I’ve come across a reference to Thomas Sutherland’s involvement in local civic life. Namely, in 1823, “Thomas Sutherland, a merchant tailor […] was the founder of a club still existing in the city, known as the ‘Heather Club’…. The Heather Club was instituted by him to foster a taste for rustic sports and good fellowship, and it still exists on the lines of its original constitution.” The history of the Heather Club supports Sutherland’s role, though it does get his name slightly wrong:
“It fell to the lot of a Mr. Joseph Sutherland, a merchant in Edinburgh, to conceive the idea of founding an association, which, then its embryo state, ultimately became in the year 1823 the ‘Edinburgh Heather Club’. At a later date we find from authenticated data that this Mr Sutherland emigrated to Upper Canada and there formed a colony, which was named after him – viz the district of Sutherland, on the river St. Clair.”
Another writer claimed it was intended to “encourage traditional Scottish games,” and certainly they were known for an annual excursion to the Pentlands accompanied by a piper. The rest of the time they appeared to have functioned as a dinner club for Jacobites.
Of everything I have read, however, it is the fact that a young Muriel Spark once won their poetry prize that amuses me most. By her own account:
“A poetry competition was launched among the schools of Edinburgh by the Heather Club, a men's club founded in 1823 (for what purpose I do not know, except that it was very Scottish). I won first prize with my poem about Sir Walter Scott, and another girl at Gillespie's got third prize. The school was doubly jubilant; everyone was delighted. So delighted that I hadn't the heart, I couldn't possibly explain how I felt about the prize itself. Partly, it was a number of books, and that pleased me. But partly it was a coronet, with which I was to be crowned Queen of Poetry at some public Scott-centenary celebration. My mother was overjoyed, as was nearly everyone else, in school and out of school. I felt like the Dairy Queen of Dumfries, but I endured the experience and survived it. A star actress, Esther Ralston, did the crowning. It was a mystery to me what she had to do with poetry or Sir Walter Scott. The coronet itself was cheap-looking, I thought. The only person who openly agreed with my point of view was our reserved and usually silent headmaster, T J Burnett. He knew I had to go through with it now that I had won the prize, but he showed a sense of the unsuitable nature of this coronet affair. He was essentially an administrator, a man of very few words. '’Tinsel,’' he said quietly to me, and then made a congratulatory speech in front of the school. According to his daughter, Maida, he remarked at home, '’That lassie can write.'”
…thus extending Sutherland’s literary associations in ways not previously anticipated.