What do whisky, golf, office buildings, steamboats and drilling for oil have in common? They were all brought to Myanmar in the nineteenth-century by Scottish people.
The Scots were the premier merchant adventurers of the British empire, and they came to Myanmar in droves seeking fame, fortune and a way out of the rigid class structures of Victorian Britain.
Scottish soldiers, civil servants and entrepreneurs were instrumental in transforming British Burma from a minor outpost of the Indian empire into the economic powerhouse it would become in the early twentieth-century.
So important was their role that Burma was sometimes referred to as “the Scottish Colony”.
Scots brought with them their habits of protestant Christianity, whisky-drinking, and golf – which arrived in Myanmar as early as 1893 with the creation of a course in what is now the People’s Park, Yangon.
They also brought football, which was introduced to the country by the Scotsman James George Scott in the 1880s.
The connections between Myanmar and Scotland go all the way back to the first Scottish trading firm to supply the teak-logging industry in Mawlamyine, D. Shaw and Co., which set up shop in 1839.
After the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3), when lower Burma fell to the British, Scottish engineer Alexander Fraser laid out the grid pattern of streets that would make up Yangon’s colonial core, and Scottish businessmen soon comprised the majority of the Chamber of Commerce in the new city.
When the foreign minister of the Kingdom of Upper Burma, the Kinwun Mingyi, U Kaung, made a trip to Europe in 1871, he made sure to address the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, many of whose members also sat in the Rangoon chamber.
The Kinwun Mingyi’s diplomacy, however, did not prevent the British from taking over the entirety of Burma following the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.
Ultimately, it was a dispute between the Burmese monarchy and a Scottish firm, the Bombay-Burmah Trading Corporation, that led to war and the subsequent defeat of King Thibaw’s armies.
Rangoon was now a boom-town, to which flocked a number of Scottish entrepreneurs.
Perhaps the most famous were the Findlay family, who established the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., which operated the steamboats that ferried passengers and goods around Myanmar’s intricate system of rivers and water-ways.
IFC ships were manufactured at Denny’s shipyard on the Clyde River in Glasgow and then shipped to Rangoon in pieces to be reassembled.
At the height of its power, the IFC commanded a fleet of over 600 vessels featuring a shallow-draught designed especially to navigate the tidal creeks of the Irrawaddy Delta.
Meanwhile, Burma’s natural resources – rice, oil, and teak – began arriving on the docks in Scotland.
Scottish rice exporters Bulloch Bros. harvested the grain from the husk using steam engines built by Cowie Bros. in Glasgow. Some of these machines – battered and patched – are still in use in small towns in Myanmar today.
Another major Scottish venture was the Burmah Oil Co. (later to become British Petroleum) whose advertisements by the Burmese artist U Ba Nyan featured scenes from the Rangoon docks and whose logo at one point featured a chinthe (a mythical Burmese animal somewhere between a lion and a griffin).
The 1920s were a time of improved communications between Burma and the rest of the world, testified to by the fact that the Bibby and Henderson lines ran a regular steamship service between Glasgow, Liverpool and Rangoon.
Lighthouses began popping up along the coast of Myanmar that bore a suspicious resemblance to those along the Northwestern coast of Scotland (the largest of these is still standing at Alguada Reef in the Bay of Bengal).
Meanwhile, as the railways expanded throughout Burma, larger horsepower engines were required that could handle the steep gradients of the Shan plateau. Locomotives were purpose-built by Dunn and Co. in Glasgow and then deployed along the country’s more than 2,000 miles of track.
As the colony grew in importance, the ships that carried raw materials to Europe began returning with a variety of cheap manufactured goods aimed at the Burmese market.
Manufacturers like Bell’s Pottery in Glasgow adapted their products to suit the tastes of their would-be Burmese clients (or at least what they thought the Burmese might like) by including “oriental” patterns featuring dragons, pagodas and elephants.
Cheap cotton cloth from Scottish mills had an even larger effect on the Burmese economy, almost totally replacing the local weaving industry by the 1930s.
It was no coincidence, then, that resistance to British (and Scottish) rule in Burma in the 1920s coalesced around a boycott of imported cloth in favor of domestic production.
By then, the twin cities of empire – Glasgow and Rangoon – had begun to resemble one another to an amazing degree.
Many of the Scottish companies operating in Burma at the time had offices in both Glasgow and Rangoon and the same architects were employed in the construction of both.
For instance, the Scottish architect John Begg (1866-1937) designed buildings in Scotland, India and Rangoon, including the Customs House on Strand Road, Central Telegraph Office on Pansodan, and Printing and Publishing Enterprise across from the Secretariat on Thein Phyu Road.
Even the door-knobs, elevators, iron posts and railings of many of Rangoon’s office buildings were made in the iron foundries of Lanarkshire.
Moreover, by the twentieth-century, Burmese students were beginning to travel to Scotland to study in growing numbers.
The first two Burmese students to study at the University of Glasgow arrived in 1913-14 (their names were Maung Soe Minn and Maung Kyaw Htin and they studied medicine and botany, respectively).
At least one Burmese man, Dr. Ba Kin, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1920, and there were likely many more.
The Japanese invasion and the devastation of WW2 led to the running down of Scottish businesses in Burma. But, while Scottish firms were compensated for their losses following the War, the post-war independent state of Burma was left in tatters, with much of its infrastructure destroyed.
The Scottish connection, however, lives on. Just take a walk downtown in Yangon today. You will see signs above doctor’s offices that read “M.Sc. Edinburgh”, a church called the Scots Kirk, advertisements for “Glan Master” whisky, and longyi patterns that look suspiciously like Scottish tartan.
Perhaps there’s even a Loch Ness monster lurking in the bowels of Inya Lake? The connections between Scotland and Myanmar run deep, after all.