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date: 29 February 2020

Bruce, James, of Kinnairdfree

  • Nigel Leask

James Bruce of Kinnaird (1730–1794)

by John Smart, 1776

Bruce, James, of Kinnaird (1730–1794), traveller in Africa, was born at Kinnaird House, Kinnaird, Stirlingshire, on 14 December 1730, son of David Bruce (d. 1758), laird of Kinnaird, and Marion (d. 1733), daughter of Judge James Graham, dean of faculty at Edinburgh University. Bruce was educated in the family of Councillor William Hamilton in London, and in 1742, a scholarly but sickly boy, he went to Harrow School. Although inclined to become an Anglican clergyman on leaving school in 1746, he complied with his father's wishes and in May 1747 enrolled in the law faculty at Edinburgh University.

Entry into business and marriage

Bruce showed little enthusiasm for his legal studies, however, and, still dogged by bad health, spent his time reading Ariosto and Petrarch before dropping out of university. He then spent several years at Kinnaird, recovering his health in the leisurely pursuit of field sports. In 1753 he set off for London, intending to embark as a ‘free trader’ with the East India Company. In London, however, he fell in love with Adriana Allan (1734–1754), daughter of a deceased Scottish wine merchant, and the couple were married on 3 February 1754, Bruce taking a share in the Allan family wine business. In September of the same year, the pregnant Adriana set off for France (to be joined by her husband) in the hope of curing her galloping consumption. Tragically, she died shortly after arrival in Paris and, to Bruce's indignation, as a protestant she was denied burial in consecrated ground.

Bruce returned, grief-stricken, to London, and set about studying languages, drawing, and architecture in preparation for a European tour. In July 1757 he embarked for Spain and Portugal (under pretence of studying the vintage), landing at Corunna and carrying out some amateur espionage at the port of Ferrol. He travelled through France, the German states, and the Netherlands, and purchased Job Ludolf's History of Ethiopia (1681), a work which whetted his appetite to know more about the ancient Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, a region virtually unknown to Europeans in the eighteenth century. In Brussels in 1758 he received the news that his father had died, and returned to Scotland to assume his responsibilities as laird of Kinnaird. He signed a contract on 4 November 1760 to supply the Carron ironworks with coal from his mines at Kinnaird. The contract provided him with the capital and the leisure to travel the world.

Algiers and Tunis

Bruce submitted a plan to capture the Spanish fort of Ferrol, first to William Pitt, and then (after war broke out with Spain) to George Grenville, and lords Egremont and Halifax. Although his plan came to nothing, Halifax was impressed by Bruce and offered him the post of consul-general at Algiers with a commission to examine and draw the classical ruins of Algiers and Tunis for the king's collection. According to Bruce the offer was accompanied by the hint of a reward of a baronetcy and pension, although these were never forthcoming. Despite the fact that he had recently fallen in love with a sixteen-year-old Stirlingshire neighbour, Margaret Murray, Bruce prepared for his departure, planning to spend some time in Italy (under the pretext of a diplomatic mission to Malta), in order to develop his artistic skills before proceeding to Algiers. He departed in April 1762, equipped with a formidable array of books and scientific instruments. In Italy, Bruce prepared treatises on the architecture of ancient and modern Rome and the ruins of Paestum, conversed with the exiled Scots Jacobite antiquary Andrew Lumisden, had his portrait painted by Pompeo Battoni, and studied drawing at Florence.

