Downton Abbey

Do you enjoy Downton Abbey? If the answer is “yes”, read on. What are you about to discover is Downton Abbey with two pluses, for added spice!

I shall start by stating that – for legal purpose – whilst this, the first of the Mcneish family stories you will enjoy is true, I have changed the names. Several “Mcneish” family activities would not be viewed acceptable in the 1900s, never mind the 2000s! For the same reason, the name of the family’s former home has also been fictionalised.

Many magnificent portraits adorn the walls of stately homes in the UK. Captain Henry Mcneish is one. It is easy however to view such portraits as dull. I feel strongly that every one of these people has a story to tell. Especially Captain Henry Mcneish. He became an East India Company Captain and Georgian Gentleman

Captain Henry Mcneish was a member of the Mcneish family. Several family portraits adorn the walls of publicly accessible properties in Edinburgh. Glenduich Castle lies in the beautiful Scottish region of Perth and Kinross.

Henry’s father Judge George Mcneish (8th Dec 1676 to 5th Nov 1746) purchased Glenduich Castle from a Jacobite family, who were forced to sell after the failure of the 1715 rebellion. He styled himself ‘of Glenduich’ from 1721. The Judge too had Jacobite beliefs and was strongly associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie. He had the honour of being invited to attend council at Holyrood in the days immediately following the Battle of Prestonpans. Indeed, three of his children are buried in Holyrood Abbey. However, his story is for another day.

Today I will focus on Captain Henry Mcneish, whose portrait remains in excellent condition today.

Henry Mcneish (1st March 1768 – 1836), became a Captain in the East India Company. Initial material I was provided as the ‘starting point for my research proved inaccurate. However, when I worked through copious manuscript material in the National Library of Scotland Archives and Manuscript Collections Department, much more fascinating information was discovered.

Young Captain Henry Mcneish

Much of my work centred on the family manuscripts which are held at the National Library of Scotland. As you can see from the bibliography, I was also given extremely helpful guidance by the Scottish Genealogy Society. That enabled me to find other sources within the library at Victoria Terrace in Edinburgh. Much of what follows are extracts from family letters.

Captain Henry Mcneish was well liked and respected by those he sailed with and was a caring man. However, he also had an unpleasant side to his character. He thought nothing of purchasing a fatherless child, as you will see.

His father was William Mcneish of Glenduich. He married a lady called Caroline in 1807 and had several. children. These included Henry, William, Thomas, and Carolus. In reading the family correspondence, I felt I was intruding into the private affairs of others. However, it was for a worthy purpose: to reveal their story for future generations. Much of what follows are diary extracts. These provide an intriguing insight into the life of a successful member of the landed gentry in Scotland.

Life at Sea and in India

On 17th July 1782 Thomas wrote very poignantly to his father, stating that he “hopes we will live long enough to see each other face to face”. The solitary nature of life on the waves was clearly affecting him. His father passed away eight years later.

Another letter shortly after this date refers to correspondence he received from the General “by Mr Dundas. I answered it immediately. He ordered me to draw upon him for to which I have done…..laid it out on jewellery and books as an adventure”.

Further correspondence written on 28th February 1787 refers to him having to wait for “a fair wind down channel to pursue our voyage”. It later states that he must interrupt his letter because “there’s all hands called. I must away upon deck”. He continues, “Our ship is quite full, which is much against me, as being a young officer…” He continues, referring to where this means by way of explaining where his belongings are positioned. He also refers to a good friend Mr Dickson, an old school friend of his, who “may have it in his power to do me marry good”.

Captain Mcneish also refers to thousands of letters he must give to people in India. A task he views as “rather troublesome”. However, Henry goes on to reflect on “what satisfaction I may give some poor soul, I take them with pleasure”. Earlier correspondence also refers to his getting on well with all his shipmates. From this it is fair to draw the conclusion that Henry was a very personable and caring man.

Fun in Calcutta and Singapore

In another letter of dated 26th August 1787 he refers to meeting a friend in Calcutta, “I stayed with him for a few hours and drank bottle or two of his cool claret”. The same letter refers to friends in Singapore, where he also visited. He referred to them as having servants for everything they do. He makes specific reference to one individual who has 60! It must have been a tough life for some.

