Who would you suppose to be the most renowned traveller of the eighteenth century? The Pacific voyager James Cook perhaps? Well, he probably was but in the 1770s, shortly after his return from exploring the Blue Nile, the honour fell to Scotsman James Bruce.
This red-headed, larger than life – at six feet four inches a giant for his times – imposing figure of a man, returned from Africa filled with outlandish tales of his experiences in a land entirely foreign to his fellow Europeans.
Bruce left the family home - Kinnaird House in Scotland - and its fantastic library for London in 1753, determined to win a job with the East India Company. That plan was put on hold when he met, and married, Adriana Allan whose attractions, by all accounts, he found more powerful than the mystical East. Tragically his wife died young and Bruce determined to travel Europe to conquer his grief. He studied Spanish and Portuguese and in 1757 sailed to Portugal where, for a year, he immersed himself in studying its society, art and science.
From there it was off around Europe, moving on to France, Germany, then Brussels. It was whilst in Holland that Bruce purchased a copy of Hiob Ludolf's History of Ethiopia, the seventeenth century work which incited his interest in the ancient Christian kingdom of Abysinnia – a fascination which would go on to define his life. Ludolf’s book whetted his appetite to know more about a region still virtually unknown to him and his contemporaries.
In 1758, following the news of his father’s death, Bruce was forced return from his travels to assume his responsibilities as laird of Kinnaird. There, he signed a contract to supply the Carron ironworks with coal from his mines at Kinnaird, the contract providing him with the capital and the leisure to travel the world.
Opportunity arose when, in 1763, Bruce was appointed British Consul in Algiers. This was a difficult position and he remained there for two years. Before long, however, the lure of the Nile proved irresistible and Bruce set off for Egypt and the start of his venture to find the river’s source.
The trip was extremely dangerous from the start, Bruce and his companions having to face being kidnapped by pirates in the Red Sea before they had even approached their goal. On reaching Abyssinia, however the group was fortunate enough to gain the support of the nations’s King and prime minister who were able to offer assistance in their travels.