Hector Munro: Highland Villain or Fallen Hero? part 1

Brian Symons is a recent graduate of the University of the Highlands and Islands Masters programme in British Studies. He is a ‘serial student’ whose interests and previous degrees span a wide range of cultural studies. Now retired and living in the far north Highlands, his most recent interest has been the impact of the great wealth brought into the Highlands by the nouveau riche returning from service with the East India Company in the 1800s

The imposing Gate of Negapatam stood above its city and port in Madras, India. Its replica is set on the hilltop at Cnoc Fyrish less than twenty kilometres from the Dornoch Firth. A folly built in the nineteenth century by Sir Hector Munro, it was erected to celebrate his military successes in India, to demonstrate his position and immense wealth and to, allegedly, provide employment during its construction for the local population of his Novar Estate.

Gate of Nagapatnam Fyrish

Hector was born in 1726 the son of Hugh Munro, a merchant. He entered military service at an early age and fought against the Jacobites in 1745. It was rumoured that he was captured but escaped. In 1746 the Duchess of Gordon was travelling in Sutherland accompanied only by an increasingly drunken coachman. Twenty year old Hector Munro gallantly ‘rescued’ her and delivered the Duchess to her destination. In appreciation she used her influence to secure Hector a Lieutenant’s commission in a Highland Regiment and so launched the young Highlander on his controversial career and his road to wealth.

As a newly commissioned officer, Hector was despatched to Badenoch with a troop of soldiers to apprehend ‘all disaffected persons in that district’. Munro and his soldiers tracked down the notorious Cameron, known as ‘Sergeant Mòr’ and transported him to Perth where he was executed. Another Jacobite rebel, Ewen MacPherson of Cluny, seemingly evaded Munro and escaped to France, however rumour suggested that Munro knew MacPherson and allowed him to avoid capture.

In 1759 Hector Munro was appointed a major in a newly formed Highland regiment of the private army of the East India Company. The Company, by means of military might, personal and institutional corruption and political manipulation, exploited the Indian continent extracting prodigious wealth for individuals and the British state. The cost of realising such wealth was the constant wars in India involving the East India Company Private Army, local rulers and the French who had also established trading and military bases on the continent.

Arriving in India with his Highland regiment Major Munro quickly established a formidable reputation. His regiment, as in most of the East India Company army, included locally recruited native soldiers attached as Sepoy battalions to the core British contingent. In 1764 unrest and near-revolt arose in these battalions in support of the claim that sepoys received a far smaller share than the British troops of the ‘donations’ made to the army by the puppet Nawab of Bengal. Despite the justice of the sepoys’ claim, Munro chose to quell the unrest by court-martialling and executing twenty-four of the ringleaders by gruesomely blowing them away from guns’.

execution of mutineers at Peshawur

No doubt Munro believed that his approach to discipline contributed to his success in later years at the Battle of Buxar, where he defeated the significantly larger combined Nawab armies (local princes and potentates) of the Mughal Emperor. In recognition, the East India Company instantly promoted Major Munro to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. However as the main part of the Mughal army fled, Munro was infuriated at the loss of substantial booty. He reportedly estimated the value of the jewels at some two or three million, a colossal sum when converted to current value. However one Nawab, seeking to avoid reprisals, promised a settlement of a vast sum of money to reimburse both the Company and the Army, ‘including eight lacs personally to Major Munro’. Munro’s eight lacs at today’s value amount to some twelve million pounds.

Munro had reached an apex of his military career: his battle success was decisive in establishing control of northern India, effectively making the British East India Company the rulers of the richest provinces of India. In 1765 he resigned his command in India and returned to the Highlands. ‘Nabobs’, the label for such wealthy returnees from India, frequently bought estates throughout Britain. Other Highlanders used their Indian money to buy estates in St Kilda, Orkney and Skye.

Seeking social status, Munro successfully campaigned for election to Parliament as Member for Inverness Burghs. He remained the MP for over thirty years having purchased the estate of Muirtown, Elgin, to meet the electoral residency qualification. His home and primary estate was, however, that of Novar, close to Alness. It was here he began the process of modernisation and ‘improvement’.      (To be continued)


The Lawes or Standing Orders of the East India Company 1621 (Farnborough: Gregg International Publishers Limited, 1968)

Anon., ‘The Extraordinary Black Book, Chapter XII: East-India Company’, in The Extraordinary Black Book: (Usually Called the ‘Reformer’s Bible’), ed. by ‘The Original Editor’ (London: Effingham Wilson, 1831), pp. 350–76

Bryant, G. J., ‘Munro, Sir Hector (1725/6–1805/6)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/19546&gt;

Cain, Alex M, The Cornchest for Scotland: Scots in India (National Library of Scotland, 1986)

Devine, T. M, and John M MacKenzie, ‘Scots in the Imperial Economy’, in Scotland and the British Empire, ed. by John M. MacKenzie and T. M. Devine, Oxford History of the British Empire–Companion Series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 227–54