In correspondence dated 29th October 1788 he refers to enhancing his general seafaring knowledge. He also states he will be going through a course of book-keeping, which “must be of great use to me in my line as a merchant”. For his amusement he is “retrieving my Latin with my friend Martin, and reading Guthrie’s Grammar, a book which gives a more concise history of the different countries of the globe than we have”.

A letter dated 11th February 1789 refers to him working from 6 in the morning until 7 at night, sometimes later. A watch was also kept through the night to prevent the soldiers of the East India Company from deserting.

Investments in What?

In other correspondence he asks after his family. In several he also asks for and makes reference to his good friend Jamie Erskine. On occasion he also requests his father’s financial help in acquiring ‘investments’, promising to return his money in full upon his return.

He was on the ship Busbridge at this time. Cargo notes confirm this. The ship’s cargo included pickled tongues, anchovies, French olives and claret. It also refers to ten volumes of Johnson’s Shakespeare being part of the cargo to Madras that month. The journey would conclude in Bengal. I was rather twistedly hoping to find reference to Georgian drug smuggling, namely opium in the cargo, but alas no joy!

Becoming a Freemason

At the young age of just 24 he became an apprentice mason of a local masonic Lodge. The manuscripts contain a certificate from the Right Worshipful Master of the lodge verifying his entry. It states that he became so “In the Year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety two and of masonry the five thousand seven hundred and ninety second year”. Why it has a date of 24th December 1829 written on it in the lower left hand side, in the same handwriting, I cannot fathom.

The manuscripts also contain a bond dated 15th March 1796. It relates to a loan of £2000 he received from Day Hort McDowall of Walkinshaw (he was also an executor for Thomas’s father Judge George Mcneish), payable “on the term of candelmass next”, or else he would incur a late payment penalty of £400, plus interest thereafter. This bond does not state what the loan was for, merely that he was Captain of the General Goddard at the time. This was possibly his first command.

East India Company Enemies

Captain Henry Mcneish made a journey to the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa on the General Goddard, where he arrived on 31st July of that year. She arrived at Table Bay where he states in a letter that two or three of his men had contracted the fever and died during the voyage. It states of plans to remain there until the second fleet from England joins them. They have no certainty of the Dutch squadron’s location. He goes on to state that Admiral Keith Elphinstone is reluctant to let them proceed with so small a force.

In correspondence dated 1st September 1796 he states concerns to an agent, John Pringle, about the safety of the ship due to low army numbers, for the journey to India. Five days later in a letter to Robert Wignam Esq he expresses his frustration at being laid up at Table Bay so long. He makes reference to the fact that suddenly, after six weeks in the Bay, they are asked to set sail without a single ship-of-war to defend them, especially as the French force were known to be very much superior to “the Indiamen”. Early on the morning of 7th September they were due to set sail. However due to several fruitless attempts to leave Table Bay, they did not successfully manage to do so until 16th of that month.

Henry writes to his elder brother William on 15th October 1796, from the General Goddard. In it he states, “Our voyage to the Cape from England was fifteen weeks, and upon disembarking, we had intelligence of a Dutch fleet on their way to attack that place, our troops were consequently disembarked and we detained until their arrival. The Dutch fleet arrived at Saldanah Bay in August and in the (illegible) end of the month the whole of them were captured by George Elphinstone [George Keith Elphinstone was his full name].

Claret, Beer and Children

It was the end of September before we left the Cape, our passage hitherto has been remarkably good, but as we are bound to Madras, I am afraid it will be yet an exceedingly long time before we reach Bengal. I mean to dispose of as much of my will investment as I can at Madras but think I shall bring on some claret and beer to Bengal. Pray write to any of your friends at Calcutta who may be able to assist and advise me in the sale of my (illegible).” The last word I could not read. Most frustrating. The letter continues, “If any of your friends have children to send home, recommend them to me, I am a famous hand for that kind of thing. The young ones are really good articles, they drink no claret….”

He goes on in his letter to James, “I had ordered a couple of hounds for you, but my ship being chock full of troops made me countermand them”.

