The British Empire Library

Cawnpore To Cromar: The MacRoberts of Douneside

by Marion Miller

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
BACSA's first residential visit was to Douneside, a large comfortable house in Aberdeenshire. It was chosen not only as a convenient base from which to visit nearby Scottish houses with Indian connections, but also because of its own links to the industrial city of Cawnpore. How these links were forged is the subject of this engaging book by the author who lives in the village of Tarland, adjacent to the Douneside estate. Sir Alexander MacRobert, as he was to become, started life in 1854 in very humble surroundings, in an Aberdeen tenement, the son of working-class parents. Aberdeen was at that time a city of mills, particularly textiles and paper. Alexander began work as a sweeper at the Stoneywood Paper Mill, but took advantage of the city's night-schools, including the Mechanics' Institute. Extra-ordindarily gifted and hard-working, by 1883 he is travelling to Cawnpore to take up a job at the Muir Cotton Mills.

The one weakness of this book is that we never find out what Alexander actually does. He studies science at the South Kensington Museum, London, but is also an auditor, a chemist, a contractor, a manager and a businessman - rather hard to pin down. He finds that the Muir Cotton Mills job has already been filled, but joins the Cawnpore Woollen Mill and within a few years has been able to turn this ailing company around. One of his first tasks was to create a brand name, and he adopted the red tamarind flower, the lal imli, that grew outside the mill compound. Soon the Lal imli logo became a symbol of quality and business flourished by supplying the Army with warm clothing during its constant forays on the Afghan border. Expansion took place with the purchase of the New Egerton Mill in the Punjab, and from then on every venture he undertook was a success. By the end of his Indian career, the Viceroy, Lord Minto, was requesting Mac, as he was affectionately called, to visit Afghanistan and advise the Amir how to modernise his country and develop a woollen mill in Kabul.

Sadly, his personal life was less happy. His first wife, Georgina, died from cancer in 1905 after a long decline. The couple had been married for twenty-two years, but were childless. Four years after Georgina's death, Mac met and married Rachel Workman, a young American woman of good family, who was returning home from a visit to India with her parents. Thirty years younger than Mac, the marriage was soon blessed with three sons, Alasdair, Roderic and Ian. They were still young boys when Mac died at Douneside with his wife beside him. His achievements were listed in his many obituaries in India and Britain. He had been a governor of Roorkee Engineering College, and of the Agricultural College, Cawnpore. He was President of the Indian branch of St John's Ambulance Brigade and a member of the Legislative Council of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. From an unpropitious background, he had risen to the top of British Indian society. The latter half of this books relates the heart-breaking loss of his three boys, now grown men, all killed in war accidents within three years of each other. Their mother, the indomitable Rachel, funded a bomber aircraft for the RAF, aptly named MacRoberts Reply. She lies buried in the garden of her beloved Douneside, where the MacRobert Trust provides holiday accommodation for service personnel at a very reasonable rate. A readable and informative biography of the MacRoberts family.

British Empire Book
Marion Miller
First Published
Librario Publishing
Review Originally Published
Spring 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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