James Bruce of Kinnaird

James Bruce was a man destined to become one of the most celebrated Scots of the l8th century. A larger-than-life character, his diary of his travels in Africa caused something of a sensation when they were first published in 1790. A second edition which appeared in 1804, ten years after his death was a 'best seller' that proved popular with the Victorians who saw him as the prototype gentleman explorer.

Yet establishing such a reputation could not have been further from the young Bruce's mind when ill health dogged his early years, he turned his attention towards a career in the church and then the law.

Bruce was born in December 1730 in the family home of Kinnaird just off Larbert's Bellsdyke Road. His father was David Bruce of Woodcockdale, Linlithgowshire, and his mother Helen, the daughter of Alexander Bruce of Kinnaird who, on his death, left her and her lineal descendants his name and estate.

As a boy, Bruce was a sickly child and even when he reached the age of 16 his health was no better than delicate. When he left Harrow School in 1746, he decided to study theology with the intention of becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. This career move did not suit his father's plans, however, and Bruce soon quit his studies to enroll at Edinburgh University in 1747 to train for the Scottish Bar.

Within months, the wracking cough that dogged him returned forcing the exhausted student to abandon the college and return to the Kinnaird countryside.

ONCE fully recovered, Bruce again turned his thoughts to what direction his talents and energies should take him. To the ardent mind of the man who was to explore the Nile in years to come, India was a tantalising and peculiarly promising prospect. Taking the advice of friends, he left Kinnaird for London in 1753 determined to win a job with the East India Company.

That plan was put on hold when he met, and married, Adriana Allan whose attractions, by all accounts, he found more powerful than the mystical east.

Marriage brought him a share of his mother-in-law's wine business and he was making a success of that when fate played him a cruel hand. His wife took ill and, in an effort to speed her recovery, the couple travelled to the south of France in the hope the mild climate would help. They had only reached Paris when Adriana's health deteriorated rapidly and she died a week later.

Almost frantic with grief, Bruce left Paris immediately after the funeral and rode for Boulogne. When he arrived the following day, he was weak and unable to proceed to London. As he recovered from this latest bout of sickness Bruce determined to sever his links with the wine business and prepare himself for a new life altogether. He studied Spanish and Portuguese with a view to traveling the Continent, and in 1757 sailed to Portugal to study its society, art and science.

The following year he moved on, visiting France, Germany, Brussels and Holland. It was while he was in Rotterdam that he was given news of his father's death and headed home, only delaying his return to Scotland to finally finish his interests in the wine business.

A short time later, with his personal wealth considerably increased due to the building of the Carron Iron Company next to his estate, Bruce was living in the coastal resort of Ferrol in Spain. It was there he heard a rumour that Spain was preparing for war with England and it occurred to him that an attack by the British on this point on the coast could not fail to be successful.

Armed with this information, he returned to England and spoke to his friend, a Mr Wood. who was the Under Secretary of State. He passed it to the Prime Minister Mr Pitt. As it turned out, the idea of a hostile landing at Ferrol came to nothing, but it was to lead to Bruce finally embarking on the great adventure that was to establish his as a great explorer in the David Livingstone mould.

Into Unknown Territory

WHILE Prime Minister Pitt was to veto the attack on Spain, the idea impressed Lord Halifax, who offered Bruce the post of British Consul in Algiers.

The young Scot was fired by the idea of holding an official position that would offer the chance to explore still unknown countries.

Discovering the source of the Nile was sometimes hinted at as the ultimate goal - although it is doubtful if it was really expected to be achieved by such an inexperienced traveller. Typically, Bruce accepted the offer, inwardly resolving to attempt the greatest task that had baffled all the efforts of kings and explorers for 2000 years.

Bruce arrived in Algiers in 1763 and remained in what was a dangerous job for two years.

He then prepared for a journey through Barbary and, in the course of several different expeditions, visited the places of chief interest in the kingdoms of Algiers and Tunis, and later sailed to Syria where he took careful drawings of the ruins of Palmyra and Baalbec.

