A Scots Trail in Singapore

31 Jul 2006
Share:

The diamond shaped island of Singapore is the second most densely populated city in the world, with an ultra-modern skyscraper skyline that belies its colonial heritage. It also hides some gems of Victorian architecture and engineering that were designed, built and supplied by those grafters of the empire: the Scots.

The diamond shaped island of Singapore is the second most densely populated city in the world, with an ultra-modern skyscraper skyline that belies its colonial heritage. It also hides some gems of Victorian architecture and engineering that were designed, built and supplied by those grafters of the empire: the Scots.

Traces of Scottish ingenuity

The Scots legacy in Singapore, much of which can still be seen tucked away beneath the skyscrapers, goes back to colonial days. The architecture remains but many of the names are forgotten. Indeed, some of the Scots names associated with Singapore are not connected to bricks and mortar but the building of the colonial administration. Raffles is generally acknowledged as the founder of colonial Singapore, but he had in fact a co-founder, a Scot, by the name of William Farquhar. The first Governor, in 1823, John Crawfurd, was a Scot and even Raffle's doctor was a Scot.

The name Raffles today is most often associated with one of the world's grandest hotels, named after him when founded, by four Armenian brothers in 1887. It started off as a sprawling colonial bungalow known as Beach House. Over the years it developed into a splendid, palatial hotel, whose guest book is graced with the names of countless royals, celebrities and writers. It was here in the early twentieth century that the famous Singapore Sling cocktail was first concocted by Mr Ngiam Tong Boon.

Raffles was designed and built by the firm of Swan and MacLaren, the first of the professional architects to arrive in Singapore. MacLaren, of course, was a Scot. The iron railings for the verandas came from Glasgow too, designed and supplied by Walter Macfarlane & Co. Macfarlanes was one of the most important manufacturers of ornamental ironwork and street furniture in Britain at the time. The firm specialised in the production of drinking fountains, bandstands, lamp standards, crestings and railings all icons of a grand era. Macfarlanes most celebrated work is Saracen Fountain in Alexandra Park, Glasgow. The Empire's Second City abounds in such ornamental work created by the firm but, as well as the Raffles railings, their work can be found in India, Cyprus, Tasmania, South Africa, England and Wales.

Touring around Singapore today there are a wealth of buildings and road names that are of Scottish origin. There's St Andrews Cathedral designed by Colonel Ronald Macpherson and Victoria Memorial Hall designed by Major Alex Murray. Then there's Fullerton Building, MacRitchie Reservoir, MacDonald House, Dalhousie Obelisk and Campbell Lane. In contrast, Telok Ayer Market doesn't sound Scottish at all! In Malay Telok Ayer means 'bay water' and in the early nineteenth century the market was a simple wooden building located on pillars over the waters of Telok Ayer Bay. When the market was scheduled to be re-built on reclaimed land in 1894, Scots Municipal Engineer James MacRitchie was called upon to design a new building. He based the design on an earlier octagonal concept by architect George Coleman and in typical Victorian fashion added cast-iron supports to strengthen the structure. In the centre of the market he incorporated a fountain. Given the iron structure, the market is known colloquially as the iron market and today, having been through a number of incarnations, it is a food centre popular with locals and tourists alike.

Probably one of the most significant contributors to the infrastructure of Singapore was Scottish civil engineer John Turnbull Thomson. In 1841 he was appointed Singapore's Government Surveyor and in 1844 he became Superintendent of Roads and Public Works. He was responsible for the design and construction of a number of notable engineering works including the first bridge across the Kallang River (known as Thomson Bridge), the Tan Tock Seng hospital, the European Seamans Hospital, Dalhousie Obeslisk, the spire of St Andrews Cathedral and in true multi-cultural Singaporean style, Hajjah Fatimah Mosque. His outstanding achievement was the design and construction of Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Banca Rock.

Connections today

Professor Sir David Lane from Scotland received acclaim for discovering the p53 cancer gene in 1979. He works as the Executive Director of Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, forging biomedical science links between the two countries. Sir David has won many accolades, is the second most highly cited medical scientist in the UK in the last decade and was knighted in 2000 for his contributions to cancer research. He is clearly following in the footsteps of some great Scots before him.

Anyone sightseeing in Singapore cannot fail to spot these traces of Scottish ingenuity and will come to appreciate the long-standing connection between these two small nations. Maybe there's more than history and pragmatism that connects the two. Seeing as the lion is prominent in the identities of both nations, maybe there's a spiritual link too!

Interested in finding out more about Scottish business and innovation today?

Go to for more information.

Related content

symbolset/rightCombined ShapePage 1Page 1MAP/CLOSEMAP/CLOSEyoutube black circleGroup