James Bruce of Kinnaird, Diplomat, Naturalist, Traveller and Explorer, born 14 December 1730 ; died 27 April 1794.
The following account of his life and adventures was written soon after Bruce’s death and appeared in the 1st August 1794 edition of the Scots Magazine.
“The death of this gentleman will probably be the means of reviving those enquiries which formerly employed the public attention respecting his Travels into Abyssinia, and at the same time it demands from us such particulars of his life as have come to our knowledge.
He was born in Scotland, about the year 1729, of an ancient and respectable family, which had been in possession, for several centuries, of some of the estates which he owned at the time of his decease. Indeed Mr Bruce more than intimates that he was descended from some ancient kinds. At an early period he was sent for education to a boarding-school at or near Hoxton, where his acquaintance commenced with several respectable persons, and particularly some of the family of the Barringtons, whose friendship he retained to the end of his life.
Returning to Scotland, he experienced from his father, who had given him a step-mother, a degree of ill-treatment which occasioned him to resolve to quit this country. He accordingly came to London, and soon afterwards married the daughter of Mr Allen a wine-merchant, with whom he continued the wine trade during several years. An indisposition of his wife, which terminated in her death, induced him to carry her to France, and the loss of her, it may be conjectured, inclined him to continue his travels. At the latter end of the Earl of Chatham’s ministry, about, 1761, he returned from a tour through the greatest part of Europe, particularly through the whole of Spain and Portugal, and was about to retire to his small patrimony, in order to embrace a life of study and reflection, when chance threw him into a very short and desultory conversation with that nobleman. He soon afterwards received an intimation of a design to employ him, which proved abortive by the resignation of his intended patron.
He then received some encouragement from Lord Egremont and Mr George Grenville, and in a short time a proposal from Lord Halifax to explore the coast of Barbary, to which he acceded. The Consulship of Algiers becoming vacant at this juncture (1763), he was appointed to it, and immediately set out for Italy. At Rome, he received orders to proceed to Naples, from whence he again returned to Rome. He then went to Leghorn, and from thence proceeded to Algiers.
He spent a year at Algiers, and having a facility in acquiring languages, in that tme qualified himself for appearing on any part of the continent without an interpreter ; but at this instant orders arrived from England for him to wait for further orders as Consul. He accordingly remained at his post until 1765.
In June 1764 he solicited leave of absence from the secretary of state to make some drawings of antiquities near Tunis. He had before this been at Mahon and on the coast of Africa. He was ship-wrecked on the coast of Tunis, and plundered of all his property. In 1768 we find him at Aleppo, and in August that year at Cairo, from whence he proceeded to Abyssinia, which he is supposed to have entered either the latter end of that year, or the beginning of 1769. His stay in that country was about four years, as he returned to Cairo the 15th of January 1773. The transactions of this period form the substance of the five volumes of his Travels, published in 1790.
During Mr Bruce’s absence, his relations considering him as dead, took some measures to possess themselves of his property, which they were near succeeding in, when he returned home. Soon afterwards he took an effectual method of disappointing any future hopes, the consequence of which was, one, if not more, children. In 1784 his lady died, and in 1790 he published his Travels, a new edition of which was negociating with a book-seller at the time of his death, which happened at Kinnaird the latter end of April last, owing to a fall down the staircase, in which he dislocated his breast-bone.
We add the following account of Mr Bruce as given by a late traveller, Dr. Lettice, who visited him in the autumn of 1792.
Linlithgow, Sept. 25, 1792.
It was impossible to be within two miles of Kinnaird, and to quit the neighbourhood without wishing to offer out respects to the Abyssinian Traveller, and requesting permission to inspect his museum.
The latter point being obtained fortunately gave us an opportunity of seeing Mr Bruce himself, who received us with flattering marks of attention. When we had taken some refreshment, he was obliging enough to accompany us to his museum, and to direct his librarian’s search for such objects as he thought likely to interest out curiosity : upon many of them he himself commented in a very agreeable manner, relating, at the same time, several little incidents and anecdotes connection with the occasions of procuring them, which enhanced both our entertainment and information. This repository occupies a large room, and its valuable furniture is arranged in a number of neat glazed cabinets, each having a cupboard below it, beautifully painted with the figure of some curious object of natural history, described by Mr Bruce in his African Tour ; many of them found on the coasts of the Red Sea and the Nile. This museum consists, as you will imagine, not solely of articles from the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, of curious petrifactions, lusus nature, & c., but has many rare specimens of art, distinguished by their singularity, or exquisite workmanship ; and lastly, a collection of Abyssinian and Arabian manuscripts.
Asm after a cursory survey of some thousand articles, without an opportunity of making notes whilst the objects are before the eye, it is impossible to be sure that the most curious may not have escaped the memory, I find little inclination to specify those which mine may have retained. If I mention, among the petrifactions, a horse’s knee agatiated or speak of stones more curiously reticulated than perhaps most other collections can exhibit, it is with the mortification of having forgotten many things more worthy of curiosity. Ores of every description you will naturally anticipate. The variety and splendour of the sea-shells, to mention the novelty of many of them, is scarcely to be equalled elsewhere. Among the reptile kind none perhaps more deservedly claimed our notice than the serpent consulted in divination ; but of that, you, know, Mr Bruce has particularly treated in his book.
