veterans.

And it was while ploughing through the records of the Scottish Veterans Housing Association that Dr Yvonne McEwen, of Edinburgh University, rediscovered their unusual story.

The academic said: “For nearly 100 years this hidden history has been untold. Recent discoveries highlight that their visit had a significant impact on the Scottish people and later their WW1 veterans.

“This is a deeply moving, human story and I am thrilled that we are able to launch it at the very site that these soldiers arrived in Scotland almost 100 years ago.”

The exhibition will be at ­Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria until October 6.