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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
James Bruce, Esq., the Abyssinian Traveller

James Bruce of Kinnaird, the Abyssinian traveller, was born on the 14th December, 1730, at Kinnaird, in the county of Stirling, and was eldest son of David Bruce of Kinnaird, by Marion, daughter of James Graham of Airth, Judge of the High Court of Admiralty in Scotland. At the age of eight years, Bruce, who was then rather of a weakly habit and gentle disposition, though afterwards remarkable for robustness of body and boldness of mind, was sent to London to the care of an uncle. Here he remained until he had attained his twelfth year, when he was removed to Harrow, where he won the esteem of his instructors by his amiable temper and extraordinary aptitude for learning. In 1747 he returned to Kinnaird, with the reputation of a first-rate scholar. It having been determined he should prepare himself for the Bar, he, for that purpose, attended the usual classes in the University of Edinburgh ; but finding legal pursuits not suited to his disposition, it was resolved that he should proceed to India. With this intention he went to London in 1753; but while waiting for permission from the East India Company to settle there as a free trader, he became acquainted with Adriana Allan, the daughter of a deceased wine-merchant, whom he married, and abandoning the idea of India, embarked in the excellent business left by his father-in-law. The death of his wife, however, which took place, soon after their marriage, at Paris, whither he had taken her for the recovery of her health, again altered Bruce's destiny. Deeply affected by her loss, he first devolved the cares of his business on his partner, and soon afterwards withdrew from the concern altogether.

Some time subsequent to these occurrences, Bruce had become acquainted with Lord Halifax, who suggested to him that his talents might be successfully exerted in making discoveries in Africa; and, to give him every facility, his Lordship proposed to appoint him consul at Algiers. He repaired to his post in 1763, where he employed himself a year in the study of the Oriental languages; and this appointment was the first step to the discovery of the source of the Nile.

As our readers must be familiar with the perilous adventures of this traveller, as depicted by himself in one of the most entertaining works in our language, it would be altogether idle to attempt any abridgement of them. After many hair-breadth escapes, and overcoming many difficulties both by sea and land, Bruce returned in safety to Marseilles in March, 1773, and was received with marked consideration at the French court.

On his arrival in Great Britain he had an audience of George the Third, to whom he presented drawings of Palmyra, Baalbec, and other cities, with which he had promised to furnish his Majesty previous to his departure. It had been insinuated that Mr. Bruce was an indifferent draughtsman, and that the drawings which he had brought home were not done by himself, but by the artist he had taken along with him. This charge was perfectly untrue, although it derived some countenance from his declining to comply with a request of the King, that he should draw Kew. When he had submitted the above-mentioned draughts, his Majesty said, "Very well, very well, Bruce; the colours are fine, very fine—you must make me one—yes; you must make me one of Kew! " Bruce evaded compliance by saying, "I would with the greatest pleasure obey your Majesty, but here I cannot get such colours."

It was not until seventeen years after his return to Europe, that he gave that work to the world which has perpetuated his name. It appeared in 1790, and consisted of four large quarto volumes, besides a volume of drawings, and was entitled, " Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the years 1768-69-70-71 -72-73. By James Bruce of Kinnaird, Esq., F.B.S."

The long interval that elapsed between the period of his return and the publication of his travels, had induced many people to pretend that he had nothing worth while communicating to the world. This malicious report was mentioned to him by a friend. He replied, "James, let them say, as my maternal grand-aunt said. You have," continued he, "no doubt seen that inscription upon Airth—are you acquainted with its origin?"—"No," was the rejoinder. "Then," said he, "I'll tell you. My grand-uncle was amongst others a great sufferer during the Usurpation, and, owing to his adherence to the Stuarts, was obliged to fly to Sweden. His wife, by her judicious management, and by carrying on a small trade in the coal line, made a considerable fortune, and built the wing of the house at Airth, now standing. Some evil-minded persons chose to insinuate that she had acquired this fortune in a way not very creditable to her chastity. Treating this slander with the contempt it merited, she, with conscious innocence, caused the inscription of ' Let them say,' to be placed over the door."

