In: The Scottish Enlightenment Abroad
Author: Janet Starkey
Free access


Robert Irwin, a British historian, novelist, and writer on Arabic literature – especially on the Arabian Nights1 – wrote an inspiring review article, published in 2001 in the Times Literary Supplement,2 on a series of books Paul Starkey and I had edited,3 and in subsequent conversations urged me to pursue the study of the Russells and Aleppo. Then, by chance, around 2000, when I was transferring a donation of Oriental board games from Robert Charles Bell (1917–2002), from his attic in Jesmond, Newcastle, to the Oriental Museum in Durham University, I discovered a small compendium of travels called The World Displayed,4 published in 1779, and edited by Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Christopher Smart. The small volume contained an essay entitled “A description of Aleppo and the adjacent parts, by A. Russel” that was, it transpired, an edited extract from the first edition of The Natural History of Aleppo by Alexander Russell, published in 1756. Ever since that fortunate find, I have been delighted by its quality. Even at first sight, it seemed to be a candid narrative, based on careful, sensitive observations by a practicing physician, but I was curious to discover why there had been little written about the author. Because of his gift, I came to write this book so there are especial thanks due to Robbie Bell and his family for their generosity.

I wish to thank colleagues at the University of Edinburgh: Andrew Newman, Tony Gorman, and John Chalcraft for their advice and patience. Especial thanks are due to Hugh Goddard, Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh and Avril A. Powell, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, who kindly examined my doctoral thesis.5

I am indebted to many colleagues in Durham University, especially the late Robin Dix, whose publications I was privileged to edit, for introducing me to the irksome physician-poet, Mark Akenside md frcp (1721–1770); to John Ruffle of the Oriental Museum whose early interest in travellers to the Middle East was inspiring; and to Professor Ann Moss for encouraging me to refresh my interest in French and Latin texts. My research has benefitted from the expertise of the staff of special collections in Durham and Edinburgh University libraries; the National Library of Scotland, including Alison Lindsay, Head of its Historical Search Room, and National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh. Personal communications from colleagues, especially Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (rbge), proved most helpful as several of them are working on other literati of the scientific Scottish Enlightenment. Sir Kenneth Calman’s fascination with eighteenth-century Scottish medical history was inspiring. I am indebted to Gina Douglas, The Linnean Society of London; Hannah Ishmael and Tina Craig, Royal College of Surgeons of England; to staff at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, especially Ib Fris and Nigel Hepper; and the Natural History Museum, Kensington, Colin McCarthy, Roy Vickery and Lorraine Portch; Philippe Provençal of Copenhagen Botanical Gardens; and the intellectual camaraderie of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (brismes), Seminar for Arabian Studies and the Association for the Study of Egypt and the Near East (astene), especially Professor Malcolm Wagstaff, Neil Cooke, Peta Rée, Deborah Manley, Julie Witford, Briony Llewellyn and Jennifer Scarce; Emilie Savage-Smith, Lucy Pollard, Patricia Usick, Shelagh Weir, Christine Laidlaw, Christine Lindner; Carol Jefferson Davis and Derek Janes for their interests in the Scottish Enlightenment, Alexander Dow and smuggling tea from Sweden to Eyemouth; Tobias Mörike, Sabina Knees, Martyn Gardner and Lesley Scott of the rbge, the Honorary Austrian consul for Scotland John Clifford, the Consul-General of Turkey in Edinburgh Semih Lütfü Turgut Bey and all those involved with the Travellers in Ottoman Lands: the Botanical Legacy (tiol) in Edinburgh, May 2017 who provided helpful comments, including Matilda Hall; and John Monteith of Lessendie about Adam Freer.