There is a document which states the following as sold for ready cash, from the General Goddard in November 1796: one six-volume prayer book, one philosophy book, and two dozen packs of cards. It is not too difficult to see where the priorities of the crew lay!

Captain Mcneish sent a letter to Robert Wignam Esq. from Madras on 3rd January 1797. In it he refers to their successful arrival on 16th November. The voyage took two months. On seeing a squadron of French ships cruising in the Bay, they diverted to another part of the Bengal coast, Trincomalee Bay, to seek convoy to Bengal.

Further correspondence sent to Robert Wignam Esq refers to the General Goddard being in a poor state due to bad weather encountered on the way up from the Cape, the fact it had sprung a leak in a severe gale, and that Capt. Thomas Graham had done his best to locate it. It refers to much additional expense due to be incurred to repair the sails and rigging. Capt. Henry Mcneish requests in another letter dated 9th February 1797 of the Hon. Sir John Shore, Governor General in Council permission to bring the General Goddard up the river for the purpose of making repairs.

Return to India

Henry writes again to his brother James on 15th May 1797, from Barrackore, in which he describes himself as “one of the most sober in Calcutta”. He also states, “my side pains me a good deal but I persevere with the mercury which now begins to affect me”. Liar! Mercury, as you will know, was not for a painful side. He continues by advising William, “I do hope your illness is getting better; if your illness is at all serious do leave the country at once – a year or two in Europe would set you on your legs, and without cutting deep on your finances”.

Henry regularly wrote to William. The two were very close right up to William’s early death in 1805, only his 44th year. They often had an eye for the same woman – marriage did not stop the Captain – as is proven in correspondence from his brother.

William is Sacked

In correspondence of 5th June 1797, and sent from Calcutta, he states with regard to William’s removal from his position at Punneah, that “the particular part of your conduct found fault with by government is their being sent to work on the roads without being regularly convicted”. This was not the true reason. William lost a judicial position, which had been very important to him, as a result of sentencing a Suk of Calcutta to death for intemperate conduct. Suks were especially important to the British in India, as they were superior to British cavalrymen and, as such, William’s harsh sentence was politically naïve.

A digital copy of Miss Christian Dalrymple’s diaries was very kindly provided to me by Mark McLean, the Learning Officer at NTS property, Newhailes, in Musselburgh. It shows on several occasions from 1798 Captain Henry visiting for dinner, and often saying overnight at Newhailes. The first reference of this is in her entry of 5th November 1798. “Whist, casino, loo.” And lottery tickets were popular evening games.

Further Career

He was a Captain in the East India Company in the early 1800s, and served on a ship called Wyndham. The Asiatic Annual Register of 1804 mentions “a very brilliant achievement” by Captain Henry, when he captured two French privateers. “The enemy had recourse to their favourite expedient of boarding; his attack was obstinately opposed, as may be imagined. When we add that the first officer was killed, the second officer fell overboard in the confusion and was unhappily drowned.The officer commanding a detachment on board was also killed, whilst the brave Commander had one of his arms shattered, but is said not to have quit the deck.”

The Wyndham was an armed merchant ship carrying 20 guns but by 1810 had been modified to carry more than 26, probably as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars. These were heavy ships, often between 800 and 1300 tonnes. They could hold their own against pirates and other raiders. However, the Wyndham was captured by the French later that same year despite modification, having changed hands four times in ten months. The Asiatic Annual Register of 1809 notes concern for its capture. Henry Mcneish was still serving as a Captain with the East India Company in 1825, as noted in a court case of the time.

Captain of an Army Thanks to King Geoege III

The Mcneish papers contain a Charter dated 22nd May 1804 from James, Duke of Montrose, on behalf of King George III, to Henry Mcneish, commissioning him to be Captain of a Company in the Eastern Battalion of Stirlingshire Volunteer Infantry. It goes on to state that he was not allowed to take rank unless called into active service. His role was to exercise the officers and soldiers and keep them in good order and discipline. Later in the Charter it is stated that it was given by the Duke under his hand and seal, 6th November 1806.

