Attribution: not recorded or unknown

‘Forty or fifty years ago, there was Chinese gentleman in the Excise Office in Edinburgh by the name of William Macao. In his latter days, he was a slightly made, little, old man, with a glazed yellow face, and the regular Chinese eyes.’

Reminiscences of a Town Clerk (1858) by James Laurie, Edinburgh’s Town Clerk. Included in the 14th Edition of The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club.

In September 2017 Mr Barclay Price approached RCHS seeking assistance with his research into the first Chinese man to come to Scotland, in the 1770s. Following conclusion of his findings he gave permission to reproduce the lecture he gave on behalf of Edinburgh World Heritage on the life of William Macao. RCHS is grateful to Mr Price for this intriguing history.


William Macao

Sometime in the 1770s, a young Chinese man in his early twenties boarded one of the trading ships of the British East India Company in Macau bound for Britain. Few passengers travelled on these trading ships, and for a Chinese man to be a passenger bound for Britain was particularly rare as it was forbidden for a Chinese subject to leave the country due to the law that deemed all Chinese to be the property of the Emperor. And it was considered dishonourable for any Chinese person to abandon their ancestors. So the young man’s decision to sail to Britain was remarkable.

At this time the journey from China to Britain took around seven months, though mishaps could extend the travel time to far longer, and many ships were lost at sea en route. As the sailing ships had to time their journeys to fit in with the trade winds, they left China in December and arrived in the English Channel by July.

As the ship weighed anchor and began to head towards the open sea, and Macau faded away, one wonders what mixed emotions were chasing through the young man’s mind as he left his homeland to journey into the unknown.

Until the Portuguese arrived in China in the 16th century and obtained the rights to anchor ships there, Macau (known as Macao originally) was a small fishing village. From there the Portuguese carried on trading activities with the China and Japan, and in 1557 were allowed to establish a permanent settlement by paying an annual rent. Although they later were permitted to form a Senate to handle various issues concerning their social and economic affairs, this was under strict supervision of the Chinese authority and there was no transfer of sovereignty.

Macau enabled Portuguese traders to become the middlemen for the lucrative trade between Japan and China, but over time the Dutch, British and other nations negotiated the opening of other Chinese ports and, by 1775, Macau’s trading importance had declined. It was Canton that was the primary British trading port.

Macau remained important to the British as captains could hire pilots there to guide their ships on to Canton. The port offered repairs and fresh supplies, and provided traders and travellers with rest and an opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and languages. Also, as the Chinese did not allow British traders to remain in Canton during the off-trading season, many stayed in Macao to prepare for the ensuing season’s business. By the second half of the eighteenth century half of the ships that arrived at Macau’s Pearl River delta were British.

The British ships brought woollens, metals and silver bullion to trade for tea, raw silk and porcelain, though it was tea that was the main product in demand; by the 1770s over nine million pounds of tea were being exported annually to Britain. And to help pay for the tea British ships became increasingly involved in the illegal smuggling of opium into China.

Nothing is known about the young man’s past to this point. Not even his Chinese name though by the time he arrived in Britain he had been given the English name of William Macao. The surname clearly was chosen as being where he had come from, though as he was brought to Britain by a Scot, perhaps there was a droll nod to the most common Scottish surname prefix. The first archival record of Macao in Britain is contained in the Edinburgh Male Servant Tax record for 1777/78, although from other information it seems likely that he arrived a few years earlier.

Having disembarked in London, any relief that Macao had at being back on dry land might have dissipated when his employer informed him that they now had to undertake an arduous six hundred mile road journey to the north of Scotland

Prior to Macao’s arrival sometime in the mid-1770s only four Chinese are recorded as having visited Britain:

Michael Alphonsius Shen FuTsung (1687 – 1688)
Loum Kiqua (1756)
Tan Chitqua (1769 – 1772)
Wang-y-Tong (1770 – 1779?)
It is likely that a small number of Chinese sailors may have briefly visited London before the 1770s but none are recorded.

