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Significant Scots
William Kinninmond Burton


William Kinninmond Burton was born in Edinburgh on 11 May, 1856, but his family had strong links with Aberdeen. His father, John Hill Burton, was the son of Lieutenant William Kinninmont Burton and Eliza Paton, who came from a family with deep-rooted local connections having lived at Grandhome, Aberdeen, since the 17th century. He had studied in Aberdeen before moving to Edinburgh with his widowed mother and sister, Mary.

John Hill Burton spent a career in the law becoming secretary of the Prison Board but his real passion was history. A lifetime of scholarship earned him the title Historiographer Royal for Scotland. Apart from his legal and historical interests, he wrote two books on economics which, apparently, were much acclaimed in Japan.

William’s mother Katherine, was the daughter of fellow historian and advocate Professor Cosmo Innes who, as one the earliest amateur photographers in Scotland, was one of several influential figures in William’s early life. During William’s childhood the family home was Craig House, a handsome 16th century building commanding a splendid outlook across Edinburgh and the Forth. Now known as Old Craig, it is part of the Craighouse campus of Napier University and one of the focal points for the events to celebrate William’s life.

Another key influence on the young William was his aunt, the redoubtable Mary Burton. A trailblazing educational and social reformer, she scandalized respectable Edinburgh by persuading the Watt Institution & School of Arts, the first Mechanics Institute and forerunner of Heriot-Watt University, to open its classes to female students. William’s sister Ella, daughter of John Hill Burton, was one of the first to enrol. Today the university’s Management building and Museum & Archive are both named in Mary Burton’s honour.

At Mary’s home at Liberton Bank, Edinburgh, William met the young Arthur Conan Doyle and they became life-long friends. William was to provide the background information for Doyle’s story The Engineer’s Thumb and the book, The Firm of Girdlestone, was dedicated to him by Sir Arthur

William studied at Edinburgh Collegiate School. After leaving school, a young man of his background would have been expected to go on to university. Instead, in 1873 he signed up for a five-year apprenticeship with the innovative hydraulic and mechanical engineers Brown Brothers & Co. Ltd at their Rosebank Ironworks in Edinburgh. Rising to become chief draftsman, he left the firm in 1879 to enter partnership with his uncle, Cosmo Innes, in London.

Driven by his conviction that “a plentiful supply of wholesome water” was of “vast importance to the public health” he dedicated his career to designing safe water systems for towns and cities. In 1881 he became Resident Engineer to the London Sanitary Protection Association.

In 1877 William’s life took a decisive turn when he was invited by the Meiji Government of Japan to become the first Professor of Sanitary Engineering and lecturer in Rivers, Docks and Harbours at the Imperial University of Tokyo.

Although for three centuries Tokyo’s residents had enjoyed the benefits of an advanced water engineering system which, in William’s view, had provided “a better supply of water than either London or Paris”, the government recognised that cholera and other water-borne diseases posed a constant, deadly threat to Japan’s communities. So in addition to teaching, William took on a formidable series of projects as engineer for the Sanitary Department of the Interior Ministry.

He designed new water and drainage systems for Tokyo, then with a population of one and a half million, and many other towns and cities in Japan and Taiwan. His book The Water Supply of Towns became the essential guide and inspiration to generations of young engineers in Britain and Japan. Today his achievements are considered the starting point of Japan’s modern environmental and sanitary engineering systems.

But William’s talents were not confined to water engineering. An ardent photographer, he wrote several practical guides to this emerging technology, inspiring enthusiastic amateurs to try out the latest techniques for themselves. He helped to set up the Japanese Photographic Society and produced an extensive body of photographs which documented the dramatic volcanic landscape of his adopted home and did much to introduce Japanese culture to western audiences.

He also designed Japan’s first skyscraper, ‘Ryounkaku’, literally ‘Cloud-Surpassing Pavilion’, popularly known as ‘Asakusa 12-Storeys’ in Tokyo. This elegant 225 feet (68.58 metre) octagonal building gained iconic status as a symbol of modern Japan. A concert and entertainment centre, boasting Japan’s first electric lift and stunning views across the city, the tower was a magnet for visitors until it was damaged beyond repair in the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923.

After 12 years of unstinting work in Japan and Taiwan, William planned to take his Japanese wife, Matsuko, and their daughter, Tamako, to Scotland to meet his mother. Tragically, this was not to be. He suddenly fell ill of a liver infection and died on 5 August, 1899 at the age of 43. His grief-stricken friends, pupils and admirers built him an impressive tombstone at the Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo. To this day, people still come together for an annual ceremony to lay flowers on his grave and sing Scottish folk songs.

The above text was written by ANN JONES who is Archivist, and Freedom of Information and Data Protection Officer at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

He wrote a number of books one of which was The Process of Pure Photography (1889)


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