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.
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’.
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)
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