Many readers of the Scottish Review will know the charming little white church at Dalmally, a village on the road from Tyndrum to Oban. They may recall that the porch at the foot of its tower, through which they entered the church, has two beautifully inscribed plaques on its walls that commemorate 15 people: a colonel, two captains, three lieutenants, a civil commissioner at the Cape of Good Hope, and their wives and children – dying between 1786 and 1856 in Scotland, Domenica, Jamaica, Ceylon and several of them in India. All had ventured from this remote Argyll village to seek their fortunes in the British Empire. And that was just the Campbells.
Over the years, hundreds of their tenants must have gone forth to the same countries as soldiers, clerks, traders, missionaries, engineers, administrators and more. Other small communities all over Scotland can tell a similar story.
The privilege our history has given us to explore the world was brought home to me recently on a visit to old friends in the Czech Republic. Intelligent, highly civilised people, speaking several European languages, my friends have lived under five different regimes: social democratic, Nazi, social democratic again, Soviet-socialist, and now Thatcherite. For most of those years they were unable to travel beyond the borders of their small country. The more privileged of them were occasionally given a brief exit visa with the expectation that they would in return report on their friends and colleagues to the secret police.
But we should remember that our freedom to travel and the hazards that came with it were, until recently, only for men. So their sisters, left at home, had difficulty in finding husbands. It is not surprising that women's search for a mate plays so central a part in British fiction and drama from Jane Austen onwards. That was the world every woman knew about.
It was tough for the men too. In the early days of Empire it was acceptable for British men to marry native women. But from the mid-19th century – and particularly after the Indian mutiny – men with professional ambitions were expected to find a white wife. To live publicly with a native woman would wreck their careers. (My father, who joined the Indian civil service in 1922, was brought together with other new recruits from Britain a few days after their arrival to be warned by a senior official that they should never do this.)
Later, some of them did indeed find native partners who could not be publicly recognised – an arrangement on which their colleagues would turn a tactfully blind eye. When eventually they went home to Britain these men left their women and their offspring behind. These deprivations led to the annual arrival of what came, rather unkindly, to be called 'the fishing fleet': ships bringing husband-seeking women from Britain to various imperial ports where bachelors eagerly awaited them. In India, their main destination, they usually arrived in January because that was when the cool weather started.
I was unwittingly involved in an episode of this kind. My earliest memories, when I was still only three years old, are of a voyage on an ocean liner sailing to Burma (then part of the Indian Raj) when my father was returning from the six months leave he was given every three years. It was January 1930. With us came a lady, somewhat older than my parents, whom I was taught to call 'Aunty Lally.' She was to be my governess for the next three years.
Officials returning from leave had to report first to their superiors in Rangoon to learn where they were to be posted. My parents, who were natural explorers and adventurers, were delighted when he was given his first posting as a district officer in Mergui, close to the equator at the southern tip of the country on the borders of Siam and Malaya. There would be lots of trecking through jungle-clad mountains, and by small boats sailing among islands along a wild coastline.
Lally, who would have been hoping to stay in Rangoon where there were plenty of European men, must have been desperately disappointed. She taught me to read. But she had other more pressing interests and I never formed a close relationship with her. For maternal affection I relied on my mother – when she was not away on tour with my father – and on Ma Thein, a loving, copper-skinned Burmese woman who got me up each morning, bathed me, put me to bed at night, and taught me quite a lot of her language.
Lally eventually found a young Englishman, employed on a rubber plantation, whom she persuaded to become engaged to her. Mergui's small European community, mingling after work in their gossipy club, got to know each other pretty well, and my parents disapproved of this match, believing the young man would be 'quite unsuitable.' Their view seemed to be confirmed quite soon when he was charged with embezzling a large sum from his employers.
The district officer, besides being head of a small administrative staff, was responsible for his district's treasury and its police force, and was also its chief magistrate. So my father had to try Lally's fiancee. It was an open-and-shut case because he made no attempt to deny the charges against him. But what sentence should be imposed? Another young man – a Chinese man – had been convicted a few weeks earlier of a similar offence and been sent to prison. The whole of Mergui was agog to learn whether a European would be given the same sentence.
My father asked in court if there was anything to be said in mitigation before he passed sentence. But the young man refused to say anything. Although my father believed he was being quite courageous in refusing to incriminate bigger fish who had been involved in the crime, he felt he had no choice but to send him to prison. That sentence was appealed to a pompous judge in Rangoon who roundly reproved my father for his decision and freed the young man who was quickly hustled off home to Britain.
What must have been the atmosphere around the breakfast table on the morning after the trial? What must Lally have felt about her employers – this couple, younger than she was, who were happily married and now proud parents of a second child? All I know is that she played to the whistle. As the day approached for my father to be sent home again on leave, Lally found another man working on a plantation; a man a good deal older than herself this time. My parents again thought he was 'quite unsuitable.' According to gossip in the club, he already had a wife in Malaya. Undeterred, Lally got him to the altar a few days before our departure and they were married. He disappeared next morning and was never seen or heard of again.
Soon afterwards we set off on a small ship to Rangoon and there boarded the liner that took us on the four-week voyage to Britain. Aged just six, I knew nothing about these events at the time. On the voyage home Aunty Lally seemed quiet and rather sad. I never saw her again, and she must now be long dead. I still feel I owe her some sort of apology.
This article was first published in SR in 2013