In February 1763 Bruce departed for his diplomatic posting, with the brief of maintaining Britain's 1682 treaty with the bey of Algiers. The system of safe passes to preserve British ships from attack by Barbary corsairs had collapsed, and it appeared to Bruce that the bey was taking unwarrantable liberties. His recommendations that the Foreign Office employ the eighteenth-century equivalent of gunboat diplomacy to overawe the bey went unheeded, and he quickly alienated his superiors in London. A replacement consul was dispatched in June 1765, much to his fury, though his irascible temper and overbearing manner evidently made Bruce quite unsuitable for a diplomatic career. While in Algiers, Bruce secured the services of a young Bolognese artist called Luigi Balugani to act as his ‘secretary’ and draughtsman. Balugani was an invaluable and loyal servant, although he is hardly mentioned in Bruce's account of their journey (Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768–73, 1790), in which Bruce predated Balugani's death to before the expedition to discover the source of the Nile, probably in order to claim sole credit for the discovery. Bruce and Balugani set off to draw the Roman ruins of Algiers and Tunis. They filled three bound volumes with architectural and antiquarian drawings, presented to George III upon Bruce's return, which he claimed as his own work. In August 1766 Bruce proceeded from Tunis to Tripoli and Benghazi where he visited the principal sites of the ancient Pentapolis. Shipwrecked on the Libyan coast en route for Crete in November, Bruce was robbed of much of his equipment.

Arrival in Abyssinia

His plans frustrated and his health in ruins, Bruce arrived at the Syrian port of Aleppo, where an English doctor, Patrick Russel, cured him of fever and instructed him in the treatment of tropical diseases. Bruce next set off across the desert to visit Palmyra and Baalbek, already explored and described by his friend Robert Wood. His connections in Europe, including naturalist and fellow mason Buffon, meanwhile replaced his lost scientific instruments on the understanding that Bruce would undertake an expedition to Abyssinia in order to discover the source of the Nile. Equipped with firmans from the Ottoman Porte and letters of credit from his bankers in London, he arrived at Alexandria on 20 June 1768, assuming the disguise of a wandering fakir. In Cairo Bruce cured Ali Bey (the city's mameluke ruler) of a stomach upset and procured further firmans to enable him to travel to Abyssinia. Sailing up the Nile to Aswan, he visited the ruins of Thebes, where he reported a painting of a harpist in the tomb of Rameses III, subsequently publishing an article on the subject in Charles Burney's History of Music. Visiting Karnak and Luxor, Bruce began making detailed terrestrial observations and charting the course of the Nile.

Having chosen to approach Abyssinia from the Red Sea town of Massawa, Bruce retraced his steps back from the first Nile cataract in order to make the desert crossing to Quseir on the Red Sea. Arriving at Jiddah in early May 1769 after an eventful sea-crossing, he stayed for three months in the company of the British East India Company captains who frequented the port, employing the time to survey and chart the Red Sea. Bruce also persuaded the powerful Metical Aga, swordbearer to the reigning pasha of Jiddah and a former Ethiopian slave, to write letters of safe conduct to the much-feared naybe of Massawa. The naybe, on whose island (situated on what is now the Eritrean coast) he landed on 19 September 1769, controlled the gateway to Abyssinia. It was just over seven years since Bruce's departure from England.

Bruce stayed two months in Massawa awaiting permission from Ras Michael Sehul of Tigré, effective ruler of Abyssinia, to proceed into the mountainous hinterland. Bruce—posing as 'El hakim Yagoube', a skilful Syrian physician—had been recommended to Ras Michael by his ally Metical Aga at Jiddah. Eventually managing to outwit the manipulative naybe of Massawa, Bruce's caravan began the laborious ascent into the mountains of central Abyssinia, bound for the then capital, Gondar. Enduring physical hardships and surmounting technical difficulties in carrying delicate surveying instruments over the rough mountain terrain, Bruce first witnessed the Abyssinian custom of eating raw beef cut from living beasts, his account of which met with great scepticism upon his return to England. After stopping to visit the ruins of Aksum, capital of Abyssinia from the fifth century ad, he arrived at Gondar on 14 February 1770, after an arduous journey through territory which bore all the signs of Ras Michael's bloody policy.

