Scotland’s legacy in Sri Lanka

Scottish links to the tropical island of Sri Lanka go back at least 200 years, when it was known as Ceylon.

Three European powers – the Portuguese, Dutch and British – dominated Sri Lankan political life from the 17th to the mid 20th centuries. The Portuguese arrived in 1605 and established control over some of the island's rich, narrow coastal plains but the Dutch ousted them in 1650. Both were attracted to Ceylon by the lucrative spice trade and left behind their own distinctive cultural marks on the island. But the most distinctive imprint on Ceylon's society and economy came when the British replaced the Dutch in 1795-6 when British power was being reconsolidated in South India.

And some notable Scots played a prominent role in this takeover. Lachlan Macquarie, who was born on the Isle of Mull and went on to become Governor of New South Wales in Australia, led the mainly Scottish 73rd regiment to victory over the Dutch. The British came to control the whole island in 1815 and change the fate of Ceylon for ever.

The father of Ceylon tea

British commercial interests saw the introduction of plantation agriculture in 1825. This began with the widespread planting of coffee. The bushes flourished in the rich soil of the hill regions until 1869 when a catastrophic blight wiped out almost the entire crop. Estate owners had no choice but to diversify into other crops in order to avoid total ruin.

And it was another pioneering Scotsman who emerged to lead the way. James Taylor was only sixteen when he left Scotland in 1852 to sign on for three years as an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation on the faraway island of Ceylon, "the pearl at the foot of India". The son of a modest wheelwright from Kincardineshire would never see his native country again. Taylor's employers, Harrison and Leake, were so impressed by the quality of his work that they put the eager young Scot in charge of the Loolecondera Estate, near Kandy, in the late 1850s and instructed him to experiment with sowing tea seeds on the 19 acres of land. A variety of tea from China had been grown in Ceylon many years earlier with mixed results.

But a unique new variety had been discovered in 1823 by the Scottish trader and explorer, Robert Bruce, in the Upper Assam region of northeastern India through his dealings with an indigenous tribe called the Singhpo. This Assam tea plant was sent from Calcutta to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens by a Dr N Wallich in 1839. The seeds produced excellent results but nevertheless tea cultivation remained a minor activity for over twenty years. But that would be changed irrevocably by the dreaded blight of 1869 and the arrival of Mr Taylor.

Taylor had garnered some expertise in tea cultivation in North India by the time he took over at Loolecondera. He made some initial experiments there processing the Assam leaves, using his bungalow verandah as the factory and rolling the leaf by hand on tables. The oxidized leaf would then be placed on wire trays and fired on clay stoves and charcoal fires. It was a long laborious process that yielded very small amounts of tea.

When the blight devastated the coffee plantations the estate owners followed Taylor's lead and opted to grow tea. But the maverick Scot was already way ahead of the game. In 1872 he set up the first tea factory on the island. The factory at Loolecondera Estate consisted of a rudimentary "sack", the walls of which were constructed from mud and wattle. Inside was a tea-rolling machine that Taylor had invented himself.

From these humble beginnings, Taylor revolutionised the drinking habits of the world and put Ceylon well and truly on the map. The following year his first quality teas were sold for a very good price at the London auction in Mincing Lane, the epicentre of tea trading. From this point on, Ceylon tea began to arrive regularly in London and Melbourne, the success of which led to the opening of an auction market in the capital Colombo in 1883, and to the founding of a Colombo tea dealers association in 1894. In 1893 an incredible one million packets of Ceylon tea were sold at the Chicago World's Fair.

James Taylor's dedication and determination was largely responsible for the early success of the tea crop in Ceylon and he became known as "the father of Ceylon tea". A bust photograph of the Scotsman is on display at the entrance of the Ceylon Tea Museum in Hantane, not far from the Loolecondera Estate. When he died in 1892 at the age of 57, a small army of people carried his body to his final resting place, Kandy's Mayaiyawa cemetery.

Lipton's Ceylon tea empire

After Taylor, Ceylon tea was taken from infancy to maturity by another intrepid Scotsman, a Glasgow grocer called Tommy Lipton. Born on 10 May 1850 in the Gorbals of Glasgow, Lipton started working in his family's grocery store when he was only 10 years old. After spending several years working in America he opened his first grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871. His grocery empire grew rapidly. By 1880 Lipton had twenty stores, and by 1890 he had three hundred and was a household name in Britain.

His next move after he had conquered the world of general provisions was to enter the tea business. In 1889 he celebrated the arrival of his first twenty thousand tea chests in Glasgow with a brass band parade and bagpipers. Tea drinking had become a popular habit in Britain, but it was expensive. Lipton wanted to make tea accessible to all at low prices but with guaranteed quality. But his tea empire really began when he took his first ever holiday to Australia, and secretly stopped off in Ceylon. He had found out that it was the middlemen who made the maximum profit in Mincing Lane so he decided to cut them out and enter the tea trade direct. The timing of his stopover in Ceylon couldn't have been better. Plantations affected by the blight were available on the cheap.