However, unlike Macao these previous visitors did not become permanent residents. All four spent all or part of their time in London and, as they continued to dress in Chinese clothes and had the traditional ‘queue’ hairstyle (shaved head with pigtail), their exotic appearance made them minor celebrities, including meeting royalty and having their portraits painted.

In spite of this evident widespread British curiosity about visitors from China, Macao’s arrival seems to have passed without comment. Probably because he travelled to live in the North of Scotland and, almost certainly wore British dress. Given that later in life Macao was fluent in English, had a career that required skill in calculation and figures, and became part of Edinburgh’s professional class, it seems likely that he came from an educated Chinese family, possibly one of the merchant families coordinating the outflow of goods to Europe.

The only account of Macao’s early years in Scotland is given by the Reverend Donald Sage, Minister of Achness, in his book, Memorabilia domestica; or, Parish life in the North of Scotland 1780 -1869.

‘When at the Assembly (in 1824) I had a note from Mr William Macao, a native of China, asking me concerning Miss Urquhart who resided at Resolis. Mr. Macao left his native country as the body servant of the family of Braelangwell in the parish of Resolis, and had, under Christian training, been reclaimed from heathenism to a saving knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus. …In his note he expressed his desire to see me either at my lodgings or at his house at No. 1 Dundas Street. I called, and had a short but very interesting conversation with him. In his becoming acquainted with divine truth, he had been indebted to Miss Betty Urquhart, as to one among others who had been instrumental in leading his mind to right views on that all-important subject.’

‘Miss Betty Urquhart was the daughter of Mr. (Charles) Urquhart of Braelangwell, and the sister of the late Dr (David) Urquhart, his son and successor. Dr Urquhart studied for the medical profession, and went abroad, whether to China or India I cannot say. On his return to his native country he resided on his paternal estate.’

The most likely member of the family of Braelangwell to have brought Macoa to Scotland is Dr David Urquhart as he is reported as having travelled abroad in his earlier life. Urquhart was born around 1745 and studied at Kings College Aberdeen from 1760 to 1764. He was under the tutelage of a ‘Regent’, Professor John Leslie, and, at this time, the course included classical languages and literature, advanced mathematics and natural philosophy, which included mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, optics, astronomy, magnetism, and electricity.

No record has been found of Urquhart’s medical training, although as at this time training to become a surgeon was through apprenticeship rather than medical college, this is not unusual. The book, 18th century Medics by P.I. & R.V. Wallis lists a David Urquhart working s a surgeon in Bengal in 1780 and in View of the political state of Scotland in the last century, Sir Adam Charles Elphinstone wrote that David Urquhart ‘made a fortune in India’, and no other David Urquhart appears in the records of the time. Also Thomas Lockhart in an undated letter to his cousin Leonard Urquhart wrote, ‘Braelangwell is a place that I love well’ and mentions ‘David Urquhart’s safe and prosperous return.’

Braelangwell was the Urquhart family’s estate situated on the Black Isle in Ross & Cromarty that, despite its name, is not an island, but a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water – the Cromarty Firth to the north, the Beauly Firth to the south, and the Moray Firth to the east.

Braelangwell estate, consisted of 4,200 acres, and was the property of Charles Urquhart until his death in 1776, at which point the estate passed to David. His sister was Betty who Macao was seeking news about.


George Square
St Andrews Square

Attribution: unknown

No records have been found confirming Sage’s report that Macao was a servant of the Urquhart family at Braelangwell. The first existing record lists Macao as one of two male servants working for Thomas Lockhart in 1778; John Smillie,driver, and William Macao, footman.

Lockhart was the husband of Henrietta Gordon whose family owned Newhall, the neighbouring estate to Braelangwell, and as David Urquhart is recorded as being back in India in 1780, it may be that when he left Scotland, it was arranged for Lockhart to employ Macao.

Thomas Lockart was born in 1725, the sixth son of Sir James Lockhart of Carstairs and Grizel Ross. He married Henrietta Gordon in 1766, two years after having been appointed one of Scotland’s Commissioners of Excise. The Newhall estate, which consisted of some 3500 acres, also belonged to the Urquharts until 1708 when it passed to the Gordon family to settle debts. Henrietta’s brother had inherited the estate but on his death in 1778, Henrietta, being the only sibling, inherited Newhall.