After a brief stay in Sidon, Bruce headed for Egypt. From the Bay of Cairo he received letters of recommendation from various powerful people in Upper Egypt, Abyssinia and Sennaar.

He then set off on his dangerous journey of discovery, ascending the Nile as far as Syene (Assoun) and stopping to visit all places of interest. His travels took Bruce to Kenne before he crossed the desert with a caravan to Cossier on the Red Sea.

His voyages around the Red Sea were various - and dramatic. In 1769, after his ship had anchored in the harbour, he was held prisoner for nearly two months by the Naybe of Masuah, a `Bloody Assassin' who detained Bruce in an effort to extort money from him. It was only when Ras Michael, Prime Minister of the King of Abyssinia, wrote on his behalf that he was allowed to proceed.

His journey from Masiah to Gondar took three months and was extremely dangerous. His skill in medicine, which he had acquired during his time in Algiers, and his horsemanship and use of arms quickly gained him the respect and admiration of the King and Ras Michael. Bruce was promoted to various positions within the royal household.

In November 1770, after many vexing delays, he finally reached the goal of his ambition, the source of the Blue Nile which he believed to be the principal branch of the great river itself. After carefully noting the positions of the springs and the distinguishing features of the surrounding countryside, Bruce returned to Gondar and began to make arrangements for his journey home.

Encountering Danger

IF Bruce's extraordinary journey to the source of the Blue Nile was fraught, his route home was equally dangerous.

After leaving Abyssinia, he crossed a country even more barbarous. At Teawa, the principal village of Atbara, the most outrageous demands were placed on him by the Sheik. Then in Sennaar he was delayed for four miserable months and his money was exhausted, forcing him to pay his debts by parting with a massive gold chain that had been a gift from the King of Abyssinia.

Bruce then had to cross the Great Desert of Nubia. In the sweltering heat, camels and baggage had to be abandoned. When he finally reached the safety of Assouan, he pleaded with the Aga for camels to go back to the desert to recover his valuable papers. This achieved, he sailed the Nile to Cairo and then on to Alexandria where he boarded a ship for Marseilles, landing in France in March 1773.

When he recovered his strength, Bruce set off for Paris. His reception in the French capital was `flattering' and he was in great demand to tell his hosts of his travels.

His health still being delicate, Bruce headed for Italy to continue his recovery, and it was not until June 1774 that he sailed for England where an equally impressive welcome awaited him.


Telling tales

NOW home, Bruce became one of the most popular dinner guests of his generation, and there was a great clamour for details of his travels to be revealed over the brandy and cigars.

But his stories of ten-year-old girls being married, and of women wearing rings in their noses and lips, and using the entrails of oxen for a head-dress, had many of his hosts shaking their heads.

These and the other `marvels' explained by Bruce appeared to them to be so strange they put much of it down as fiction. A few even suggested he had never been to Abyssinia at all!

If the barbs of his critics hurt, Bruce did , not show it. But when he finally published the book of his travels, five years after the death of his second wife Mary Dundas, daughter of Thomas Dundas of Fingask, by whom he had two sons and a daughter. The book, in five large volumes with the title Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the years 1768-1773, was eagerly awaited by friends and foes.

It was universally read and appreciated by many highly respected in the literary field. Hugh Blair, Professor of Rhetoric at Edinburgh University, wrote:

"With the rest of the world, I had great expectations from the work, and I can say I have not been disappointed. You have made a great addition to our knowledge of the geography of the world and revealed a part of the earth that was before unknown:"

The epitaph in Larbert church yard is well deserved:

"In this tomb are deposited the remains of James Bruce Esq. of Kinnaird who died on the 27th of April 1794 in the 64th year of his age. His life was spent in performing useful and splendid actions. He explored many distant regions; he discovered the Fountains of the Nile; he traversed the deserts of Nubia."

"He was an affectionate husband, an indulgent parent and an ardent lover of his country."

By the unanimous voice of mankind, his name is enrolled with those who were conspicuous for genius, for valour and for virtue."