OVER the past few weeks,

I have chronicled the adventures of several explorers from Scotland who made their mark on the early history of Canada and Australia. Now I am going to turn my attention to Scottish exploration of the mighty continent of Africa.

Over the next five weeks I will be looking in particular at the lives of three great Scottish explorers, namely James Bruce, Mungo Park, and David Livingstone. I trust you will find their stories fascinating.

The problem that any writer about Scottish history in the 18th and 19th centuries soon encounters is the British Empire. Try as we may, modern Scotland cannot ignore or deny our part in the building of the empire.

That being said, as the map of Africa came to show, imperialism was not just a British phenomenon and almost every European power at one time or other laid claim to some part of Africa.

The British did imperialism, however, for far longer and much better than their competitors. Nor was this “Britishness” merely English nationalism writ large – from the mid-18th century onwards, and the Scots aristocratic, military and mercantile classes were enthusiasts for the expansion and consolidation of what was at first very much an English creation. As the historian Professor Michael Lynch noted in his seminal work Scotland: A New History: “After 1707, Scotland was admitted to the largest free trade zone of the eighteenth century but it was not given full membership of this very English empire.

“Dedicated unionists recast themselves as North Britons whereas the English, buoyed into a new heights of xenophobia by a century of imperial wars hardly used the term British at all. It was only after the collapse of the centrepiece of the second English empire in 1776 with the revolt of the American colonies and the unexpected opening up of a different empire in India after 1784 that Scots gained full admission to the wider benefits of the union. This new British Empire became the cradle for a wider patriotism made attractive to the Scottish landed classes by its plentiful supply of jobs for their sons in the British Army and the Indian civil service.”

We know that Scots profited from the British Empire’s darker side and we should acknowledge and apologise for the Scottish role in slavery, for example, but we also have to understand the context in which Scotland was operating from the 1750s onward – the Enlightenment was making Scotland a driving force in the philosophical, scientific and economic underpinning of the empire and the industrial revolution in particular was happening here.

It was all about expansion. Explorers were needed to open up the places where the British Empire had not previously gone, and whatever you may think of their attitudes that we would abhor now, back then they were massively popular heroes not least because of the appalling dangers they faced.

As the career of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) had shown, exploration by intrepid travellers to map and claim all parts of the globe for His or Her Majesty was very much part of the imperial project, as Sir Alexander Mackenzie did in Canada and John McDouall Stuart did in Australia. Three Scottish explorers also revealed large swathes of Africa to Britain and the rest of the so-called civilised world.

They were inspired to travel across Africa by different motivations but all of them were quite clearly carrying out the work of British imperialism, finding new lands and peoples to be conquered, whether that be for economic gain or Christianity as they preached it,

or both.

The first of our trio was James Bruce, who in many ways is the forgotten giant of African exploration. Giant he was, too, standing 6ft 4ins in his woollen socks and with flaming red hair that made him a formidable sight.

He was born at Kinnaird House in Stirlingshire, on December 14, 1730, the son of David Bruce, laird of Kinnaird, and Marion Graham daughter of Judge James Graham, dean of faculty at Edinburgh University. The Bruces of Kinnaird traced their ancestry back to the family of King Robert I and were proud of it though they were not Jacobites.

Bruce’s mother died when he was just two and he was sent south where he was educated at the home of a relative before going to Harrow at the age of 11. He was a sickly child, shy at first, and expressed the wish that he should study to be an Anglican clergyman. He complied with his father’s wishes and in May 1747 enrolled in the law faculty at Edinburgh University.

He was no legal scholar and left university without a degree to recuperate from another bout of bad health.

In 1753, the 22-year-old Bruce went south to London where he married Adriana Allan and gained a share in her family’s wine importation business. She died in France just nine months after they were married, and a grief-stricken Bruce went back to London where he studied several languages in preparation for his Grand Tour of Europe – the journey commonly made by sons of the wealthy

in those times.

He was in the midst of the tour when his father died and Bruce went home to be Laird of Kinnaird.

He got lucky as coal was found on his estate and he did a very lucrative deal to supply fuel to the new iron works at Carron.

The income enabled him to indulge his love of travel and in Italy he seems to have entered diplomatic circles with ease as he was appointed the British consul to Algiers. Becoming ill while travelling in Syria, Bruce was cured of a fever by English doctor Patrick Russell who instructed his patient in the rudiments of treating common diseases, knowledge that would be valuable in the years to come.