Gardner, Brian, The East India Company: A History (London: Hart-Davis, 1971)

Keay, John, The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company (Scribner, 1994)

Mackenzie, Alexander, History of the Munros of Fowlis: With Genealogies of the Principal Families of the Name: To Which Are Added Those of Lexington and New England (Inverness: A. & W, Mackenzie, 1898)

Mackillop, Andrew, ‘The Highlands and the Returning Nabob: Sir Hector Munro of Novar, 1760-1807’, in Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600-2000, ed. by Harper. Marjory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), pp. 233–61

McGilvary, George K., East India Patronage and the British State: The Scottish Elite and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, International Library of Historical Studies, 54 (London ; New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008)

‘Members Biographies: Munro, Hector (1726-1805), of Novar, Ross’, The History of Parliament <http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/munro-hector-1726-1805&gt;

Isabella’s Story, Part 1: A Child of the Manse

This four part story began almost two hundred and sixty four years ago. Isabella Fraser’s life tells us a little of the experience of middling class women in the Highlands, and it illustrates the strong connections east Sutherland had with Easter Ross and Caithness long before the road and rail constructing mania of the nineteenth century.

On the 14th of January 1751, a little daughter was born to Donald and Jean Fraser. That day little Isabella would have been introduced to her big brothers: Simon who was almost three, and eighteen month old Alexander. The household at Killearnan manse continued to expand when Marjory was born just over a year later and young Donald four years after that. The Frasers were substantial people in Easter Ross and the Inverness area. Their families were tenants and clergymen. After college Donald had been a tutor to Lord Lovat’s family. He was about forty when Isabella was born. While his growing family might have given him joy, his career and health were less positive. He was failing to make much progress with his parishioners, finding them ignorant and obstinate. His health was dubious: he was afflicted with pains and a sleeping problem which worsened in these early years of fatherhood. It reached such seriousness that he started to fall asleep in the pulpit, between the singing of the first psalm and the prayer. Nobody knew what caused it, though the exhaustion of four or five young children at home cannot have helped. Local people ascribed it to witchcraft and he agreed. The explanation was that he had offended two women known to be witches. People said they had made a clay effigy of him, laid it in the dunghill, and stuck pins in it, giving Donald the pains and the narcolepsy.

When Isabella was six, Donald moved his family across the Cromarty Firth to the parish of Urquhart or Ferintosh on the Black Isle. A few days after he was inducted, Jean gave birth to a girl named Jane. To sustain his family on his small stipend Donald decided to lease the mill at Alcaig, a mile or two along the road from the manse. His parishioners did not approve.

The burn at Alcaig. There is no trace of an eighteenth-century meal mill here now, although the site of a more recent saw mill is well known. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie

The burn at Alcaig. There is no trace of an eighteenth-century meal mill here now, although the site of a more recent saw mill is well known. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie

‘One day he met with a parishioner, on his way home from Alcaig, a shrewd though quite an illiterate person. “Well, Thomas,” said the minister, accosting him familiarly, “how are you, and what is your news?” “Very bad news indeed,” said Thomas, “I am informed that our minister’s wife has taken up with the big miller of Alcaig.”’
Donald got the message. As soon as he got home he resigned his lease. Despite money being tight and his social misjudgement of the mill, Donald was happier in Urquhart and his ministry seemed more successful. His health problems soon disappeared. Perhaps the pins had been withdrawn from the clay figurines, or perhaps he was no longer stressed or depressed.

Isabella was a bright child. She would have received some schooling. It is possible that she attended the parish school for a few years, but almost certainly she was tutored by her mother and father. Her brother Alexander went off to Marischal College in Aberdeen. Isabella’s eldest brother, Simon, enlisted with the East India Company. India was a popular, if dangerous, place to make your mark on the world. Simon did not succeed. Sometime in 1770 news arrived at the manse, possibly by letter, that Simon had died in Calcutta, probably one of the many victims of tropical disease. Less than three years later there were new ructions in the Fraser family. At the age of twenty two, Isabella lost her father. The date was 7th April 1773. The family had to vacate the manse. Isabella, her mother and sisters packed up their belongings and moved to a new home on the small farm at Alcaig where the mill was. Some small compensation was that only a month or so afterwards Alexander was settled as minister of Kirkhill, only ten or so miles south. The very same year Isabella’s younger sister Marjory got married. The twenty one year old wed John Fraser, another minister in a neighbouring parish: Kiltarlity. In all probability young Donald had left home so, although Alexander and Marjory were not too far away, the house at Alcaig must have felt very quiet to Isabella, her sixteen year old sister Jane, and her mother. It is not clear how the three women made their living. Presumably Alexander, John Fraser and perhaps young Donald provided for them. There may have been some money from the Church of Scotland or even from the local landowner. They probably managed the farm at Alcaig and gained some income from the produce or from sub-letting. They may have made some money, or at least provided for themselves, like other ordinary eighteenth-century women: through producing cheese, milk, butter, eggs and by spinning.