Tax Avoidance

In an interesting insight into how Window Tax was addressed by the wealthy, in a letter from William Stirling at Glenduich Castle , who was working for Henryat the time, the following line is contained; “I have caused the doors and windows of the (illegible) to build up with stone”. Henry was staying at No 2 North Parade in Bath at the time, 5th April 1808.

Henry latterly changed his surname to Henry Graham Stirling. Strowan was the estate of his maternal uncle Sir Thomas Stirling of Ardoch. He succeeded to it upon the death of Sir Thomas. The estate of Strowan was to go to Captain Mcneish’ssecond son Thomas, but, being very extravagant, he kept it. Evidence of this is in the manuscripts. His son had to take him to court for it! It seems that much of the land was used for growing crops, as this is specifically mentioned in the family papers.

The Purchase of a Child

One W. Houston sends a letter to Henry at Glenduich Castle on 7th June 1813. It starts with a very harrowing sentence: “I must confess that I thought you had had from experience more knowledge of the (illegible) in existence for the support and protection of that unfortunate class in society, bastard children”. As the letter continues it is clear that it refers to the adoption of “James”. A section in it quotes thus, “the child’s mother might keep the child till it was 14 years of age without giving up any part of her claim against him for its support.

The day I was in Glasgow I had the pleasure of an interview with the wicked woman. She said that she would not give her son James without payment, but that she would give up her claim on him for £32, to be paid by you, which is £4 a year instead of £6 for the remaining 8 years. I think she would take less, and I believe it would be better for James to settle the business in this way”. I found this particularly disturbing, not least as I am adopted. Ouch!


An interesting legal document is a petition brought to the Lords of Council and Session by local farmers and distillers in the county of Clackmannan against Henry McNeish Esq of Glenduich Castle, in respect of repair and maintenance of a harbour he owned. The agent of Henry’s defender’s was James Dundas. The Dundas family of Arniston and the Mcneish family had close ties over at least two generations.

There are many legal papers contained in the Mcneish manuscriptss, where James Dundas acts as agent both for and against Henry Mcneish.

William Stirling writes again to Henry on 28th Dec 1822, who is now back at Glenduich Castle. In it he requests “the honor of Henry’s company to the funeral of Miss Erskine, his sister-in-law on Thursday next at 12 o’clock from G(illegible) to the place of internment…” There are many references to funerals and illnesses throughout the Mcneish papers.

Sex Club Membership

Amongst the manuscripts I came across a list of members, with rules abridged, for a local sex club! Club rules state that the club can have no more than 70 members. The 19th member is a prominent member of Scottish Society. The 58th member is Henry Mcneish. The third rule states that “the six regular stated meetings to be on the second Wednesday of December, January, February, March and April, or the day immediately following the regular meetings of the Caledonian Hunt; and the sixth meeting to be upon Thursday of the race week in Edinburgh”.

Also amongst the papers was an advert for a lost gold chase watch, “Chasing on the case consists of four heads and four busts. Blue ribbon for chain”, and offering a reward for its return. There is no indication that Thomas ever had it returned to him.

This concludes the most recent correspondence specific to Captain Henry Mcneish. Clearly, he was a remarkably successful and brave man, devoted to his career. Also, to the name of his family. He would have been fascinating to meet and talk with, but that is for another life.

Edited(!) Bibliography

Mcneish Family Papers – National Library for Scotland
History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland Vol I & II – Burke
Or & Sable a Book of the Mcneishes, published in 1903 by William Brown of Princes Street
Register of Burials in the Chapel Royal or Abbey of Holyroodhouse’, 1706-1900, Edinburgh, 1900.
Asiatic Annual Registers
Scottish History Society Vol XXIII 1897
National Trust for Scotland General Paintings Information
Scots Peerage Vol II, published by David Douglas 1905
Bibliography of British & Irish History – Judicial Review 1937 Vol 49:4 by Thomas Miller
Juan Agÿfffffcero, former Warden, Holyrood Palace
Miss Christian’s Diaries – courtesy of Mark McLean, Claire Robertson & Anne Munro, at Newhailes

Also with thanks to the Scottish Genealogy Society. Opening details are on their website.

© Fraser Paterson (article)

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