Exclusive Opinion by Aline Dobbie: The Great Scottish India Connection

  • Posted on: 1 October 2016
  • By: Aline Dobbie

The Scottish diaspora throughout the world was significant but in India it was huge with every two out of three families having family members working and living in India, Burma and Ceylon.

This year is 250 years after the vision of the New Town of Edinburgh that coincided with the Age of Enlightenment when Scots Philosophers, Writers, Scientists, Engineers, Artists and Architects shone their light and talent and wisdom out over Great Britain and Europe. That time of enlightened thinking that coincided with the activity and success of the East India Company led to young Scots of all walks of life seeking to assuage their aspirations and find serious occupations for themselves. The subcontinent of India proved their great opportunity.

Standing looking out onto lush green lawns and the autumn colours beginning in the trees I reflected on the landscape of a Scottish ancestral home and thought of all the Scots who went to India where the landscape could be very varied but not quite like this. Those of us whose families served in India through the generations still have that sense of India in our heritage and therefore a love and great interest in that huge country …. from a small northern land of valleys, hills, mountains and sparkling rivers we Scots went for over two centuries to a vast sub-continent of wide diversity and the legacy remains with us to this day.

Here at Broomhall, the ancestral seat of the famous Bruce family, descendants of that legend Robert the Bruce I had come to see a new exhibition detailing this family’s great past in India where indeed I was born and grew up, the last of generations of two families who served, worked, lived and died in the sub-continent.

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin

The 8th Earl of Elgin was Viceroy from 1862 to 1863 when he tragically died of heart failure aged only 52. This quiet man had made his mark in Jamaica, then very importantly in Canada as Governor General and indeed persuaded the Canadians of both English and French origins to become a Dominion, the very first which was an example followed by Australia and New Zealand. But he actually with his foresight and wisdom dissuaded the Canadians from joining up with the United States. A huge achievement. Cruelly his work in India was curtailed by his sudden death and he is buried in Dharmsala in north India. He was on a march in the company of my ancestor the Commander in Chief to Lahore when he died in 1863.   His young son Victor the 9th Earl grew up fully mindful of his late father’s achievements, the godson of Queen Victoria and he came to India as Viceroy in 1894. His was a quiet but hugely significant time in India and he was known as ‘The Walking Viceroy’ and his views mirrored his late father’s that he wanted the Indians to benefit in every way from the British rule; development, communication, food distribution, education, dignity of man were his values and he and his countess had eleven children the last of whom was born in India. The new museum is really a cabinet of curiosities intended to enhance the appeal of the property for guests who will be able to hire the house on an exclusive basis for a function or event from 2017.

The 9th Earl faced the challenge of two consecutive years of widespread crop failure in 1896 and 1897 by organising the most comprehensive programme of outdoor relief ever seen in India. At its peak the programme provided work for 33 million people –  over 30 years before Roosevelt launched the New Deal to combat the effects of the Depression in the US. Underlying the success of Elgin’s programme was the railway building programme, again the most progressive in the history of India, which allowed distribution of food supplies to famine stricken areas. By the time he left office in 1899, India had been provided with over 25,000 miles of track, of which 4000 miles had been planned or built during his term of office.

I have seen just a part of this glorious archive and was entranced and intrigued. Broomhall is going to play host to modern young people who will see a heritage mansion open its doors and welcome folk to dinners and lunches and events, who want to learn about a shared past and enjoy the present, with a glass of fusion whisky to wash it all down. Yes, a fusion of Scotch and Indian malt whiskies is what is going to be launched and it will be intriguing and special I have no doubt. The Water of Life can flow in great rivers in both Scotland and India.