As a Commissioner of Excise Lockhart was required to spend much of his time in Edinburgh and from 1775 the Lockharts lived at the newly built 23 George Square, one of the most fashionable square of the day. It is likely that before the death of her brother Henrietta spent most of her time in Edinburgh with her husband, especially as between 1775 and 1778 she bore three children.

An entry in James Boswell’s diary for 31 January 1776 records: ‘Lockhart has been very obliging to me in granting solicitations for offices in the Excise, yet by the most unaccountable negligence I had never once waited on him. My wife had been latterly introduced to Mrs Lockhart, and we sent them a card to sup, after my wife had called and my lameness had been mentioned. It was very kind in them to come. I was in excellent spirits.’

Boswell was a regular visitor to the Lockhart’s George Square house. His diary in April 1780 records: ‘Dined with Commissioner Cochrane at Commissioner Lockhart’s, a hearty good dinner. No other company there but a Miss Christie and Mr Ross, Secretary of the Post Office. I drank porter and port and Madeira and a bottle of Claret, and wished for more.’

Following Henrietta’s inheritance of Newhall in 1778 it is likely that there was a need for the Lockharts to spend more time at Newall and their own coach with a driver and footman would have been essential.

The second archival record mentioning Macao dates from 1779 and states that at the time he was ‘the servant of Thomas Lockhart’. The legal document refers to repayment of £100, part a debt owed to the Lockharts by William Bertram of Nisbet, that Lockhart had arranged to be paid to Macao. A signifcant gift from an employer to a footman, and one that appears to indicate Macao was held in high regard by the Lockharts. This is further evidenced by an even larger sum gifted to him by Henrietta in 1781. Henrietta made her own personal Bond in favour of Macao for the substantial sum of £300 (equivalent today £25,000) to be paid at some point during her lifetime or from her estate after her death.

The Commissioners of the Board of Excise were not government officials but gentry who were nominated by Parliament. Thus the posts, which carried a substantial salary, were gained through political patronage, although those appointed were required to be efficient and so such posts were not a sinecure. Lockhart worked at the Excise Office in Chessel’s Court in Edinburgh’s old town.

In December 1780, when Henrietta was pregnant for the fourth time, Thomas Lockhart died. Henrietta sold the George Square house in Edinburgh and moved to live at Newhall where she focused on bringing up her children and managing the estate. There she expanded the programme of improvements, both to the estate and nearby farms; worked to stem the loss of young working men from the Black Isle to employment in Glasgow and elsewhere; and had the house rebuilt in the fashionable Adam style. In 1786, the widowed Henrietta married her neighbour David Urquhart.

Lockhart’s death also must have been a shock for Macao. Apart from any emotional feelings at the loss of his employer, this put his future in doubt. However, Macao was given a job at the Board of Excise and it seems likely that Henrietta assisted in procuring him the position. Such jobs were dependent on personal recommendation by someone with the appropriate contacts and he would not have been appointed to such a position without the patronage of someone of repute, and proof that he had the appropriate character and capability. It may be that as Lockhart’s servant Macao had assisted him in his work at the Board of Excise and his relevant skills noted by those in charge, but it seems certain that Henrietta must have helped engineer the appointment through her deceased husband’s contacts. Without such support it is unlikely that such a position would have been open to a Chinese.

In 1781, Macao began working as an Assistant for Male Servants at the Board of Excise at Chessel’s Court. The records of the Excise Office show that in 1782 Macao was allocated ‘part of a house in St Leonard’s Hill’ as accommodation. This was an area to the south east of the city, running below the crags of Arthur’s Seat.

Macao clearly proved a willing and effective employee for in 1786 the Board of Excise promoted him to an Assistant Clerk. There is no record of his salary at this point, although it would have been unlikely to have been more than £20 a year. (The average salary at the time for someone in a similar post)

In 1788 the Board of Excise moved offices, having purchased Dundas House in St Andrew Square, and until his retirement that was where Macao worked. St Andrew Square was one of the first parts of the city’s New Town to be completed.