To be continued…

Alcaig: in the eighteenth century this would have been a farming township set in the fertile land of the Black Isle. The land would have been arranged in runrig (strip cultivation) rather than in today's big fields, which were created in the nineteenth century. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie.

Alcaig: in the eighteenth century this would have been a farming township set in the fertile land of the Black Isle. The land would have been arranged in runrig (strip cultivation) rather than in today’s big fields, which were created in the nineteenth century. Photo by Elizabeth Ritchie.

Hew Strachan (ed), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica

Andrew MacDonald of Rogart fights the War-Elephants of Bengal

In Rogart, on the 7th of May 1721, a little boy was born to the MacDonalds and named Andrew.  He was educated at the parish school where he would have learned English as well as arithmetic, and perhaps some of the classics.  After five years there, when he was probably in his early teens he went to work on the farm.  This did not suit him.  He apparently became ‘dissatisfied with the hard, monotonous toil’.  At the time the East India Company was recruiting in the Highlands.  He and some relations, probably also young men, fancied the adventure and possible profits of trying for their fortunes half way around the world.  He was sent to Calcutta where he enlisted with the military wing of the EIC.  It was a good time for a healthy, ambitious young man as the Company was expanding its reach across India.  For several years he was ‘employed on most active and arduous work’, the ‘constant turmoil’ agreeing well with the ‘rugged and trusty contingent of Scottish Highlanders, of which Macdonald was a leading spirit’.  He was lucky to avoid rampant diseases such as cholera which struck down even healthy young men.  After ten years his ambitions were satisfied and he was promoted to the office of Military Inspector.  This entailed him supervising three distant trading outposts of the Company.  He seems to have performed well here also as he was then made a Superintendent of the Convoy and Defence Department which sought new trade.  This was an exhausting and responsible role which involved travel far away from Company headquarters.  It was also dangerous, as the EIC’s techniques were frequently coercive so were not always welcomed by locals.  It is not clear what trouble Andrew got into, but several times he was badly wounded.  The work, travel and fighting combined with the severe climate in the interior of India eventually took its toll and he was sent back to Scotland to recuperate.  In 1754 he returned to India and resumed his former position.  Within three years he participated in a crucial event in India’s history.  The battle at Plassey was really more of a skirmish, but it was crucial to the East India Company’s triumph over its French rivals and to the establishment of British rule in India.

Siraj-ad-daula, the young Nawab of Bengal had, with a vast army, taken Calcutta from the EIC in June of 1756.  The Company headquarters in Madras did not hear of this until August when they dispatched Lord Clive with a 2,500 strong mixed European-Indian force.  Clive drove Siraj’s army out and replaced him with Mir Jafar, a puppet ruler.  Siraj’s spies caught scent of the conspiratorial discussions and moved south to Plassey.  Clive also moved with 2,000 Indian sepoys, 600 British infantry, and about 200 artillerymen with ten field pieces and two small howitzers.  At some point during these manoeuvres, Andrew MacDonald from Rogart had joined the force.  Clive’s men were outnumbered and his council of war voted against action.  After an hour or so meditating in a grove of trees, Clive changed his mind ordering the army to move to Plassey.  In History Today magazine Richard Cavendish describes what happened:

“The confrontation came on a cloudy morning north of the village of Plassey on the bank of the Hughli river.  Clive’s army was drawn up in three divisions, as was the Nawab’s army of perhaps 40,000 men with its war-elephants and more than 50 cannon.  One division was commanded by Mir Jafar.  After an opening cannonade, a crash of thunder at noon heralded a torrential downpour of rain that lasted half an hour.  The British artillerymen quickly covered their cannon and ammunition with tarpaulins, but the enemy failed to do the same and their artillery was put out of action, so that when the Nawab’s army moved forward, assuming that Clive’s cannon were also out of action, it was met with a withering storm of fire.  The enemy withdrew and Siraj, who distrusted his generals and had already been warned of impending defeat by his astrologer (who had possibly been bribed), lost his nerve when Mir Jafar advised retreat.  When Clive’s army attacked again, Siraj fled on a fast camel.  His demoralized army followed suit and when the British entered the enemy camp at about 5pm, they found it abandoned.”


Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, oil on canvas (Francis Hayman, c. 1762) [Image from National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01347/Robert-Clive-and-Mir-Jafar-after-the-Battle-of-Plassey-1757%5D

Clive reported that he had only lost eighteen men and he estimated that his opponent had lost 500.  Siraj was killed by his own people and was replaced by Mir Jafar.  As he had planned, Clive operated the strings of his puppet ruler, gaining control of Bengal.  Andrew MacDonald almost paid a high price for helping Britain gain control of India.  He was severely wounded at Plassey and left on the field as dead.  He was rescued and sent back to Britain as an invalid. 

To be continued…

Annals, North British Society, Halifax, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768-1903http://www.archive.org/details/annalsnorthbriti00nortuoft pps 20-21

Richard Cavendish, ‘The Battle of Plassey’, History Today, Volume 57, Issue 6 (2007)