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New research uncovers the story of the first Chinese Scotsman


As the world prepares to celebrate Chinese New Year, new research has been released which reveals the fascinating story of the 'world’s first Chinese Scotsman', William Macao (1753-1831). Macao journeyed from China to the Black Isle in the 1770s, and then on to Edinburgh where he lived for over 50 years, rising to become a senior sccountant at the Board of Excise.

The research will be revealed at a sold out Edinburgh World Heritage lecture to mark the 2018 Chinese New Year by local historian Barclay Price (pictured). 

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In 2017, Barclay Price came across mention of a ‘Chinese gentleman who had worked in the Excise Office in Edinburgh around 1800 by the name of William Macao.’ Intrigued, Price set out to find out more and has discovered that Macao was the first Chinese person to settle in Britain, and, for a time, the only person to be legally deemed a Scotsman since the Act of Union in 1707.

Nothing is known of Macao’s life in China, not even his Chinese name. His English surname may mean he came from Macau (then spelled Macao), an important trading point for the East India Company. His account begins with his arrival in Scotland around 1775 with David Urquhart, a retired East India Company surgeon. Only four Chinese citizens came to Britain before Macao and all were feted by London society, but none settled and all returned to China.

Macao went to work as a servant at Urquhart’s Braelangwell estate in Ross and Cromarty. While there,  Macao was baptised into the kirk, and was the first Chinese person to become a Protestant Christian. He later became an elder at the Rose Street Burgher Church in Edinburgh.

The move to Edinburgh

Macao’s master, Thomas Lockhart, was a Commissioner of the Board of Excise in Scotland, and was married to Henrietta Gordon of Newhall, Braelangwell’s neighbouring estate. In 1777 Lockhart moved to Edinburgh and took Macao with him as footman. Following Lockhart’s death in 1780, Macao was appointed as Assistant for Male Servants at the Board of Excise.

By 1800 he had been promoted to be one of the Board’s accountants at Dundas House in St Andrew Square, and by the time of his retirement in 1826 had become Accountant of the Superannuation Fund, a remarkable 50 year career progression.

In 1793 Macao married Helen Ross, who came from a well-established Ross and Cromarty family, and they had two daughters and one son before Helen died in 1802.

Becoming a 'naturalized Scotsman'

The final chapter in Macao’s remarkable story comes in 1818. An Aliens Act had been in force since 1793, however, the 1695 Act establishing the Bank of Scotland contained a clause stating that anyone buying stock of at least £1,000 Scots (equivalent £83 sterling) would become ‘a naturalized Scotsman.’ When this legal loophole was discovered a large number of mainly London-based foreign merchants rushed to buy stock, and so did William Macao.

The Government was incensed. To test the legality of the clause the Government and the bank agreed that one stockholder should bring a court case. Macao was chosen and in January 1819 Lord Alloway adjudicated that ownership of the bank stock did indeed make Macao a naturalised Scotsman. However, Alloway did not adjudicate whether Macao also was a naturalised British subject. The Government appealed and in November 1820 Alloway’s ruling was overturned. Thus Macao has the unique status of having been the only person since the Act of Union in 1707 to have been legally deemed a Scotsman, albeit for less than two years.

William Macao died on 31 October 1831, aged seventy-eight, and is buried in St Cuthbert’s graveyard.

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Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: '‘As part of our mission to connect people to their heritage, we are celebrating Chinese New Year and Edinburgh’s often hidden multiculturalism by focusing on an important but relatively unknown figure in the city’s history.

‘William Macao’s story is fascinating not just for the Chinese community, who have been part of Edinburgh for generations, but for all of us who are interested in learning more about Edinburgh’s rich cultural heritage.’

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