The singular incidents detailed in these Travels—the habits of life there described, so totally unlike anything previously known in Europe —and the style of romantic adventure which characterised the work— led many persons to distrust its authenticity, and even to doubt whether its author ever had been in Abyssinia at all. Those doubts found their way into the critical journals of the day, but the proud spirit of Bruce disdained to make any reply. The amusing " Adventures of Baron Munchausen" were written purposely in ridicule of him, and were received by the public as a just satire on his work. To his daughter alone he opened his heart on this vexatious subject; and to her he often said, "The world is strangely mistaken in my character, by supposing that I would condescend to write a romance for its amusement. I shall not live to witness it; but you probably will see the truth of all I have written completely and decisively confirmed."

So it has happened. Becent travellers have established the authenticity of Bruce beyond cavil or dispute. Dr. Clark, in particular, states, in the sixth volume of his Travels, that he and some other men of science, when at Cairo, examined an ancient Abyssinian priest—who perfectly recollected Bruce at the court of Gondar—on various disputed passages of the work, which were confirmed even in the most minute particular; and he concludes this curious investigation by observing, that he scarcely believes any other book of travels could have stood such a test. Sir David Baird, while commanding the British troops embarked on the Bed Sea, publicly declared that the safety of the arm3' was mainly owing to the accuracy of Mr. Bruce's chart of that sea, which some of the critics of the day ventured to insinuate he had never visited. On this subject Bruce is strikingly corroborated by that well-known traveller, Lieutenant Burnes. In a letter written from the Bed Sea, so lately as 1835, he says—"I cannot quit Bruce without mentioning a fact which I have gathered here, and which ought to be known far and wide in justice to the memory of a great and injured man, whose deeds I admired when a boy, and whose book is a true romance. Lord Valentia calls Bruce's voyage to the Ked Sea an episodical fiction, because he is wrong iu the latitude of an island called 'Macowar,' which Bruce says he had visited. Now this sea has been surveyed for the first time, and there are two islands called 'Macowar;' the one in latitude 23° 50', visited by Bruce, and the other in latitude 20° 45', visited by Valentia ! Only think of this vindication of Bruce's memory! Major Head knew it not wheu he wrote his Life, and it is worth a thousand pages of defence."

The following rather amusing anecdote is told of Bruce :—It is said that once, when on a visit to a relative in East-Lothian, a person present observed it was "impossible" that the natives of Abyssinia could eat raw meat. Bruce very quietly left the room, and shortly afterwards returned from the kitchen with a raw beef-steak, peppered and salted in the Abyssinian fashion. "You will be pleased to eat this," he said, "or fight me." The gentleman preferred the former alternative, and with no good grace contrived to swallow the proffered delicacy. When he had finished, Bruce calmly observed, "Now, sir, you will never again say it is impossible."

Bruce was a man of uncommonly large stature, six feet four inches, and latterly very corpulent. With a turban on his head, and a long staff in his hand, he usually travelled about his grounds; and his gigantic figure in these excursions is still remembered in the neighbourhood. On the 20th of May, 1776, he took as his second wife, Mary, daughter of Thomas Dundas of Fingask, by Lady Janet Mait-land, daughter of Charles sixth Earl of Lauderdale.

On the 26th of April, 1794, after entertaining a large party to dinner, as he was hurrying to assist a lady to her carriage, his foot slipped, and he fell headlong from the sixth or seventh step of the large staircase to the lobby. He was taken up in a state of insensibility, though without any visible contusion, and died early next morning, in the sixty-fourth year of his age.

Thus he who had undergone such dangers, and was placed often in such imminent peril, lost his life by an accidental fall. He left, by his second marriage, a son and a daughter. His son succeeded him in his paternal estate, and died in 1810, leaving an only daughter, who married Charles Cumming of Roseilse, a younger son of the family of Altyre, who assumed the name of Bruce, and in 1837 was member of Parliament for the Inverness district of burghs. His daughter, who survived him many years, became the wife of John Jardine, Esq., advocate, sheriff of Boss and Cromarty.

Bruce took with him in his travels a telescope so large that it required six men to carry it. He assigned the following reason to a friend by whom the anecdote was communicated:—"That, exclusive of its utility, it inspired the nations through which he passed with great awe, as they thought he had some immediate connection with Heaven, and they paid more attention to it than they did to himself."

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