James Bruce

Scotland’s first real contact with Ethiopia was the result of James Bruce’s eighteenth century explorations in search of the source of the Blue Nile. Bruce was born in Kinnaird House, Larbert, in 1730 and after marrying the daughter of a wine merchant became involved in its trade. He travelled to Portugal and Spain on business and whilst studying some historical documents there became interested in learning Arabic and the Ethiopian language of Ge’ez. Bruce left Spain after war broke out with Britain in 1762, and after continuing his historical interests in Italy was appointed as British consul in Algiers. His brief included a study of ancient sites, and he began exploring ruins across North Africa. By 1768 Bruce was determined to seek out the source of the Blue Nile, and two years later his travels had brought him to the royal court in Ethiopia. He was well received and earned the respect of his hosts, spending two years in the country despite arriving in a time of political unrest. He later published an account of his time in Ethiopia, to amazed audiences who sometimes doubted the truth of the wonders he described. Although little known in Scotland today, Bruce is commonly taught in Ethiopian schools today.

Unlike many parts of Africa, Ethiopia successfully maintained its independence from European imperial powers in the nineteenth century, although Robert Napier led a British expedition there in 1868. The purpose of the campaign was to liberate a group of captives, but the soldiers also seized many historical and religious artefacts after their success. One such sacred object was rediscovered in an Edinburgh church in 2001 and returned to Ethiopia.