With regard to gaining permissions to publish images in this book, particular thanks are due to Matthew Nicholson of the Royal College of Surgeons in London (Fig. 27 and Fig. 28); James Hamilton, of The ws Society, The Signet Library, Edinburgh (Fig. 2); Ranee Prakash at the Natural History Museum (London) for her useful research and for discovering Fig. 32 and to Sarah Sworder in their library for sending me a copy of Patrick Russell’s letter to Daniel Solander; Chris Rawlings and Dorian at the British Library for permission to publish Fig. 22. In addition, thanks are due to Diane at the National Portrait Gallery, London; and Margaret Wilson at the National Museums of Scotland for their advice on related matters. They have all been unfailing helpful.

Teddi Dols, Pieter te Velde and the production team at Brill have been kind and professional overseers of this publication. An especial thanks is due to Maurits H. van den Boogert for kindly sending me early drafts of his papers, for his initial comments on earlier drafts of this book, his long-standing encouragement and especially his attention to detail; and to The Arcadian Library for an advance copy of Aleppo Observed.6 I am indebted to the peer reviewers for their perceptive suggestions about the Scottish Enlightenment. I am grateful to Philip Mansel for his gift of his intriguing compendium on Aleppo;7 and for alerting me in 2016 to Olivier Salmon’s impressive Alep dans la littérature de voyage européenne pendant la periode ottoman (1516–1918), now scarcely available.8 Thanks are due to Bruce Wannell and Richard Harris for facilitating access to Simon Digby’s translation of munshī Ismāʿīl’s “Tārīkh-i Jadīd” (“New History”) and to Caroline and Robert Hillenbrand for their kind encouragement.

The inspiration of my own family was important for they were part of the “far abroad” network of Scots in India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and the Levant: especially the life of my late father, Ian Murray Milne, born in Colombo but with strong roots in Aberdeenshire, and who worked for many years in Jordan and Malaysia. He took us on many occasions to Aleppo in the 1960s and 1970s, a city where its people and ways of life were still recognisable from the Russells’ descriptions. Also for the encouragement of the late J. Duncan Troup PhD, DSc (med), mrcs, lrcp, F (fom) rcp (hon), frsm, FErgs, fsa (scot) of Huntly, who, in many ways, was the modern equivalent of Patrick Russell. Without the patience, encouragement, attention to detail and kindness of my husband, Paul Starkey, this study would have been infinitely more difficult and painful.


Robert Irwin’s publications include The Arabian Nights (London: Allen Lane, 1994); Night and Horses and the Desert (London: Allen Lane, 1999); Visions of the Jinn (Oxford: The Arcadian Library, 2011); and Robert Irwin, Malcolm Lyons and Ursula Lyons, The Arabian Nights (London: Penguin, 2008).


Robert Irwin, “Life! Life! Dress, looting and delight in the desert”, Times Literary Supplement 5130 (2001).


Including Paul and Janet Starkey (eds), Travellers in Egypt (1998; London: I. B. Tauris, 2001); Paul and Janet Starkey (eds), Unfolding the Orient (London: Ithaca Press, 2001); Paul and Janet Starkey (eds), Interpreting the Orient (London: Ithaca Press, 2001); Janet Starkey and Okasha El-Daly (eds), Desert Travellers from Herodotus to T.E. Lawrence (London: Astene, 2001).


“A description of Aleppo and the adjacent parts, by A. Russel”, in Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Christopher Smart (eds), The World Displayed (1774; Dublin: James Williams, 1779), vol. 13, pp. 63–103.


Janet C. M. Starkey, “Examining Editions of The Natural History of Aleppo: revitalizing eighteenth-century texts”, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2013, online.


Maurits H. van den Boogert, Aleppo Observed (Oxford: Arcadian Library/Oxford University Press, 2010), hereinafter, Aleppo Observed. On Alexander Russell, Aleppo Observed, pp. 25–48; On Patrick Russell, Aleppo Observed, pp. 49–82.


Philip Mansel, Aleppo (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016).


Oliver Salmon, Alep dans la littérature de voyage européenne pendant la periode ottoman (1516–1918) (Aleppo: Dar al-Mudarris, 2011).

The Scottish Enlightenment Abroad

The Russells of Braidshaw in Aleppo and on the Coast of Coromandel