Allan McLean: The Scot who found Troy and predicted railways

A lot of people have heard of Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Homeric Troy. But not so many know of the Scot who beat Schliemann to it.
Charles MacLaren, co-founder and co-editor of The Scotsman from 1817.Charles MacLaren, co-founder and co-editor of The Scotsman from 1817.
Charles MacLaren, co-founder and co-editor of The Scotsman from 1817.

Charles Maclaren, first editor of The Scotsman, correctly identified the site from literary references in 1822. Schliemann came along almost half a century later and went on to claim the sole rights to the identification of Troy as being sited at Hiserlik in Turkey.

Maclaren was one of the greatest journalists who ever lived and deserves to be much better known. And not only as an editor of The Scotsman and of Encyclopedia Britannica. Maclaren was a railway pioneer as well as a great writer on scientific subjects.

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He deserves to be recalled among other famous railway pioneers, up there with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the father-and-son geniuses of George and Robert Stephenson.

I remember once visiting the staff library in The Scotsman’s former building at North Bridge in Edinburgh. I picked up a copy of a book compiled in the Victorian era from writings by Maclaren. The pages were still stuck together, indicating that I was the first person to open that book in perhaps 100 years.

My interest in Maclaren came from some passing references to him, including by the late John Thomas in one of his seminal works on the history of Scotland’s railways. It was thanks to John Thomas that I discovered some of the many scientific writings by Maclaren, who forecast as long ago as 1824 that one day lines of rails would link Calais and Constantinople. He also forecast that the United States of America would only be properly united politically once rails connected the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

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Maclaren’s words appeared in The Scotsman and were translated into other languages, providing an inspiration to later railway builders in South America and elsewhere.

Maclaren shared with his readers ideas that had formed from his genuine interest in science. Almost six years before the Stephensons delivered the world’s first inter-city railway between Liverpool and Manchester with its pioneering steam locomotive Rocket, Maclaren confidently forecast railways were the future.

At the time he wrote his accurate forecast, hardly anyone knew what a steam locomotive was or that it could pull trains of passenger carriages as well as wagonloads of goods on lines of metal rails. Horses had a long time to run. It would be 1842 before Edinburgh and Glasgow were connected by rail (an early attempt, incidentally, to diversify Edinburgh’s industry away from the dominant brewing trade). Maclaren was still there to report it, describing that railway as “this magnirficent line”. In his 1824 studies, consisting of much detailed description, he hightlighted a wagonway in East Lothian which had proved that horses could draw a lot more coal by railway rather than canal. The East Lothian line was described by Maclaren as “one of the most perfect in Britain”.

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“For all velocities above 4 miles an hour, the locomotive engine will be found superior to the steam boat,” wrote Maclaren, who may have startled some readers by forecasting that railways could allow travel as fast as 20mph.

Maclaren, as early as 1824, confidently told his Georgian readers about a new industry that would in time be associated so strongly with a future monarch of the UK. At the time his readers were learning about new-fangled railroads, Victoria was just a wee girl and the Quakers of Darlington were still to see real proof that George Stephenson was right.