Scots Cemetery as it is being restored and reconfigured now in 2016

In 2008 a team of experts flew to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to survey the Scottish Cemetery in the heart of the city. Their aim was to restore the Cemetery within its walled perimeter and provide a green oasis within a city of 15 million people. Estimates now suggest over 6300 people are buried there and over 90% have Scottish names. Those Scots originated from towns and villages throughout Scotland and they came from all walks of life. The cemetery was established in 1826 and was the main burial ground of St Andrew’s Church of Scotland sited in, what was then, Dalhousie Square and is now known as BBD Bagh. The South Park Street Cemetery close by has been carefully renovated and conserved and provides a melancholy reminder of all the people who gave their lives in the service of Great Britain and India. In my childhood that too was a complete jungle and a dangerous place to visit but is now a place of heritage; that is now a requirement for the Scottish Cemetery that it should be declared a place of national heritage to give it historical importance.

This topical story reflects the history between our two countries. Kolkata was, until 1911 the capital of India. It was the centre of the British East India Company’s vast trade monopoly until the Indian Revolt in 1857 led to British rule under the Raj. In 1800 it was estimated that over two thirds of the Company’s officials were Scots.

The trading links were created back in 1618 when King James VI awarded a patent to Sir James Cunningham of Glengarnock, to found the Scottish East India Company. This led to vigorous objections in the City of London and amongst the Royal Burghs which feared the importation of exotic goods and they forced the patent to be withdrawn. It is worth considering at this point that at that time India had a significant number of empires that flourished and made it a major trading nation in the east.

However, the Act of Union in 1707 allowed Scots equal access to the English East India Company, which subsequently became the British East India Company (hereafter referred to as EIC) and by 1750 it was estimated that around 30% of the posts in Bengal were filled by Scots.

The EIC provided an escape route out of poverty for many young men at this time. John Malcolm was one of seventeen children from Dumfriesshire who got a cadetship in Bengal at the age of 13. He became private secretary to Lord Wellesley and set about a major reorganisation of Central India. His ambition was rewarded when he became Governor General of Bombay in 1827.

John Malcolm

Youth was also a feature of Malcolm’s predecessor in the governorship of Bombay. Mountstuart Elphinstone arrived from Scotland aged only 16. He became perhaps one of the greatest legal reformers in India, trying to eliminate infanticide, slavery, prostitution and sati (the ancient Hindu practice of a widow throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.) He was also a great believer in education and he founded a Hindu College staffed by Sanskrit scholars at Poona now Pune in 1821. This was in direct contrast to the edict from the EIC at that time which wanted education to be conducted in English, perhaps their way of encouraging European and Christian values in the educated Indian elite.

The EIC was also seen as a suitable career path for the educated classes within Scotland. Many graduates from Edinburgh University, particularly in medicine and botany, found success in India. One such was William Roxburgh from Ayrshire who became the Superintendent of the famous Calcutta Botanical Garden in 1793. He introduced new plants from all over India and became known as the father of Indian botany. The Calcutta Botanical Gardens had a great deal to do with Kew and in 2009 Kew’s significant year it celebrated in many ways that connection – how lovely it would be for the Calcutta Botanical Garden to be renovated and given sensitive restoration.

Hugh Falconer of Forres

Another medical man with an interest in botany was Hugh Falconer of Forres. He was asked to investigate the possibility of growing tea in India. Wild tea plants had been found in Assam eleven years earlier by a young Scot, Major Robert Bruce. Bruce brought the plant back and, after his death, his brother Charles worked tirelessly to produce India’s first tea which was officially declared Assam tea in 1834. James Taylor from Kincardine used this Assam variety in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and after he invented the first “tea-rolling” machine he revolutionised the tea production industry. Fellow Scot William MacKinnon used his shipping line British India Steam Navigation Company to bring Indian tea to the world. However, it was a third Scot, Tommy Lipton from the Gorbals who, after meeting Taylor in the early 1890s, saw the potential for tea and realised the savings that could be made from cutting out the middle men. So he bought four tea plantations in Ceylon and started growing and importing his own tea, thus making it accessible to the masses. Lipton’s tea became a household name across Europe and US, making Sir Thomas a wealthy man and dramatically improving the economies of India and Ceylon

