A decaying cemetery, the final resting place for hundreds of Scots, is to be restored by a team of specialists whose job is to preserve our heritage. But this particular task will take them thousands of miles away, to the steamy jungles of India. Jim Gilchrist reports
HAT, sunscreen, and a stick to fend off snakes – not the usual fieldwork kit for a buildings investigator with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). Clare Sorensen is more accustomed to packing gloves and a woolly hat when she goes off on trips to survey historic buildings, but she is one of a team of Scottish experts that tomorrow flies to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in India, to help rescue a decaying graveyard that is the last resting place of hundreds of Scots who lived and died in what was once the capital of British imperial India.
The first incidence of Royal Commission fieldwork overseas, this party – which also includes a leading conservation architect and a cemetery expert from Highland Council – is travelling at the invitation of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust, the latter established to develop links between the Indian city and Scotland.
Tea planters, sea captains, jute traders, missionaries, civil servants – and, it is thought, Hawick-born James Wilson, who introduced paper money to India and founded the Economist magazine – all lie in the Scottish Cemetery of Kolkata, where the jungle threatens to overgrow the site in the densely populated heart of the city. An estimated 80 per cent of its 1,800 headstones mark the graves of Scots. Others are those of Christian Bengalis as well as other non-Anglicans, such as English and Welsh dissenters.
“It’s very touching to read these inscriptions about people from remote parishes in Aberdeenshire, Paisley or Glasgow, all parts of Scotland, who died so far from home,” says James Simpson of the Edinburgh conservation architects Simpson & Brown, who has visited the graveyard. “Then you read their names in the handwritten registers of interment and there’s quite a lot of information about their occupations and the ages at which they died. Relatively few of them were very old; some just children.”
There is a lost-city air to the place, as 20ft-high jungle encroaches on the gravestones, some of which, made of limestone and plaster, are starting to crumble; names such as Anderson, Campbell, MacGregor and Ross have started to erode.
“I was warned that you didn’t go penetrating into that because there could be snakes,” says Simpson. “But that’s now in the process of being cleared.” The cost of clearing the dense vegetation is being shared between the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust and the church on which the cemetery is dependent, St Andrew’s in Kolkata’s busy Dalhousie Square (named after General James Dalhousie, the Scottish governor under whom the Raj was established in the mid-19th century). St Andrew’s was the first Church of Scotland church to be built in Kolkata, and a large photograph of Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral still hangs in its session room.
The team aims to initially record and assess the graveyard site and develop a restoration plan. But as well stemming its deterioration, the Scottish Cemetery Project hopes to transform it into a managed green space and “lung” for the local urban population, according to the principles of Sir Patrick Geddes, a 19th-century Scots town planning and ecology pioneer, who believed that social reform was inextricable from care of the urban environment, and who worked extensively in India.
Work has already begun on transferring names from the interment register onto a computer database, which will be invaluable to descendents undertaking genealogical research or simply wishing to identify the graves of their forebears.
Ultimately, it is hoped to establish at the cemetery a centre for training in the skills required for the repair and conservation of historic buildings in the city, many of which are of brick and lime construction, possibly in conjunction with the Scottish Lime Centre in Charlestown, Fife.
At present, says Simpson, the cemetery “is a great burden to St Andrew’s Church and a matter of concern for the city and state authorities. By taking responsibility for its conservation we’ll be giving something back to Kolkata and ensuring the future preservation of an important record of Scotland’s past.
“Quite a lot of the monuments probably won’t need any work on them, just setting up straight, but others will need quite a lot of work. Our principal objective, however, is to try and create an open space for the population to use – although there are some issues in terms of management and costs, and the misuse of cemeteries is as much of an issue there as it is here. But that’s certainly our hope, and I’m picking up here on Patrick Geddes’s thinking, because one thing he was strong on, in Indian cities as here in Edinburgh and elsewhere, was the need for green spaces and little gardens in cities.”
Another Patrick Geddes enthusiast, and a trustee of the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust, is Bashabi Fraser, an Edinburgh-based author and academic, who has a particular interest in the Scots in India and who regards the restoration of the cemetery as vital: “Part of Scotland is buried there, so there’s shared history, but the proposal to make it a public space goes with the spirit of the times in modern India and of Patrick Geddes. It is also a bridge-building effort for future understanding between the two nations as Kolkata’s citizens feel welcome in this ‘Scottish’ space.”
“This is a part of Calcutta that’s quite congested,” adds Fraser, who is originally from Bengal, “so this is wonderful, and goes along with government policy of creating open spaces in a very crowded city of more than 15 million people.”
Fraser hopes that funding for the project will come largely from India, and it has already been welcomed by the governor of West Bengal and the mayor of Kolkata Municipal Corporation, as well as by the British Council. The Scottish Government has also expressed support, with Linda Fabiani, the Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, emphasising the importance of strengthening existing links between Scotland and India. “The work of the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust demonstrates how we can seek to build on historical links between our countries,” says Fabiani, “and the opportunities for mutual benefit that this relationship can bring.”
In the meantime, Clare Sorensen sees the survey simply as an extension of RCAHMS’s work at home. “The Commission has many years of expertise in surveying and recording threatened buildings in Scotland. Kolkata cemetery is an important monument to the joint heritage of both Scotland and India, and we’re delighted to be asked to survey and record this treasured place overseas.”
• Those who believe they may have relatives buried at Kolkata Scottish Cemetery can send inquiries to email@example.com
• For further information on the cemetery, see www.rcahms.gov.uk and for a regular blog from the Kolkata team on their progress, visit scottishcemeterykolkata.wordpress.com
• FORMERLY known as Calcutta, the west Bengali city of Kolkata is India’s third largest conurbation, with a population exceeding 15 million. It was the capital of India until 1911, when its growing importance as a centre of agitation for Indian independence prompted the British to move the country’s capital to New Delhi.
• From the end of the 17th century, the city was the hub of the British East India Company’s massive trade monopoly (and of its opium trade during the 18th and 19th centuries) until the mid-19th century, when, following the Indian Rebellion, the Raj became the channel of British rule. Many Scots played a prominent part in both the East India Company and in the later British administration of the country, and the development of the tea and jute trades, between Kolkata and Dundee in particular, brought Scots to the Indian city.
• At next year’s Kolkata Book Fair, an event that attracts more than two million people annually, Scotland will be the theme country, featuring in the event’s central pavilion, while the six gates round the fair will symbolise Scotland’s six major cities.