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Pity our poor Scottish colonists. Their New Year's Eve of 1885 should have been a joyous celebration of a new beginning, an adventurous opportunity to start 1886 with a prosperous new life in the New World.
The group had left hearth and kin behind for an arduous ocean crossing to what they had been told was a modern community on the tropical Gulf Coast of Florida. Scotland was in the throes of a financial depression, and brochures and newspaper accounts of Sara Sota painted an idyllic picture. The Florida Mortgage and Investment Company boasted of a "wonderful new town in the most beautiful section . . . small but very modern . . . where the land was fertile, the weather magnificent, where bumper crops of oranges and vegetables were assured." It was to be the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow.
Skeptics were won over by the investment company's stellar board of directors, which included prominent Scottish gentry, among them a relative of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This, they could rest assured, was no fly-by-night organization.
For one hundred pounds sterling, each family purchased a town lot in Sara Sota and a forty-acre estate outside of town, the site of which would be determined by a drawing. They made the necessary arrangements to leave their homeland, selling most of their belongings, and approximately seventy men, women and children (including some families from England) packed their most cherished possessions, bid farewell to family and friends and, on the night of November 25, 1885, boarded the 440-foot ship Furnesia for the long voyage. They called themselves the Ormiston Colony, after the home of Sir John Gillespie, one of theinvestment company's founders.
The scene at dockside was very emotional. Whatever ambivalence the Scots must have felt about leaving was surely magnified by the sadness of the departure. Nellie Lawrie, one of the children on the journey, later wrote that everyone was weeping as they sang the old Scottish song "Will ye no come back again / Better loved ye ne-er will be." By the time the lyrics "We'll meet again soon ither night, for the days of Auld Lang Syne" were sung, very few could get the words out. Tears were flowing.
The Furnesia steamed away from the lights of Glasgow and into the darkness toward New York (thanks to a broken piston, two stormy weeks away), then to Fernandina on Florida's east coast; next the colonists traveled by rail ("two streaks of rust") to Cedar Key and finally made their way to the side-wheel steamer Gov. Safford, which would bring them to their promised land.
During the stopover at Cedar Key, the first inkling of trouble surfaced. The anxious group learned that lumber for their portable houses had not been delivered. Fearing the worst, they stayed on through Christmas, and when they could no longer stand the anticipation, they boarded the steamer for the final leg of their journey.
On December 28, 1885 the boat navigated slowly into beautiful Sarasota Bay. It was late in the afternoon, and from the deck, staring across the azure water toward the shore, the passengers saw mangroves, scrubland and a few dilapidated buildings. Slowly they realized that Sara Sota, the modern town, existed only in the imaginations of pamphlet writers and as lines on a town plat.
A few pioneer settlers had gathered at the foot of the bay to greet the colonists and help unload their belongings. The newcomers disembarked onto two planks of wood extending from the shoreline, near where Marina Jack stands today. Until lumber finally began arriving, the bewildered colonists had to sleep under hastily erected canvas tents or bunk with locals. Some stayed in an old frame building.
Their unhappiness was pervasive. These were middle- and upper-middle-class families who had nothing in their backgrounds to prepare them for the wilderness that was Sarasota. Their "estates" were often far from the downtown area-some were ten miles away or more through thick forests-and the backbreaking labor involved in laying out streets and building and farming on primitive land was more than most could contend with. To make matters worse, temperatures fell to record lows, and one bitter cold day, snow actually fell. Freezing and miserable with disappointment, many soon fell sick.
Colonist Alex Browning summed up the feelings of the disheartened group in a memoir he drafted in 1932: "Of course there was much discontent, being dumped, like this, in a wild country, without houses to live in, tired and hungry, one can imagine what it was like. Families grouped around their mothers, while their fathers were trying to find out where they were going to live."
For New Year's Eve, the colonists banded together at the largest of the tents to "celebrate" by singing and playing whatever musical instruments they had brought.
After a few months, most of the colonists had had quite enough and moved on. Some returned to Scotland while others settled in more established American towns. A few died in Sarasota. One of those who stayed, John Browning (Alex's father), and his family helped to build Sarasota after the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company sent J. Hamilton Gillespie to revive the effort. Browning's descendants still make Sarasota their home.
In 1985 a citywide celebration commemorated the centennial of the colonists' landing. And while there will probably be no further fanfare about the group until another milestone year comes around, give them a thought New Year's Eve when you sing "Auld Lang Syne."