The EIC offered young men the opportunity to prove themselves in the military. After the failure of the 1745 uprising at home many men enlisted and some battalions were formed specifically for duty in India, like the 75th Highland Regiment raised in 1787. Four years later it merged with the 92nd to become the 1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders whose first two battle honours are “Mysore” and “Seringapatam.”   The Regiments spent twenty years fighting in south India to protect British interests around Madras where the EIC had first settled back in 1640. The famous ‘Patriot before his time’ Tipu Sahib, known as the Sultan of Mysore, was a dangerous enemy who had sided with the French. The Mysore Wars culminated in an important victory for the British at the Battle of Seringapatam which resulted in the death of Tipu Sultan. In the National Gallery of Scotland there is a portrait of General David Baird standing triumphant over the body of Tipu. However, now in this 21st century The Burrell Collection, one of Glasgow’s publicly owned museums, would like to acquire a gold and gem-encrusted tiger’s head finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan as a fitting addition to its collection of Muslim and Indian art.   Interestingly the Burrell Collection feels that acquiring the finial would not only fit into the Collection because of its artistic quality and cultural significance but would also help explore deeply resonant contemporary issues such as achieving mutual understanding, prosperity and stability via intercultural dialogue in a complex culturally diverse society. Yes, indeed, Tipu Sultan died just over two centuries ago and the evolving world order has shown all of us that we have to respect each other not dominate or subsume peoples (which is still sadly happening in other parts of the world).

That military campaign however was the start of the path of success for Arthur Wellesley subsequently Duke of Wellington. For some, the military taught them skills which they could later apply outside the army. In 1783 a young man from Stornoway called Colin Mackenzie joined the EIC as an officer in the engineers. After the Battle of Seringapatam his survey team made detailed drawings of Mysore and the surrounding captured territory. He went on to survey throughout south India and garner extensive information on all aspects of Indian life and culture. He was later appointed Surveyor General of India and produced some of the first accurate maps of India.

Scots had proved themselves to be good administrators and many had held the post of Governor General. One prominent figure was James Ramsay, later to become Lord Dalhousie. In 1847 he became the youngest ever governor. He had introduced railways to India and expanded the telegraph to improve communications. He reformed the postal service, introduced a public works department and instigated plans for a nationwide irrigation system. Soldiers, sailors, engineers, marine engineers, harbour masters, doctors, teachers, missionaries, tea planters, coffee planters, jute ‘wallahs’, policemen, civil service administrators and all their wives made up the Scottish Diaspora in India and Ceylon. To this day the Scots are widely held in respect particularly by the older generation. It was Sir Walter Scott who allegedly remarked ‘India has become the corn chest for us Scots….’.

James Ramsay, later to become Lord Dalhousie

Dalhousie’s policy of annexation and reforms were felt by some to have been partially responsible for creating the grounds for discontent that led to the Indian Revolt. It must be pointed out however that there had been several revolts throughout the 1800s, reflecting Indian dissatisfaction with British domination. Ill health led to Dalhousie’s retirement a year before the uprising of 1857. His name lives on in Himachal Pradesh where the town which bears his name became a popular hill station during the Raj with a magnificent view of the Himalaya. The Indian Revolt is better referred to as The First War of Independence in India today; my own ancestor was one of the four victorious generals who defeated the amazing and courageous Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi at the siege of Gwalior – she is recognised in India as one of their very first Freedom Fighters.

The power of the EIC increased over the years but with it grew internal corruption and inefficiencies. One man charged with presiding over the administration of it was Henry Dundas, Solicitor General for Scotland in 1766. He determined to curb the monopolistic powers of the EIC in favour of free trade. Slowly he dismantled some of the privileges but it was his son Robert who finally abolished the EIC monopoly in 1813. This opened new opportunities for commerce and Scottish companies were quick to take advantage.