IN 1768, he arrived in Cairo and determined to find the source of the River Nile. But first he wanted to visit Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia, and set out with a caravan for Gondar, the then capital of the country. He proved such a success at the court of the Ras, or King, that he was given part of Abyssinia for his fiefdom.

Later in his book Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, Bruce nonchalantly if immodestly describes his journey.

“From Egypt I penetrated into this country, through Arabia on one side, passing through melancholy and dreary deserts, ventilated with poisonous winds, and glowing with eternal sun-beams, whose names are as unknown in geography as are those of the antediluvian world.

“In the six years employed in this survey I described a circumference whose greater axis comprehended twenty-two degrees of the meridian, in which dreadful circle was contained all that is terrible to the feelings, prejudicial to the health, or fatal to the life of man.”

Bruce was not immune to exaggeration. He wrote of one find: “Just before we came in sight of the ruins, we ascended a hill of white gritty stone, in a very narrow-winding road, such as we call a pass, and, when arrived at the top, there opened before us the most astonishing, stupendous sight that perhaps ever appeared to mortal eyes.

“The whole plain below, which was very extensive, was covered so thick with magnificent buildings as that the one seemed to touch the other, all of fine proportions, all of agreeable forms, all composed of white stones, which at that distance appeared like marble. At the end of it stood the palace of the sun, a building worthy to close so magnificent a scene.”

Bruce also claimed that the Abyssinian people would cut raw beef of a live steer and eat it, sowing up the animal for another meal later. Another claim about eating cooked lions proved controversial and was challenged by many so-called experts on Africa, so that Bruce replied: “It is an historical fact; and I will not suffer the public to be misled by a misrepresentation of it; on the contrary, I do aver, in the face of these fantastic prejudices, that I have ate the flesh of lions, that is, part of three lions, in the tents of Welled Sidi Boogannim.”

Whatever else he may have been Bruce was an assiduous describer of what he encountered, and he gathered many drawings along the way. It is to him that we owe our knowledge of the Abyssinian courts and the country’s history, and he also assiduously collected information about many other territories, too.

His views on the slave trade were typical of his time – slavery was fine, but not when Christian slaves were being sold.

He wrote: “On the eastern side of the peninsula of Africa, many thousand slaves are sold to Asia, perfectly in the same manner as those on the west side are sent to the West Indies; but no one, that ever I heard, has as yet opened his mouth against the sale of Africans to the East Indies. The slaves sold into Asia are most of them Christians; they are sold to Mahometans, and, with their liberty, they are certainly deprived of their religion likewise.”

His book is full of astonishing accounts of encounters with the peoples of Africa, as well as a shipwreck he survived and more than a few combats in which he participated, receiving slight wounds in one. Put it this way, it is either the most extraordinary travelogue of all time or a complete invention.

He did indeed find the source of the Nile, however. Unfortunately it was the Blue Nile and not the White, and it turned out that a Jesuit missionary had beaten him to it. Still, by any standards his journeys across deserts and wildernesses were remarkable.

For years, Bruce was out of touch with his family and friends back home, and it was to their astonishment – and certainly to the surprise of the girl with whom he thought he had an arrangement and who was married by the time he got home via France – where they lionised him as a true hero – in June 1774. It would be 16 years before he wrote his book explaining the delay thus: “My friends at home gave me up for dead; and, as my death must have happened in circumstances difficult to have been proved, my property became as it were an hereditas jacens, without an owner, abandoned in common to those whose original title extended no further than temporary possession.”

It took Bruce years and many lawsuits to regain what was his, and he was also hurt by the disbelieving reception he received.

According to an expert on English literature and history in the late 18th century, Professor Rebekah Mitsein of Boston University, Bruce was ridiculed by the highest in the land, including Horace Walpole.

Mitsein wrote: “Walpole circulated a commonly cited anecdote in which, during a dinner party, one of the guests asked Bruce if he saw any musical instruments in Abyssinia. “Musical instruments,” said Bruce, and paused: “Yes I think I remember one lyre.” The dinner guest then leaned to his neighbour and whispered, “I am sure there is one less since he came out of the country.”

Bruce had the last laugh, albeit posthumous. His accounts were verified by later travellers long after he died on April 26, 1794, as a result of a fall at his home.

He is buried in Larbert churchyard where a commemorative plaque states: “By the unanimous voice of mankind, his name is enrolled with those who were conspicuous for genius, for valour, and for virtue.”