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|Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900)
Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900)
Engineer, Archaeologist and Museum Director
In 1911 the following profile of Major-General Sir Robert
Murdoch Smith appeared in the Gold Berry, the Kilmarnock
Over twelve years ago the present buildings of Kilmarnock
Academy were opened by Sir Robert Murdoch Smith, one
of the schools most eminent former pupils. It will be of interest
to our readers to recall in brief outline the events of his
Major-General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith, K.C.M.G., was the second son of Dr.
Hugh Smith, medical practitioner in Kilmarnock, and was born in his father's house in
Bank Street in 1835. He received the whole of his school education at the Academy,
under Mr Harkness. After leaving school he went to Glasgow University, and in 1855
he obtained a commission in the Royal Engineers by open competition, passing first
out of some 380 candidates. In the following year he was selected to command the
party of engineers which accompanied Sir Charles Newton's archaeological
expedition to Asia Minor. His zeal and capacity contributed largely to the success of
this expedition, which resulted in the discovery of the site of the Mausoleum at
Halicarnassus, and the acquisition of its magnificent sculptures, which now form one
of the chief treasurers of the British Museum. In 1861, after a year of regimental
duty at Malta, he undertook another expedition, this time on his own account, to
explore the ancient cities of the Cyrenaica in North Africa. Accompanied by his
friend, Lieut. E.A. Porcher. R.N., he spent a year in the wild country about Cyrene.
The explorers made important discoveries, and brought home many valuable
antiquities, which they presented to the British Museum. The results of the
expedition were recorded by them in a fine illustrated volume, "History of the Recent
Discoveries at Cyrene," published in 1864.
In 1863, Sir Robert (then Captain Murdoch Smith) found the main work of his life. In
that year he was appointed to the staff project Persian telegraph, which now
connects India with Europe, through Persia and Russia; and in 1865 he became
director of the telegraph at Teheran. Speaking at Kilmarnock in 1899, when he
relieved the freedom of the burgh, Sir Robert said referring to his period of life: "It
would be endless to describe the difficulties by which the task that thus devolved
upon me was surrounded. Imagine a country in many ways resembling the roadless,
lawless Highlands of Scotland as depicted in the pages of 'Waverly,' and 'Rob Roy,'
and you will have some idea of the conditions under which a telegraph, 1200 miles
in length, through a rugged mountainous, and absolutely independent country had
to be, maintained guarded, and worked. Local authorities everywhere, not to speak
of the Nomadic tribes through whose country the line had to pass, were naturally the
reverse of friendly towards what they correctly regarded as means of ultimately
bringing them more directly under the control of the central government at Teheran.
Add to this extreme difficulty of transport, the fanaticism of the Mohammedan
priesthood, and the natural jealousy and suspicion with which we, as foreigners,
were generally regarded, and you will hardly be surprised to hear that success often
seemed well nigh hopeless. It came at last, however, very gradually, after some ten
years of incessant struggling,.. and the whole line was brought into a state of
general efficiency that, for the last century, has compared favorably with that of the
oldest and best-established lines in Europe."
Murdoch Smith remained at the head of the telegraph in Persia for twenty years. His
artistic and antiquarian tastes found in a new field of exercise in the art and
antiquities of Persia, on which he became a recognized authority. It was chiefly
through his exertions that the fine collection of Persian exhibits now at South
Kensington was acquired. In 1885 he was offered the post of Director of the
Edinburgh Museum of science and art, now the Royal Scottish Museum, which he
accepted. In 1887 he made another visit to Persia, being on a special diplomatic
mission to adjust certain differences which had arisen with the Persian Government,
in relation to the occupation of Jashk, on the Persian Gulf, by British troops. Not only
was this question settled to the satisfaction of both parties, but the opportunity was
taken to secure a renewal on favorable terms of our telegraph convention with
Persia. On his return home he received his honor of knighthood; and in December,
1887, he retired from the army with the rank of Major-General. His remaining years
were spent in Edinburgh, where he was not only a successful administrator of the
sculptures, but an active member of many public bodies and a well-known and
popular figure in society. He died in 1900.
Throughout his life he retained a warm attachment to his native town and a vivid
memory of his old school. In December, 1890, he opened the Kilmarnock art gallery.
His last public appearance was on the 9th of February, 1899, when he visited
Kilmarnock to open the new buildings of the Academy, and to receive the freedom of
the burgh, an honor which he highly appreciated.
Gold Berry (1911), pp.13-15. © Kilmarnock Academy