One such company was James Finlay and Company, a Glasgow based company established in 1745 whose roots were in cotton. With the advent of free trade, the founder’s son Kirkman, later described as “the leading capitalist in Scotland,” sent his ship the “Earl of Buckinghamshire” to India in 1816. She was the first ship to sail from the Clyde to Bombay.   This new market for cheap cotton goods boomed and soon India became the company’s most profitable region.

View from Hastings Bridge Calcutta 1860s

At home the textile industry was well established with much of the finished dyed and printed cotton being shipped to India. In 1827 there was a major breakthrough at the Vale of Leven. The mill owners perfected the technique to dye fabric Turkey Red, a highly prized colour, without it fading or running. Red is a highly auspicious colour, it is the colour a bride marries in. Business boomed and at this time one of the most popular patterns used became known as the “Paisley Pattern.”

Paisley Pattern

This teardrop shaped motif was originally used on shawls in Kashmir and examples were brought back home as presents from men working with the EIC in the middle of the 18th century. Shawls became very fashionable and UK manufacturers could produce them at a fraction of the cost of Indian ones. Production started in Edinburgh in 1790, followed by Paisley in 1805 but it was technical advances in handlooms that really helped the industry develop. The Jacquard loom introduced in the 1820s allowed larger scale production of more elaborate shawls. Paisley was pre-eminent in this field because its companies managed to drive down costs more aggressively and target the mass markets of the middle and working class. Paisley produced more products, and for longer, than any other town and therefore the pattern became commonly known as the “Paisley Pattern.” However, by the early 1870s fashion changed and cheaper shawls flooded the market and the industry started to decline. In India the pro -independence movement led by Gandhi was promoting self-sufficiency and gradually the Indian home market started to flourish at the expense of Scotland. On an Indian note it is thought the tear drop design closely resembled a mango beloved of all Indians. It was Babur the great Mogul who said when he was intent on conquering India that it had two great discoveries for him…. the elephant and the mango! Interestingly in Machlipatnam in south India on the Carnatic Coast chintz was probably invented – that area of India had trading connections going back to the Romans and indeed research shows that it is an area that had previously been devastated by tsunamis in the Bay of Bengal.

Calcutta View – Sailing Ships and Other Boats Docked Along Hooghly River – Calcutta (Kolkata)

Local production of raw materials like cotton and jute was a major competitive advantage for India. The latter product was also the source of close relations between our countries. Dundee and Kolkata were linked by jute. Grown in Bangladesh and around Kolkata it was shipped to Dundee where it was finished in Scotland and then shipped back. This trade flourished for 70 years; however, by the 1900s the Dundee mill owners realised it was more cost effective to move to India and many of the mills on the shores of the Hooghly River had Scottish names like Angus, Dalhousie and Caledonia. This was the beginning of the end for jute production in Scotland. Instead of exporting finished jute to India they were now exporting textile machinery made in Monifeith and skilled people. In the Scottish Cemetery lie many of the employees and their families sent out to nurture the jute industry. Curiously now in this eco conscious 21st century people are returning to using jute for bags and holdalls and as a means of packaging whereas plastic had superseded it with disastrous consequences during the last half of the 20th century.

Pontoon Bridge Over Hooghly River in Calcutta (Kolkata) – and Bullock Carts Nearby

John Muir, who was now running James Finlay and Co. recognised the decline in textiles and switched into tea production, for which that company is still famous. Finlay moved into the infant tea industry in 1873, acting as an agent in Calcutta for two small tea estates in the north. But Muir quickly saw the benefits of grouping tea estates and gradually bought up many estates throughout the Subcontinent. Back home he had warehouses in London, the company’s own tea brokers and tea tasters and controlling interests in a tea packaging company. By the 1890s the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography said Muir was the world’s largest stakeholder in the growing and marketing of tea. At his death in 1903 James Finlay employed 90 000 people worldwide. Nowadays it focuses primarily on tea, although it sold its tea estates to its long term partner, the Tata Group. Unfortunately, James Finlay’s association with Glasgow has also been severed when it moved its head office to London in 2007.

