The Scots in India

After the ill-fated Darien venture, many Scots were still keen on making a mark overseas, and the Far East was an attractive destination. Scots first began participating in eastern trade through European chartered companies, ‘but for those Scots who remained at home the key to future success lay in the establishment of a foothold’ in the famous East India Company. (Parker) The Union of 1707, which gave Scots access to the British Empire, facilitated this to some extent. Even prior to the Union, however, the East India Company had attracted a number of Scots, including Captain Alexander Hamilton, who rose to prominence with his accounts of life in the British bases that had been established in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. Though generally dominated by Englishmen, there was also a presence of Scots among Company directors in London, and Scottish capital, for instance from Lawrence Dundas, financed some of the Company activities.

In terms of numbers the most significant involvement of Scots in India in the eighteenth century was in the East India Company’s (or the king’s) military forces. In Bengal, in the early 1770s, there were an estimated 30 Scottish civil servants, 280 Scots among ordinary soldiers, and 250 Scots among the officers. The latter was a particularly strong contingent given the overall number of officers was 800. In terms of the share of the European population in Bengal, Scots thus made up a good 13%. (Bryant) Other estimates suggest that, between 1720 and 1780, a minimum of 2,000 Scots made their way to the Indian subcontinent in the military, as civil servants, aboard East Indiamen, as physicians and also as free merchants. The number of the latter group increased throughout the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with an estimated 300 Scottish free merchants trading in the East Indies by the 1830s.

One of the notable Scottish officers in India was Sir Hector Munro of Novar. Made famous in particular through his involvement in the Battle of Baksar, where his East India Company army defeated the forces of emperor Shah Alam II and the Nawabs of Bengal. Munro returned to Britain in the mid 1760s and was elected a Member of Parliament for the Inverness Burghs in 1768. He only remained in Britain for a decade, however, making his way back to India in 1778, soon becoming involved in the siege of Pondicherry, the central French base in India at the time. Victory there ‘gained him a public note of thanks from King George III and a Knighthood of the Bath.’ (Mackillop) His reputation, however, was almost completely forfeited when Munro’s campaign at Polillur in 1780 failed. The reason behind Munro’s second venture to India was that the collapse of the Ayr Bank had left him in a precarious financial position that he sought to resolve by returning to India—the willingness to consider this long-distance sojourn highlights how much it had become a common practice among Scots.

To learn more about the Scots in Asia, have a look at chapter 13 in The Scottish Diaspora.



  • G.J. Bryant, ‘Scots in India in the Eighteenth Century’, Scottish Historical Review, LXIV, 1:177 (1985).
  • Andrew Mackillop, ‘The Highlands and the Returning Nabob: Sir Hector Munro of Novar, 1760-1807, in Marjory Harper (ed.), Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600-2000 (Manchester, 2005), 240; see also by the same author ‘Europeans, Britons and Scots:  Scottish Sojourning Networks and Identities in India, c.1700-1815’, in Angela McCarthy (ed.), A Global Clan: Scottish Migrant Networks and Identities since the Eighteenth Century (London, 2006).
  • James G. Parker, ‘Scottish Enterprise in India, 1750-1914’, in R.A. Cage (ed.), The Scots Abroad: Labour, Capital, Enterprise, 1750-1914 (London, 1985).

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