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Thu 14 December 2017
FEATURE ARTICLES
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PEOPLE: JAMES MACRAE
James was born in 1670 and at the age of 5 moved with his now widowed mother, Bel Macrae, from the village of Ochiltree to Ayr to be near her only remaining relative, a niece named Bel Mcguire and her carpenter husband Hugh. Despite the dire poverty of her class at that time, Bel Macrae supported herself and her son with employment as a washer-woman and lived in a small thatched cottage.

James was an intelligent boy and, as soon as he was old enough, worked as an errand boy in Ayr. One local legend suggests that James had spent several nights in Ayr Tollbooth (jail) for stealing a magistrate’s apple. Whether the embarrassment of this situation drove him away, or the fact he longed for adventure, James joined the crew of a boat at Ayr harbour and went off to sea, still a boy.

MacRae progressed through the ranks to officer in India, which at that time was ruled jointly by the British Army and the English East India Company, for who he became one of the most talented captains. A natural leader and a brilliant seaman, he had made his name, and a considerable fortune, hunting the pirates who plagued the Company’s ships.

One such pirate, Edward England, was encountered near Madagascar on the 34 gun ship ‘Fancy’ and engaged in a battle that lasted several hours. ‘Fancy’ and Macrae’s ship ‘Cassandra’ both grounded and pounded each other relentlessly. Macrae escaped going ashore leaving behind cargo worth £75,000. After 10 days of hiding, Macrae went aboard another of Edward England’s ships, the ‘Victory’, hoping for mercy. Victory’s captain, John Taylor, wanted to kill Macrae but England wanted to spare his life and persuaded Taylor to do so. Macrae was given the badly damaged "Fancy" and embarked with a crew of 43 upon a 7 week voyage to Bombay in which they were plagued by hunger and thirst. Upon reaching Bombay, Macrae was given a hero's welcome.

He is reputed to have been an able administrator with a keen mind for commerce. After a visit to Sumatra he was appointed deputy governor of Fort St. David and later governor of Fort St. George, both on the south east coast of India. In January 1725 he was appointed governor of Madras, presidency, one of the most influential and coveted posts in all of the lands under British rule. His time as governor of Madras is well documented and is regarded as having been very successful. He tackled with enthusiasm the corruption that was rife in the city, laid down the beginnings of an efficient water and sewage system and introduced a degree of efficiency previously unknown into the way that the Company operated.

In December 1730 James Macrae retired from his governorship and in January 1731 he sailed for England, returning home with an astonishing hoard of diamonds, the source of which has never been identified. After some time in London, during which he bought an estate at Blackheath, he returned to his native Ayrshire. He had left as a poor, working class boy and returned as an extremely wealthy man.

This was reflected in 1734 when Macrae presented Glasgow with an equestrian statue of King William. The statue stood in Argyle Street near Glasgow Cross until the early years of this century at which time the volume of traffic in the city centre necessitated its removal to its present position in Cathedral Square. An odd and possibly unique feature of the statue is that the horse's tail hangs from a ball-and-socket joint which allows it to sway in the wind.

Macrae’s wealth was also demonstrated by his having lent a large sum of money to Glasgow City Council in 1745 to assist the city through financial difficulties created by requisitions enforced on the city by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite Army as they retreated northwards to Culloden and defeat. The army commanders demanded clothing, provisions, horses and other items from the city and, to ensure that their demands were met, they took two of the city's magistrates as hostages. The sum lent by Macrae is not known and reports have varied from £5,000 to £15,000.

After James left home and whilst he had been away, his mother had been befriended by the Mcguires and taken into their home to live as one of the family. On his arrival back in Ayrshire, now with no immediate family of his own, MacRae lavished his fortune on the Mcguires in appreciation of her earlier kindness to his mother. He bought Hugh and Bel a small estate called Drumdow (now a farm) near Trabboch in Ayrshire, and to their eldest son James he gave an estate at Houston in Renfrewshire plus an unknown but substantial sum of money on condition that he changed his name to James Mcguire Macrae. James settled down as a wealthy young laird and later married a daughter of the Swedish ambassador.

The Mcguires eldest daughter, Elizabeth, had been working as a farm servant. Macrae had her educated and "finished" at a boarding school and in 1744 arranged her marriage to William Cunningham, the impoverished 13th Earl of Glencairn. As incumbent of Ayrshire's oldest earldom, Glencairn was reluctant to agree to Macrae's suggestion that he should marry a commoner, especially one of such lowly background, but abandoned his scruples when told that Elizabeth's dowry was to be £45,000 in diamonds and the estate of Ochiltree which Macrae had bought for £25,000. Unfortunately, her husband could not reconcile himself to having married a commoner and even taught their sons to be disrespectful to her when they were young. Fortunately the young men soon recognised the comparative worths of their parents and paid their mother great respect. Countess Elizabeth of Glencairn became a highly respected member of Scottish society. She and her son James, the fourteenth Earl, were much loved patrons of the young Robert Burns and MacRae money was influential in introducing Burns to Edinburgh society. The young Earl of Glencairn was instrumental in arranging the publication of the extended Edinburgh Edition of Burns work and he and his mother underwrote its success. Even after Edinburgh had tired of Burns, Glencairn remained his patron and it was he who secured for Burns his appointment as a riding officer with the Excise Service. When Glencairn took ill and died an untimely death in 1791, Burns was moved to write one of his most poignant laments.

O! why has worth so short a date,
While villains ripen grey with time?
Must thou, the noble, gen’rous, great,
Fall in bold manhood’s hardy prime
Why did I live to see that day-
A day to me so full of woe?
O! had I met the mortal shaft
That laid my benefactor low.
The bridegroom may forge his bride
Was made his wedded wife yestreen:
The monarch may forget the crown
That on his head an hour has been:
The mother may forget the child
That smiles sae sweetly on her knee;
But I’ll remember thee, Glencairn
And a’ that thou has done for me!


He further honoured his friend and sponsor by naming his fourth son James Glencairn Burns. If Captain James MacRae had never run away to sea, made his fortune and lavished it on Elizabeth and her family, would we ever have known of Robert Burns?

The countess died at Coats House near Edinburgh in 1801 and is buried in the Glencairn vault at Kilmaurs parish church. Even in death some members of the Glencairn family could not forget that she had been a commoner and objected to her burial in the vault. The earldom ended with her third son the 15th Earl.

The second Mcguire daughter was called Margaret. James Macrae arranged her marriage to James Erskine, later Lord Alva. He gave her an estate at Alva as a dowry and probably accompanied it with a large sum of money.

Hugh and Bel Mcguire's third daughter was named Macrae Mcguire in honour of James Macrae. She became his favourite and when he died he left her £100,000 and his Orangefield Estate. In 1750 she married Charles Dalrymple, local landowner and sheriff-clerk of Ayrshire, an important post at that time. Their son, James Dalrymple, was also a patron and friend to Robert Burns. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a waster and dissipated his fortune before dying young.

The Mcguire's had another son and daughter, Hugh and Jacobina. But little is known of them and it is presumed that they both died young.

The city of Glasgow and the town of Ayr each honoured Macrae by making him a burgess.

James Macrae died on 21st July 1746 and was buried in Monkton Kirkyard. His grave is unmarked and it may be that the absence of a memorial stone is connected with the erection of the James Macrae Monument in Monkton that bears his name.

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