Among the artificial curiosities which were shewn to us, was a drinking cup or goblet, with four heads, embossed round the outside, an antique from Rhodes ; and a model of it executed at Glasgow, in a manner highly creditable to the skill of the British artist. Any thing relative to the Nile, the first object of the Abyssinian Traveller, was sure to attach every spectator and Mr Bruce himself seemed not unpleasantly interested in displaying his invention to measure the rise and fall of that river ; a brazen bar with a graduated seale was ingeniously converted to that purpose from some cramps used in the arches of Egyptian cisterns nor did he, perhaps, with less feeling, call our attention to the hilt of a spear marked by the bullets discharged at himself, but fortunately missing aim, in an encounter with a desperate banditti of assassins and robbers.
Had Horace himself been at our elbow, and, viva voce, sounded in our ears Nil admirari prope res est una, Numici &c. it had been impossible not have felt a paroxysm of admiration when, next, we beheld two cups made from the horns of the very bullock who roared through them, no sounds of welcome to the bloody banquet furnished from his own living flash to the royal epicures of Gondar ; two cups turned by the delicate hand of one of his Abyssinian Majesty’s daughters, and presented by herself to Mr Bruce, as a memorial of his entertainment and reception at that polite court.
Last of all we were favoured with inspection of the cabinet of manuscripts, written upon parchment of goat-skins, and manufactured by the priests of those countries. From the account which Mr Bruce has given of the low state of religion and science in Arabia, it is but too probable that the priesthood, a channel through which all the literature of Europe, since the revival of letters, has first been derived to our enlightened quarter of the globe, has, in Abyssinia, contributed little else to the extension of knowledge than the material substance of books.
Mr Bruce mentioned to us that thirty different languages were spoken in the camp of one of the caravans in which he had occasionally travelled on the continent of Africa, and that it was his desire to have procured a translation of the Song of Solomon (from the Arabic I believe) into them all. This was executed for him in ten of them, beautifully written in Ethiopic characters, and each in a different coloured ink, to prevent a confusion of tongues, which, in this instance, had certainly not been miraculous. To spare the ears of the unlearned, and perhaps, at some moments, his own recollection, he calls these languages, with some humour, the red, blue, green, or yellow languages &c. according to the colour of its character. Upon Mr Bruce’s shewing these manuscripts to a lady, distinguished for the vivacity of her remark, and informing her that the word kiss, which occurs in Solomon’s Song, is to be met with, expressing the same idea, in some passages of his rainbow of languages, she pleasantly observed to him “I always told you, Mr Bruce, that kissing is the same all the world over.”
Before we departed Mr. Bruce obligingly accompanied us to an inclosure in his park, to shew us his Abyssinian sheep. They are entirely white, except their heads which are black. Their tails are large, and, indeed, the animal is larger than our common sheep. They are extremely tame, and often very frolicksome. The three of four remaining in the possession of Mr Bruce are unfortunately all males. One of them bred with a she goat, but the offspring died.
Except for a month or two in summer, which Mr Bruce passes upon an estate in the Highlands, he spends the rest of the year chiefly at Kinnaird, divided betwixt his museum, his books, and his rural improvements, in elegant retirement and lettered conversation. This latter estate has descended to him from ancestors of his name, which have successively possessed it upwards of 380 years. He has rebuilt the family mansion since his return from his travels : In what we saw of it, good taste and convenience equally prevailed. The park appears to be well wooded and pleasant, and his situation commands some of the finest views of the Forth. His museum, every article of which, by association of ideas, must recall some incident, some scene, some object new or strange in his travels, cannot but be to him a fund of perpetual entertainment and delight, which, through the liberality of his character, as a man of learning, and a citizen of the world, he freely communicates to all who can have any pretension to approach him.
As every thing is interesting that relates to extraordinary men, you will not be displeased with a trait or two of the Abyssinian Travellers person. His figure is above common size, his limbs athletic, but well proportioned ; his complexion sanguine, his countenance manly and good humoured, and his manners easy and polite. The whole outward man is such as announces a character well calculated to contend with the difficulties and trying occasions which so extraordinary a journey was sure to throw in his way. That his internal character, in features of his understanding and his heart, correspond with these outward lineaments, you who have read his work cannot be at any loss to know.”
James Bruce of Kinnaird and his ancestry and descendants are included with Volume 1 of the Red Book of Scotland and evidence cited in that work clarifies various key points of his life;
He was the eldest son of David Hay of Woodcockdale by his first wife, Marion, daughter of James Graham of Airth, and was born on 14 December 1730.
His father was the only surviving son of David Hay of Woodcockdale and Helen, eldest daughter of Alexander Bruce, 4th of Kinnaird, and his father, upon succeeding to his mother’s estate, assumed the surname and arms of Bruce of Kinnaird. His father dying at Edinburgh on Thursday 4th April 1758, James was served heir to him, firstly, on the 10 October following then secondly, on 21 July 1762.
He married his first wife, Adriana Allen, daughter to the wine merchant referred to in the account, at Kent, on 3 February 1754, and the second wife who is also referred to was Mary, daughter of Thomas Dundas of Fingask, whom he married at her father’s residence, Carron Hall, on 20 May 1776. She predeceased him, having died at Kinnaird, on Thursday 10 February 1785. By her James Bruce had three children, the eldest, Robert, having died in infancy at Kinnaird, on Tuesday 10 November 1778, he was succeeded in his estate by his second and youngest son, also James, who was born on Wednesday 28 June 1780 and died at Edinburgh on 9 August 1810 having had issue. Three generations of daughters succeeded to Kinnaird and the property was eventually sold by the last of these, Alma Bruce of Kinnaird, in 1895.
Above: Kinnaird House
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