Famous Scots - James Bruce (1730-1794)

James Bruce
Born in Stirlingshire, educated at Harrow School, Bruce studied law at Edinburgh University (showing how little impact the 1745 Jacobite Uprising had on some sectors of Scotland!). Standing six feet four inches tall, with red hair and an arrogant manner, he proceeded to travel around Europe, and was appointed British Consul in Algiers in 1762. His drawings of Roman antiquities in North Africa, produced with the aid of a portable camera obscura, are now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

In 1768 he set out to find the source of the Nile. He charted the Red Sea and managed to get into Abyssinia (Ethiopia), a notoriously difficult feat as the country had sealed itself off from the outside world. He arrived in the middle of an epidemic of smallpox and proceeded to fumigate the Imperial palace, being credited with curing the Empress who had become ill with the disease. He then became embroiled in the civil war there. He was an accomplished rider, a good marksman with a rifle and learned fluent Arabic. He eventually reached the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana and returned, six years after setting out.

His stories of Abyssinia were so amazing to his contemporaries, that many (including the erudite Dr Johnson) did not believe him. He nevertheless published his autobiography (in five volumes). While it was a best seller at the time, it was thought to be a work of fiction. It was only when subsequent explorers confirmed what he saw, that their authenticity was confirmed.

He retired to Kinnaird and married a woman 24 years his junior in 1776 (he had a reputation as a lady killer). Amongst his other accomplishments, he became an astronomer and a naturalist.

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