Macao continued to impress his employers and by 1790 had been promoted again to become one of the Board’s eleven Accountant Generals, at an annual salary of £45. Clearly, he had proven his competence with figures as the work he and his colleagues had to undertake can be seen from this account of the work of the accountants in the Excise Office. ‘The business generally consists of receiving from a great number and variety of Officers around Scotland, accounts of the Quantities of the respective Commodities for which the Merchant, Manufacturer or Trader is chargeable; in computing the Duties to be paid, entering the same, and taking account of all the monies received at the Chief Office, and in examining, computing, and taking account of all payments to the revenue; in receiving returns, in examining and abstracting each collector’s account of his charges, receipts and disbursements and remittances; in bringing to a total in every week, all receipts and remittances into His Majesty’s Exchequer. They also, once in every year, abstract, arrange, and bring into one view an account of the whole produce of each duty, which account they ultimately deliver to the Auditor.’

Although there is no record of where Macao lived at this time, it is likely that with his place of work having moved to the New Town he too would have moved to lodgings nearer St Andrew Square as St Leonard’s Hill was a long walk from the New Town, especially after a demanding day ending at 8pm, and a carriage between the two would have cost 1/6p, almost a day’s wages for Macao at that time.

The Reverend Sage’s account seems to indicate that Macao had been baptised into the Scottish church while living at Brealangwell as Betty Urquhart had influenced his conversion to Christianity and, thus probably before 1778. Given that Protestant missionaries did not go to China until 1807 and no other Chinese is recorded as being baptised in Britain until 1799, it is likely that Macao was the first Chinese to have been baptised into the Protestant church. (The Roman Catholic church had been converting Chinese much earlier)

By 1807 Macao was a church elder at the Rose Street Burgher Church (known as the Burgher Meeting House) and thus it is likely he was a member of that congregation from the 1790s when he moved to live in the New Town.
In 1792, with the approach of his fortieth birthday and now earning a good salary, Macao looked to marry and he was introduced to Helen Ross, a daughter of William Ross, the tenth of Invercharron, a well-established Ross and Cromarty family. It seems likely that Henrietta and David Urquhart must have had a hand in the introduction. The Ross family were connected to the Urquharts; a branch of the Ross clan were known as Ross of Braelangwell and, at a later date, David Urquhart issued a Bond for £600 in favour of Helen’s brother, David. Such a match would only have been agreed if the Ross family had an assurance from people they knew well that Macao was suitable.

William and Helen married in 1793 and in 1794, William moved up another rung, to Excise Accountant. In the following year the Macao’s first daughter was born. They named her Henrietta, no doubt in honour of Henrietta Lockhart /Urquhart who had been of such help. Another daughter, Ann, arrived the following year and a son, William Ross, two years later. It was recounted that all three children had Chinese features.

It is not known where they lived when first married, but needing more space the family moved to lodgings at 16 South Frederick Street, run by William Cunningham.

In 1802 Helen became pregnant again. As there was a gap of a few years between the birth of their two daughters and their son, it may be that previous pregnancies had not gone their full term. Unfortunately, this birth was tragic. The baby boy was stillborn and, no doubt as a result of the problematic birth, Helen died a week later. She was buried in the graveyard at St Cuthbert’s on Princes Street.

The emotional shock for William, and his infant children, must have been immense. As well as coping with the arrangements for the burial of both his wife and stillborn son, Macao now was left a widower, with a five- and a four-year-old daughter and a one year old baby son to care for.

Macao’s name is again not included in the Post Office Street Directories for a number of years so where he and his children lived at this time is not known. Many men who were widowed and left with young children, married again but Macao never did. Doubtless he would have employed a nurse and a servant to look after the children while he was at work.

Following the death of Henrietta Lockhart/Urquhart in 1799 her bond in Macao’s favour became due, but her children were reluctant to pay Macao. So in 1804 he was forced to take out a summons claiming his £300, plus interest of £60.