Bruce was only the second European to visit the isolated mountain kingdom of Abyssinia since the 1630s. He arrived at the start of a long period of chaos in which the powerless emperors of the ancient Solomonic dynasty were at the mercy of powerful regional warlords. In 1769 the machiavellian Ras Michael Sehul had crowned the fifteen-year-old Tekle Haimanout II as puppet emperor, and was currently waging war with the rebellious Fasil of Damot and his Galla army. Bruce's first task was to establish good relations with Ras Michael, although the fact that the springs of the Little Abbai (considered the major tributary of the Nile) at Gish lay within Fasil's territory made it imperative for Bruce to conciliate him as well.

Bruce's knowledge of the Tigrinya and Amaharic languages, the favour his medical knowledge won him with the royal ladies, and his insistence, having dropped his Syrian disguise, that he was no hated Roman Catholic but a protestant Christian, were instrumental to his success at court in Gondar, and the emperor made him governor of the province of Ras-el-Fil, on the Sudanese border. In the spring of 1770 he accompanied Michael's army on an expedition against Fasil which enabled him to explore Lake Tana and visit the falls of Tissisat: but Michael's army was forced to retreat and Bruce had to abandon his first quest to reach the springs of the Nile at Gish.

The source of the Nile

On 28 October 1770 Bruce and his party once again left Gondar bound for Gish, which the emperor had granted him as a fiefdom. The main obstacle to his reaching the source of the Nile was the presence of Fasil and his army, but after Bruce had impressed the warlord by taming a wild horse and by his marksmanship, Fasil sped him on his way with a bodyguard. On 4 November 1770 the party crossed the Little Abbai, by this point a tiny stream, arriving at the swampy ‘Nile source’ at Gish. Bruce triumphantly toasted George III, Catherine the Great, and the mysterious ‘Maria’ (possibly Bruce's fiancée), and gave vent to the 'sublime of discovery':

it is easier to guess than describe the situation of my mind at that moment—standing in that spot which had baffled the genius, industry, and inquiry, of both ancients and moderns, for the course of nearly three thousand years.

Bruce, 3.597

The depression which followed may have been prompted by Bruce's realization that Gish had already been visited by the Jesuit Pedro Paez in 1618 (although Bruce went to great lengths to deny this fact) and also that the springs of Gish, flowing into Lake Tana, represent only one of several tributaries of the Blue Nile. More damagingly, the source of the larger White Nile, whose confluence with the Blue Nile at Halfaya (Khartoum) Bruce would see on his return journey, was over 500 miles away at Lake Victoria, to be discovered nearly a century later by John Hanning Speke.

The journey home

When Bruce returned to Gondar on 19 November, he discovered the capital in turmoil, in the midst of which Balugani died (apparently of natural causes). Michael and the emperor granted Bruce permission to leave Abyssinia as soon as the rebel warlords were defeated. At the end of March 1771 Michael marched out of the city to confront his enemies. Bruce, in chain mail and a plumed helmet, astride a Sudanese charger 17 hands high, commanded the emperor's black horse, and must have looked an imposing sight. The stout, 6 foot 4 inch, red-headed Bruce was later described by Fanny Burney: 'His Figure is almost Gigantic! He is the Tallest man I ever saw [in another version, Burney inserted the word “gratis”] & exceeding well made, neither too fat or lean in proportion to his amazing height' (Early Journals and Letters, 44–5). But after a series of inconclusive battles at Serbraxos, Michael was deposed and exiled. Bruce, having escaped with only light wounds, anxiously sought to leave amid the ensuing turmoil. Not until 28 December 1771, however, was he able to set off for home. He was laden with botanical, zoological, and archaeological specimens, journals, maps and measurements, a history of medieval Ethiopia copied from a manuscript in the monastery of Debra Libanos, and, perhaps most important of all, an Ethiopic text of the apocryphal book of Enoch, which he later presented to the Bodleian Library.