He quickly snapped up four bankrupt estates in the high hills around Kandy and Haputale, eventually acquiring about a dozen others including his own personal favourite at Dambatenne – the headquarters of Liptons until recently. It was the beginning of a highly successful business in tea planting and trading and the public came to identify the Scotsman's name with Ceylon tea. An existing memento of the old days when Lipton would use Dambatenne as his base is the seat where he would enjoy the scenery below his estate. Lipton's seat commands a stunning panoramic view, from an altitude of nearly 2000 metres, of the sloping terrain of southeastern Sri Lanka bordered by the Deniyaya Hills to the southwest.

Always an innovator, Lipton pioneered the use of a cable transport system carrying bags of plucked tea between the steep hilly slopes and the valley factories below. This increased efficiency and saved the tea pluckers the perilous journey down the mountainside on foot. The system is still in use in Sri Lanka today.

On his return to Glasgow he was determined to make a splash in his home town and spread the word of his new exotic activities in Ceylon. An early master of advertising he organised a huge parade of two hundred Scottish men, done up to look like Ceylon natives to march through the streets of Glasgow carrying sandwich boards bearing the snappy slogan: "Direct from the tea gardens to the tea pot." It took Glasgow by storm. Many citizens thought that the parading natives had been brought straight from Lipton's estates in Ceylon! "Ye should be ashamed of daein' honest Scotsmen oot o' their jobs" yelled one woman. Later on that evening she discovered that the man on horseback had been her own husband acting as the leader of the Cingalese!

After ten years in the business, the millionaire grocer Lipton became a multi-millionaire tea merchant famous worldwide. Queen Victoria knighted the man who loved Ceylon in 1898. A lifelong bachelor, he died in 1931, at the age of eighty-one. Thanks to men like Taylor and Lipton, by the end of the 19th Century the word "tea" was no longer synonymous with China, but with Ceylon. And their legacy lingers – modern day Sri Lanka is second only to India in the production of tea worldwide.

Scottish charities in Sri Lanka

But Scotland's links with Sri Lanka don't begin and end with tea – they continue to the present day.

One of the most unusual sporting events in the world took place in February 2007 near the magnificent 5th century ramparts of the World Heritage Forte of Galle, the venue for the 6th Annual International Elephant Polo Tournament. The game is a highly unusual take on polo – with elephants taking the place of horses. It was the brainchild of Scottish adventurer and former British Olympic bobsleigh team member James Manclark. The Scot revived the game – originally played by Indian princes and British colonials at the turn of the 20th century – over 25 years ago over a few drinks at St Moritz's Cresta Run.

Sri Lankan hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs brought the event to Galle to help raise the profile of tourism in Sri Lanka and bring attention to the plight of the Asian elephant. Galle was one of the worst hit places in Sri Lanka by the tsunami on 26 December 2004.

After Indonesia, Sri Lanka suffered more physical damage and human loss than anywhere else. Its southern and eastern coastlines were ravaged. More than 31,000 people died with thousands more reported missing. More than half a million people were made homeless overnight and more than 400,000 people lost their jobs – mostly in the fishing, hotel and tourism sectors.

Nearly $3bn was pledged by international donors to help recovery. And many Scottish charities were at the vanguard of this aid.

Within days of the disaster, Scottish philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter had pledged £1million to rebuild schools destroyed by the tsunami. Sir Tom came from a humble background in New Cumnock and made much of his estimated £500 million fortune from a chain of sports shops and is now one of Britain's biggest charity donators. Aid workers estimated that Mr Hunter's donation would help build up to 800 village schools for children and orphans of the tsunami. And the £1 million also helped fund a new tsunami early warning system in remote and vulnerable Indian Ocean islands, including Sri Lanka.

A charity founded by the Scottish actor, David Hayman, bought an orphanage in Sri Lanka to help child victims of the tsunami. Glasgow's Sikh community donated £30,000 to buy and convert the building in the Hikkaduwa area of the country. Spirit aid, the children's charity set up by Hayman in 2001, has also founded a base in the beach resort on the southwest coast of the island. The Glasgow-born actor worked in the shipyards from the age of 15 and first made his name playing Jimmy Boyle in the film . He has since played a wide range of television and film roles.

Spirit Aid has returned to Sri Lanka several times since the waves hit helping people rebuild their lives.

Along with countless other Scottish charities they have provided money for fishing boats, funded the establishment of farms, subsidized farmers to enable them to plant rice, kick-started various small businesses, provided water pumps and general provisions for thousands of displaced families and purchased medical equipment for hospitals.

One of the most touching initiatives was organised by Mercy Corps in 2005 when they distributed letters from primary school children in North Berwick, Scotland to Sri Lankan orphans of the tsunami in Komari. The Scottish pen pals' letters arrived from Scotland like a breath of fresh air and have helped put a smile back on the Sri Lankan children's faces.

And to bring our story of Scotland's links with Sri Lanka full-circle, a Scottish church established more than a century ago by Scots tea plantation owners recently gave women in Sri Lanka the opportunity to start afresh in life. St Andrews Kirk in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo maintains links with Netherlee Parish Church in Glasgow. Netherlee raised enough money to buy a house in the suburbs of Colombo, which will give many unfortunate women a new home.

Incredible to imagine that all of this might never have happened without the cultivation of a popular drink by Scotsmen who travelled thousands of miles against the odds to find their fortunes in Ceylon.

Stick the kettle on! Let's celebrate their legacy with a nice cup of tea!

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Last updated 28 Nov 2012