In 1931 the majority of top 20 companies in India had Scottish connections. The five largest in order of size were Tata, Andrew Yule, Inchcape, James Finlay, Williamson Magor and Burn and Co. with Tata Group the only Indian company. Companies with Scots roots owned 400 subsidiaries dominating tea, sugar, jute, coal, electricity, transport, metals and general investments. Sadly, now they have all but disappeared, with only James Finlay surviving today in a recognisable form.

Andrew Yule came from Stonehaven in 1863 and set up a conglomerate in tea, coal, jute and cotton. His brother George was involved in politics and along with Sir William Wedderburn from Edinburgh they helped found the Indian National Congress. George became the first non-Indian president of the Party.

The development of Inchcape Group is a classic example of Scots working together for mutual profit. In the early 1800s there were 2 major shipping lines (the third Cunard, although bearing the name of a man from Nova Scotia had Glaswegian managing partners).

P&O British India Travel Vintage Poster

Peninsular and Orient (P & O) was founded by a Shetlander called Arthur Anderson in 1837 and later run by another Scot called Thomas Sutherland. Early in the 1900s due to increased competition and protectionist policies Sutherland entered into negotiations with James MacKay (later Lord Inchcape) who was at that time chairman of British India Steam Navigation Company (BI). The companies were comparable in size and whilst BI dominated the Indian Ocean routes, P&O operated long haul and domestic routes. In September 1914 BI was taken over by P&O, although effectively it was members of BI who played major roles within the newly enlarged P&O. Lord Inchcape became chairman and managing director and the shipping operation became a subsidiary of Inchcape Group thereafter.

The history of BI is interesting. Sir William MacKinnon was born in Campbeltown in 1823 and joined his friend Robert Mackenzie who was already established in trading in Calcutta in 1847. They formed a partnership called MacKinnon, Mackenzie and Co. later the same year chartering sailing vessels between India and Australia. Sadly, Robert was drowned in a shipwreck in 1853 but William continued to prosper from the boom in Indian cotton after the American Civil War in 1861 after which the American supplies dried up.

MacKinnon has been hailed by some as the “greatest Scottish industrialist of all time.” He favoured the Clyde side shipbuilders, notably William Denny and Bros. of Dumbarton, placing orders himself and negotiating on their behalf at home and abroad on new contracts. It is also said he only served finest malt whisky from Campbeltown on his ships. It is worth noting at this point that one can go around India to this day and discover iron works and architectural works manufactured in Scotland, such as the pillars of part of the fabulous palace at Mysore. Assam, where I have been recently for the first time is full of Scottish plant and engineering for the tea industry and that north east area of India is trying very hard to encourage a tourism industry based on the heritage of the tea industry.

When MacKinnon won the right to run the prestigious mail route between Calcutta and Rangoon he immediately set up a new company, the Calcutta & Burmah Steam Navigation Co Ltd and this ultimately led to the formation of his company British India Steam Navigation Co., (B I) registered in Scotland in 1862. The BI fleet went on to become the largest single merchant fleet in the world in 1922 with 158 vessels.

James MacKay from Arbroath joined MacKinnon, Mackenzie and Co. in 1874 and when MacKinnon died in 1893 MacKay, later Lord Inchcape, was ready to take on the mantle and take BI to even greater things.

