KINROSS Beach clings to the oceans of mother India like a child, wild by day and then gently sleeping at sunset. This is where two versions of Sri Lanka clash: wealthy tourists hotels to the north and poverty-blighted fishing villages to the south. It is Colombo’s biggest urban beach, stretching along the southern suburbs of the city, parallel to the main railway line to Galle, and boxed in by Marine Drive, a new motorway that tries with limited success to usher impatient cars out of the grid-locked city. Kinross Beach lies in Wellawatta, a Tamil neighbourhood where minorities have clustered for centuries, seeking cheap housing and easy access to the cash-in-hand jobs of Colombo’s business sector.

There is no absolute reason why the beach and the surrounding neighbourhood came to be named after a town in Scotland, but a Caledonian thread runs through the area, Buchannan Street is nearby, St Kilda Street runs up from a sandy stretch of ocean, and as the trains head north into Colombo Fort Station they slow down to navigate St Andrews Scots Kirk, a landmark building where the gardener paints the Saltire forged fence-work vivid blue.

The most likely explanation dates back to empire and the role of Scots engineers and entrepreneurs in the spectacular success of the Ceylon tea industry. Three pioneers, Andrew Lipton from Glasgow, James Taylor from Kincardine and the Ulster-Scot George Steuart drove the plantation of tea to unprecedented heights, excavating the wet hillsides of the tea country, where workers rose to a dreich and misty Scottish morning and then were scorched beneath the unforgiving mid-day sun. Tamil tea pickers working in near-slave conditions as indentured labourers to sometimes brutal foremen, who often shouted in the gnarled dialects of Fife and the Lothians.

One of the great estates of the time is St Andrews in Nuwara Eliya, now a hill-country tourist resort modelled on old Scottish country houses. It was probably James Taylor, a teenager when he landed in Ceylon in 1867, who gave Kinross Beach its name. His tea fields were famously named after small Scottish towns and villages, notably the productive Rosyth Estate.

Kinross Beach has witnessed history. In 1983, in events now known As Black July, the streets around the beach were mobbed with vigilante gangs of majority Sinhalese youths who attacked and murdered up to 330 people and burnt 18,000 properties in a visceral mob reaction to a Tamil Tiger attack on the Sri Lanka army. The brutal civil war that blighted Sri Lanka for decades has since ended and though the aftermath has yet to recede, a sudden and historic change of government has given minority communities – especially Tamils and Muslims – renewed hope that the Sri Lankan state can mend its ways and drive sectarian division and financial corruption into the distant past.

The tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 devastated many ocean communities in Sri Lanka, the first images that reached the world were from Kinross Beach as giant waves swept through the streets, carrying cars and small beach shacks into turmoil. Many small businesses were ruined but when the full extent of the tsunami damage was limited by comparison with exposed areas in the north and fishing villages of the south.

Change seems to have caught up with the area. Traditionally, Sri Lankans were reluctant to live by the beach as the powerful salt air rusts everything in its way: keys, locks, car-engines, transistor radios and the ugly lumps of discoloured metal that hang by every window to power air conditioning units. Now the beach means business, backpacker hotels and Air B’n’B lodges have sprung up everywhere. Even international branded hotel chains such as Singapore’s OZO group have opened luxury hotels with rooftop pools and elegant cocktail bars.

A new silent war is being waged around money as local businesses give way to new shops: beach-shacks or “Wadiya” as they are called in the local Sinhalese language are now hemmed in by commercial chains, a Kentucky Fried Chicken has opened by the mouth of the Welalwatta canal and sells budget buckets of chicken nuggets to families who barely notice the street boys hawking ocean crabs by the corner.

One landmark that is resisting change is the estimable Kinross Lifesaving and Swimming Club, a landmark of cross-community membership, that provides lifesaving services to the beach. The club’s sea-faring swimmers are among the toughest in the world and they regularly beat local rivals from the Colombo Swimming Club, a post-colonial club that enjoys a snobbier clientele further up the beach.

It was among the gardens of the Colombo Club that an infant David Willkie learnt to swim. He remains to this day the only Sri-Lankan born sportsperson to have won a gold medal at the Olympics, and by a curious twist of fate that reflects the strange parallels of Kinross Beach, he is actually Scottish and a product of two hundred years of imperial trading.

Kinross Beach can now look back on the struggle for independence from colonial rule, and the divisive civil war that pitted Tamils against the state, but another bigger war looms, that of south Asia’s superpowers. North of Kinross Beach is the giant super-port of Colombo currently being built on the back of Chinese debt and shaping a new route to bring ever more junk to Europe. Fighting for a greater say in Sri Lanka is India, home to most of the world’s 77 million Tamils. Kinross Beach is caught in a tense southern standoff that has many decades yet to fester.

Ranil Kumar for the Scottish Six, at Kinross Beach.