Desert ordeal

Bruce's 1200 mile return journey to Egypt via the Sudanese desert was the most dangerous stage of his whole expedition, and it remains a mystery why he did not retrace his steps via Massawa and the Red Sea. Giving the slip to the importunate Sheikh Fidele of Teawa, he was hospitably received by the Nuba people, and in the spring of 1772 arrived in the Fung kingdom of Sennar, posing as an itinerant dervish. Delayed by the schemes of King Ismain of Sennar, on 6 September he finally managed to escape, following the Blue Nile to its confluence at Halfaya, and thence to Chendi. Striking out across the great Nubian Desert, rather than following the much longer Nile loop, Bruce's caravan soon ran out of food and water. At Saffeiliyyah the small party slaughtered and ate their last camel, struggling on to Aswan on foot, having abandoned all specimens and journals. They arrived at the Egyptian frontier city on 29 November 1772, after a twenty-day desert ordeal; as soon as he had recovered his strength Bruce plunged back into the desert to retrieve his jettisoned baggage. Suffering from severely swollen feet, guinea worm in his leg, and malaria, he hastened to Cairo, where he negotiated a customs treaty for East India Company shipping at Suez with Ali Bey. Proceeding to Alexandria, he took ship for Marseilles, where he arrived on 23 March 1773. French savants flocked to meet the man whom most Europeans had long presumed to have vanished in the interior of Africa.

Back in Europe

After having enjoyed the hospitality of the court of Louis XV the invalided Bruce travelled to Italy. At Florence he was portrayed standing in front of the Medici Venus in Zoffany's famous painting, the Tribuna degli Uffizi. By chance he encountered his former fiancée, Margaret Murray, now married to the Marchese Accoramboni; Bruce challenged the terrified Italian to a duel, but was eventually pacified by an apologetic letter. After having been presented to Pope Clement XIV, Bruce turned for home, and finally arrived in England in June 1774. For a time he was, according to Fanny Burney, 'the Lyon of the Times' (Early Journals and Letters, 44), stealing the show from Captain Cook and Joseph Banks, the recently returned Pacific explorers. Horace Walpole wrote: 'There is just returned a Mr Bruce who has lived for three years in the court of Abyssinia, and breakfasted every morning with the maids of honour on live oxen. Otaheite and Mr Banks are quite forgotten' (Walpole, Corr., 24.21, letter to Sir Horace Mann, 10 July 1774). Although he was presented at court and elected FRS, Bruce's baronetcy was not forthcoming, and the king did not pay him the £6000 due for his paintings and consulship until 1780. Moreover, the British public's initial euphoria was soon replaced by scepticism concerning the truth of Bruce's claims, not least because Dr Johnson, translator of Jerome Lobo's Travels in Abyssinia, author of Rasselas, and self-appointed Abyssinian ‘expert’, took a critical view of his vaunted achievements.

Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Bruce returned to Kinnaird to nurse his resentment, oversee his collieries (amid endless litigations with the Carron Company), and, in May 1776, to marry Mary (1754–1785), the daughter of his neighbour Sir Thomas Dundas, with whom he had three children. Unwisely, he postponed the composition of his Travels for sixteen years (although a brief account by his distant relative James Boswell had been published in the London Magazine for August and September 1774), finally putting pen to paper to console himself after Mary's early death in 1785. He hired William Logan and later Benjamin Latrobe to edit his chaotic notes and journals. Anxious to emulate the form of James Cook's Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (one of the best-selling travel books of the century), Bruce published his 3000-page Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in five quarto volumes in 1790. In conformity with eighteenth-century conventions of travel writing, it is an 'immethodical miscellany', ranging from striking adventure stories, reported dialogues, and Shandean asides boasting of his success with African women, through a pedantic history of ancient Ethiopia (which occupies most of the first two volumes), to vivid sketches of contemporary Abyssinian life, politics, and natural history. It was immensely successful, most of the original edition being sold to retail booksellers within thirty-two hours, and was rapidly translated into French and German. Despite favourable reviews in the Analytical Review, the Critical Review, the London Chronicle, and the Journal des Scavans, however, Bruce's credit was widely impugned; a sequel to Baron Münchhausen's travels was dedicated to him, the popular satirist John Wolcot (Peter Pindar) mocked him in his Complimentary Epistle to James Bruce, Esq. (1790), and, more damagingly, Lord Valentia and Henry Salt, the first British travellers to visit Abyssinia after Bruce, would cast serious doubts on his veracity.