Lieutenant Colonel James Tod

Let me tell you about the very special Lieutenant Colonel James Tod. I came across him in a very special way. I was in Udaipur last year and HH Maharana mentioned that he was a countryman of mine. James Tod was born in Scotland in about 1782 and we do not know a great deal about him till he joined the East India Company when he was only 18 years old in 1800. He came to India but he did not have family with great influence and so he experienced various challenges and in those days the British only had control of certain areas of India. In 1805 when he was still a subaltern James Tod was tasked with commanding an escort attached to the embassy sent to Maharaja Scindia who, at that time, was encamped at Mewar. Thus, the still-independent states within what we know as Rajasthan became his ‘home of adoption’ and he spent the best part of his life there. Tod, only still twenty-four years old, resolved to be more than a mere political resident and became, successively, a geographer, historian and archaeologist. He started with the geography of Rajasthan. At that time the Indian maps for the area were virtually blank. He did a survey and produced a detailed and accurate map of Rajasthan (Rajputana would have been the name then) which he presented to the Marquis of Hastings in 1815. His work was respected and he was appointed political agent of an extensive area comprising five major states of Rajputana; Mewar, Marwar, Jessulmer (Jaisalmer as we know it now), Kotah and Boondi (Bundi today). Tod was held in high regard by the Princes and this led to jealousy and suspicion at British headquarters, but he soon refuted it by the excellence of his work. In 1818 Mewar signed a treaty with the British and Colonel Tod as he now was as political agent realised that Ooodipoor (Udaipur) was facing challenges and that his role would need to be more than advisory and he set about reorganizing the State’s economy. Within two years he had doubled the revenues of the state. The affection of the local people for James Tod was immense and there is a small town in Rajasthan named after him: Todgarh. His health became fragile but he pursued his aims and then finally returned to his homeland in 1823.

Colonel James Tod travelling through India.jpg
Colonel James Tod travelling through India.jpg

There he set about writing the now famous Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, which was produced in two volumes in 1829 and 1832. Another book Travels in Western India was posthumously published in 1839. Colonel James Tod is revered in Mewar to this day.

I have a collection of prints framed of beautiful Indian plants and the man who made the enormous collection is called Hugh Francis Clarke Cleghorn 1820-1895. This year the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh had a small exhibition of his precious drawing and paintings. After studying botany at the RBGE in 1838 and 1839, graduating MD in 1841 Hugh Cleghorn went to Madras as an East India Company surgeon. Between 1843 and 1847 he worked in the Kingdom of Mysore. He commissioned a ‘Marathi’ artist to paint a different plant for him every day. Following a sick leave in Britain Cleghorn returned to Madras in 1851, where he was appointed Professor of Botany at the Medical College, Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society and Conservator of Forests. In all these roles he continued to commission Indian artists who made illustrations of native and cultivated plants, and copied book illustrations. There are about 3,000 items and following his death in 1895 Cleghorn’s botanical books and drawings were split between the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art and Edinburgh University, and his herbarium was given to RBGE. In 1940 the books and the drawings were transferred to RBGE whereupon Cleghorn became, if posthumously, one of the Garden’s most significant patrons.

2010_02242010india1121I grew up in India being taught by the parents about the beauty of India’s great floral heritage and visits to gardens and countryside plus gardening led me to love the pastime even now. It is a wonderful legacy for India and Scotland to this day. I treasure my own few prints of that great work.   There is much of my family history I could include but that is referred to in my various books.

John Begg a Scot born in 1866 became very successful designing public buildings in South Africa, India and Burma. His public buildings adorn Johannesburg, Mumbai, Kolkata, Rangoon, Agra, Delhi, Pune and Nagpur among other places. He never reached the same level of recognition in his homeland probably because he did not receive a commission for a large public building here in Scotland. Scots literally shone when they went to far off places and their legacies remain even now.

2010_02242010india0693I returned to Kolkata once again and visited The Scottish Cemetery six years ago. I found my Mother Barbara’s family vault and paid respects to my close ancestors who are buried therein. My paternal grandparents are buried in north Bengal. It is a fitting tribute to all those who went before to be restoring The Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata into a memorial to the dead but also a living garden for those who live and work around it in Kolkata which is now a desperately over crowded city. In my childhood in the 1950s there were about 450,000,000 people in India, now there are 1.2 billion – in the same land space and that is a challenge for everyone.