In 1805 Macao was promoted to be Cashier of Yachts. In this role he had responsibility for financial matters relating to the Excise’s fleet of ‘Cutter Yachts’, used by the authorities for controlling smuggling and other illegal avoidance of customs duties. This post brought a significant financial benefit in that Macao only had to pay across the monies received periodically and, in the interim, he benefitted from the interest and this brought his around £150 per annum.

Listing of William Macao in the Edinburgh Directory
Map showing Rose Street
Legal action over citizenship
Legal action over citizenship

Attribution: unknown

As mentioned, in 1807 Macao became a church elder at the Rose Street Church (Burgher Meeting House). Each elder had responsibility for part of the church’s parish and in 1808, Macao was allocated the area from the corner of Broughton Street and York Place, where the Corrie Concert Rooms were sited, to St Andrews Street. As an elder he participated in the Session Meetings at which church business was conducted. The business mainly consisted of applications to join the congregation, requests for financial support from members of the congregation who had fallen on hard times and judgement on members accused of crimes.

Like all elders, Macoa would have been responsible for policing the morals of the congregation in his alloted area and when immorality was discovered, or even just perceived, it would have been Macao who summoned the suspect to the kirk session. At a meeting in October 1816 Macao was one of the nine elders in attendance at the Kirk Session to consider a charge brought against one of the congregation, John Philp, a shoemaker. The minutes report that Philp: ‘who being charged with the crime of Adultery acknowledged his transgression. The Moderator spoke to him at length upon the heinousness of the crime, after which he was suspended from all the Ordinance.’ Often those found guilty would be required to confess their sins in front of the congregation and the public shame that brought was acute.


William Macao grave

Attribution: unknown

During Macao’s time as an Elder there were on-going discussions about how to aleviate the church’s lack of space. Negotiations with nearby owners to buy adjoining property and extend the Rose Street site came to nothing. Finally, in 1819, it was decided to move to a new church to be built in Broughton Place. However, this was not a decision welcomed by all. There was discord between those who thought a new church the best option, and those who believed it a waste of money and did not wish to leave Rose Street. The published history of the church rather skates over what was a bitter debate: ‘It would neither be interesting nor edifying to detail the controversy which took place in reference to this matter.’

By the time of the move to the new Edinburgh Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church in October 1819, the rancorous dispute had come to a head. Three hundred and fifty members of the congregation refused to move and remained at the Rose Street church for their worship. A number of members were so upset by the unchristian acrimony that they resigned. Macao was one. His letter of 7 October addressed to The Session of the Rev. Dr Halls set out his reasons: ‘Gentlemen – From the late very unpleasant misunderstanding and division in the congregation together with other cogent private considerations, I have been induced after mature deliberation to declare myself publicly no longer a constituent member of your congregation, consequently am no longer competent to hold any office in it. Therefore I do hereby resign my office in it as an Elder accordingly. Signed Wm Macao’

By 1807 Macao was living with his three children at 7 Leith Terrace on Leith Street and four years later the family moved to St Patrick Square, on the far side of the old town. This was quite a distance from St Andrew Square where Macao worked and the move may have been to accommodate the children at local schools.

Macao was still busy at the Board of Excise. However, the post of Cashier of Yachts was terminated as the Royal Navy took over responsibility from the Excise for managing the cutter ships and Macao’s income dropped significantly. Thus he requested compensation for this reduction in his annual earnings. His employers had made a case on his behalf and after three months of receiving the request, the Treasury at last replied: ‘There are under the circumstances of this case and upon the special grounds above stated to authorise and require you to cause payment to be made to Mr Macao of the annual sum of one hundred and forty seven pounds by way of compensation for the loss so sustained.’

Although advancement would not have been given to any member of staff whose work was not thought of an appropriate standard, the Board’s approach to promotion at this time was primarily through length of service. So when a superior moved to a new position, Macao moved up another rung in his place: ‘The Board appoint Mr Wm Macao the eldest Accountant to be the Junior Accountant General now vacant, and the respective Accountants each to be advanced one step, the oldest Assistant Accountant thereby becoming an Accountant, and the vacancy of youngest Assistant Accountant hereby occasioned to be filled up by Henry Watson, the nomination of James Sedgewick (Chairman of the Board).’