Death and reputation

Bruce did not live to fulminate long at his critics; on 26 April 1794 the now corpulent traveller fell down stairs at Kinnaird House, and died of his injuries, an ignominious end for one who had braved the perils of the Sennar Desert. He was buried on 1 May 1794 in Larbert old churchyard beside his wife, where an inscription on his cast-iron obelisk (manufactured at Carron works) proclaims: 'By the unanimous voice of mankind, his name is enrolled with those who were conspicuous for genius, for valour, and for virtue'. His Travels went into a second (1804–5) and a third (1813) edition, both edited by the oriental scholar Revd Alexander Murray, whose painstaking examination of Bruce's papers established a more reliable text of his travels and whose biography of Bruce (1808) is an important contemporary source. Although subsequent travellers did much to restore Bruce's credit, his reputation never fully recovered and he was canonized (perhaps unjustly) as a travel liar. His long and energetic narrative nevertheless remains one of the great travel accounts of the eighteenth century. Charles Lamb, one of the Romantic generation who greatly admired Bruce's work, captures something of its charm in an effusive letter of 1806:

We just read thro' Bruce's Travels, with infinite delight where all is alive & novel & about kings & Queens & fabulous Heads of Rivers Abyssinian wars & the line of Solomon & he's a fine dashing fellow & intrigues with Empresses & gets into Harems of Black Women & was himself descended from Kings of Scotland: rot farmers & mechanics & industry.

Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. Marr, 1975–8, 2.199


  • J. Bruce, Travels to discover the source of the Nile in the years 1768–73 (1790)
  • A. Murray, Account of the life and writings of James Bruce of Kinnaird (1808)
  • The early journals and letters of Fanny Burney, ed. L. E. Troide, 3 vols. (1988–94)
  • F. B. Head, The life of Bruce, the African traveller, 2nd edn (1836)
  • J. M. Reid, Traveller extraordinary: the life of James Bruce of Kinnaird (1968)
  • M. Bredin, The pale Abyssinian: a life of James Bruce, African explorer and adventurer (2000)
  • Madame D'Arblay [F. Burney], Memoirs of Doctor Burney, 3 vols. (1832)
  • H. Marcus, A history of Ethiopia (1994)
  • G. Annesley [Viscount Valentia], Voyages and travels to India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia, and Egypt, 3 vols. (1809)
  • Peter Pindar [J. Wolcot], Complimentary epistle to James Bruce, esq. (1790)
  • D. Cumming, ‘Seven unpublished letters of James Bruce of Kinnaird’, GJ, 137 (1971), 41–50


  • NL Scot., corresp. with Mackenzies of Delvine
  • RGS, corresp. with John Mackenzie of Delvine


  • P. Batoni, oils, 1762, Scot. NPG
  • J. Zoffany, group portrait, oils, 1772–8 (Tribuna degli Uffizi), Royal Collection
  • E. Topham, caricature, etching, pubd 1775, NPG
  • J. Smart, miniature, 1776, NPG [see illus.]
  • R. Stainier, stipple, 1790, BM, NPG; repro. in European Magazine (1790)
  • I. Cruikshank, caricature, 1791
  • J. Kay, double portrait, caricature, etching, pubd 1791 (with Peter Williamson), BM
  • P. Batoni, oils, NG Scot.
  • attrib. J. Bogle, watercolour on ivory, Scot. NPG
  • J. Heath, stipple (after D. Martin), BM, NPG; repro. in Bruce, Travels
  • D. Martin, portrait, NG Scot.
  • miniature, Scot. NPG
  • oils, NPG
  • wash drawing (after D. Martin), Scot. NPG
National Portrait Gallery, London
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
British Museum, London
National Gallery of Scotland
Geographical Journal
Yale University, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
private collection
Royal Geographical Society, London