Did You Know About Kolkata’s Scottish Legacy?

Did You Know About Kolkata’s Scottish Legacy?
St Andrew's Church in the heart of Kolkata, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

In the post COVID-19 world, we hope to spend a winter’s day looking at Kolkata's Scottish landmarks, quietly humming Tagore’s adaptation of the Scottish ditty ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to ourselves

Uttara Gangopadhyay
April 23 , 2020
07 Min Read

Standing at one end of Kolkata’s central business districtDalhousie Square or Benoy Badal Dinesh Baghis the unmissable St Andrew’s Church (also known as Kirk), whose tall spire with a weather cock on top can be seen from a distance. But not many who pass by with an admirable look at its Grecian style or the lofty Doric pillars beautifying the portico on both sides, know that it is one of the best examples of the city’s Scottish connection. 

 
 
 
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According to historians, the Scottish immigration to India started after the signing of Scotland’s ‘Treaty of Union’ with England in 1707. The Scots started arriving in Calcutta (the former name of Kolkata), the capital of British India, from the 18th century. As power shifted from the East India Company to the Crown, it is said that a large number of Scotsmen took up employment as ‘writers’ in the administrative service. Over the years, they left their mark in areas ranging from politics to education, missionary activities to trade to philanthropy. Unknown to many, the Scots feature prominently in the history of British rule in India. Six governor generals (including Lord Dalhousie) and viceroys of British India were Scottish statesmen.

St Andrew’s Kirk, designed by Burn, Currie and Company, was opened to the public in March 1818, and was a house of worship meant for the Scottish Presbyterian Christians. It is said that Bishop Middleton (the first Bishop of Calcutta) had objected to the construction of the steeple but Dr James Bryce, who had formed the Scottish congregation in 1815, not only built the spire but also put a weather cock on top.

Jute was one of the strongest bonds that tied Calcutta with Scotland. According to many reports, the Scots were instrumental in establishing jute mills in Bengal. Michael Meighan in the book Scotland’s Lost Industries, writes that many mill owners of Dundee, the hub of Scotland’s jute mills, thought it prudent to establish mills nearer the source of raw material (Bengal in India), a “movement [that] began with Margaret Donnelly, who was first to set up a jute mill in Calcutta in 1855.” Known as the ‘jutewallahs’, they not only worked hard but also maintained their Scottish identity and followed their rituals and festivals. Eugenie Fraser, the wife of a jute-mill manager who lived here between 1937 and 1963, gives a graphic account of the ‘jutewallahs’ life in Calcutta in her book Home by the Hooghly.

Scottish Church College founded by Dr Alexander Duff

While there are not many reminders of the trading houses (except for a few such as Andrew Yule or Gillanders Arbuthnot Co.), you may still find landmarks harking back to the Scottish contribution to education in the city. Take a walk down central Kolkata and you will come across several educational institutions that bear the Scottish legacy. The Scottish Church Collegeoriginally founded in 1830 as the General Assembly Institute and established at its present location in 1839upholds the memory of Dr Alexander Duff, a missionary from the Church of Scotland who arrived in Calcutta in May 1830, after surviving successive shipwrecks. His memory survives through other institutions such as Duff College (the building was subsequently converted to a police station), Duff Girls High School and the Duff Church (founded in 1848). Scottish watchmaker and philanthropist David Hare was instrumental in establishing the Hindu College (renamed as Presidency College, now Presidency University); he also established a school on the same premises which was later named after him in 1867.

 
 
 
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Lying across the Hooghly River, to the west of Kolkata, is the sprawling Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, which was founded by a Scotsman Lt Colonel Robert Kyd in 1787. The derelict Roxburgh House inside the garden is a testimony to another Scotsman, Dr William Roxburgh, who not only expanded the collection in the garden but also enriched Indian botanical studies with his notes and diagrams.

 
 
 
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No discussion of Kolkata’s Scottish link can be complete without a peek into the Scottish Cemetery, established around 1820 when a demand for a separate cemetery for the Scottish people was raised. After the cemetery was abandoned, probably in the 1950s, it slowly began to crumble. Graves were vandalised, vegetation overran the place and miscreants took shelter here. However, with wide-scale restoration and landscaping work under the aegis of the UK-based Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust, the cemetery is being nurtured into the heritage site it deserves to be. According to a survey by the Trust, there are nearly 2,000 Scottish burials here. The BBC quoted James Simpson of the Edinburgh-based conservation architects Simpson and Brown, who has visited the site several times, as saying, "Even the gravestones are made of Scottish stonegranite and marble, some of it brought all the way from home.”


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