In 1817, at the request of a maternal aunt, Jessie Smith, Macao was appointed a ‘factor’ (guardian) for the then nine-year-old Helen Ross. She was the nine-year-old daughter of Katherine and David Ross, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 71st Regiment, and the brother of Macao’s dead wife, Helen. In 1801, David Urquhart of Braelangwell had issued a Bond for £600 in favour of David Ross, payable on the death of David’s father, William Ross. However, William Ross was still alive when, first, David died in the Peninsular War and then his widow Katherine, who had remarried another soldier, also died. Therefore it was their orphaned infant daughter, Helen, who was heir to the Bond. Macao presumably carried out his guardianship role to everyone’s satisfaction.

In 1818 the family moved to live at 27 Dundas Street and in that same year Macao became involved in a significant legal case that would engage him over the following four years.

The legal case was linked to a clause in the Scottish Parliament Act of 1695 establishing the Bank of Scotland that stated that all foreigners (aliens) who purchased stock of at least 1,000 Scots pounds would, ‘thereby be and become naturalised Scotsmen to all intents and purposes whatever.’ In 1818 £83,6s,8p was equivalent to £1,000 Scots.

Believing that such a purchase would bring them British citizenship and so exclude them from the government’s Alien Act, over one hundred aliens bought the requisite amount of stock, including Macao. Although the Government moved to close this apparent loophole, it was decided that the legal position should be determined by the courts.

It was William Macao who was selected to bring the action against the government, with financial support from the Bank of Scotland, and in December 1818 a Summons in the Court of Session was raised on behalf of William Macao against the Officers of State (the Government). The case was heard in the First Division Court by Lord Alloway on 2 January 1819 and he ruled that Macao by virtue of his stock purchase had become a naturalised Scot. However, the judge avoided taking a view on whether as a naturalised Scot, Macoa was thus a naturalised British subject.

The government appealed and in the summer of 1820 twelve Law Lords sitting in the Scottish Court of Session considered the arguments and overturned Alloway’s judgement, ruling that it was for Parliament alone to bestow naturalisation and that a purchase of the bank stock could not bestow citizenship. Macao appealed to the House of Lords but without success.

Although Macao’s Scottish citizenship lasted only twenty months, he is the only individual since the Act of Union legally to have been a Scot, as all other citizens in any part of the United Kingdom are legally British.

In 1823, Macao was appointed Accountant of the Superannuation Fund with his salary continuing to be £327 per annum.

In 1824, William Ross successfully passed his examinations and became a Writer to the Signet (solicitor). Requiring a room in their house to use as his chambers the family moved to a larger flat at 1 Dundas Street.

On 30 March 1826 Macao, now aged seventy-three, retired. The Board of Excise minutes simply record: ‘James Dundas, General Accountant has agreed that William Macao be allowed to relinquish his position.’ As the Government had introduced the first unfunded non-contributory scheme for all its civil servants in 1810, Macao, having served the Board of Excise for forty five years, received a superannuated lump sum pension of one year’s salary.

In 1828 the family again moved, to 85 Great King Street and in 1829 Henrietta married John McConnell, a thirty-five year old advocate.

In 1830 the family moved to 11 Henderson Row and there, on 31 October 1831, William Macao died, aged seventy eight. He was buried next to his wife in St Cuthbert’s graveyard.

Henrietta and John emigrated to Canandaigua, a small village in Ontario County, New York County, in 1830 where they became farmers. In 1833, Henrietta died giving birth to her first child, Janet, who died in 1851, aged just twenty one.

William Ross married Caroline Anderson in 1832 and in that same year, accompanied by Caroline’s blind sister, Margaret, also emigrated to Canandaigua. Apart from a brief period when William Ross gave private tuition to pupils, he appears to have lived off his inheritance. In 1838 he became an America citizen. Caroline and he had no children and Caroline died in 1877. Two years later, aged seventy-six, William married the forty-six-year old Adeline Louise Marshall, the daughter of Chauncey Marshall, a Connecticut Yankee entrepreneur. William Ross died in 1881, aged eighty.

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