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A Scotsman’s journey from Longformacus to Penang
By Thrifty Traveller


Longformacus

I read that David Brown (1778-1825), the wealthiest landowner in Penang during his time and a generous philanthropist, was born in 1778 in Longformacus, a tiny village in Berwickshire, Scotland. Since this village isn’t far from where I am currently staying, I thought I would go along and see if any trace of him remains there.

Longformacus is a pretty place with a river called Dye Water running through the village. It has a population of just 66 (2001 census). It was somewhat bigger back in David Brown’s time with 450 residents but life would have been harder.

Rev. Mr Selby Ord, in the Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799, wrote ‘the farmers are prevented from great exertions by high rents, the great expense of manure, the badness of the roads, and the distance of markets. The air is dry, cold and piercing. The only diseases are rheumatisms and cutaneous disorders, which seem to be occasioned by poor food, damp houses and want of cleanliness. The people, accustomed to the pastoral life in their early years, are rather inclined to indolence and ease.’

Clearly David Brown was not inclined to indolence but even so, it was quite a jump to progress from a fairly ordinary background to becoming one of the richest men in Penang in the space of just 25 years. How did he do it?

As a boy, David Brown would probably have attended the kirk, the Longformacus Church of Scotland which largely dates from 1730.

He must have been from one of the more prosperous families in the village who could afford to pay for his schooling and law studies at Edinburgh University. Freshly graduated, he was sent out to Penang at the tender age of 22 to collect his family’s share of an inheritance left by his uncle, Laurence Stuart.

Stuart had been in business with James Scott, who was a contemporary of Francis Light, and together they were considered as co-founders of Penang. James Scott was also from the Scottish Borders, born in Makerstoun, not far from Longformacus.

At the time, Penang Island was under the control of the East India Company and young David Brown would have travelled out on one of their ships. James Scott was 32 years older than David Brown and probably took him under his wing and, impressed by his natural business acumen, employed him as an assistant.

Brown may also have been related to Scott since many of Brown’s relatives used the name Scott as a middle or double-barrelled name. One speculation on my part is that Brown was said to have had at least four local wives. Could one of those wives have been a daughter of James Scott?

Researchers have suggested that Scott fathered more than a dozen children with four or five local women. If he married off one of his favourite daughters to Brown that might explain why Brown rapidly became a partner of Scott’s company and succeeded him in 1808.

Tucked away down a long private drive, Longformacus House can only be glimpsed from the main road.

Brown went on to amass a fortune from trading, money lending and plantations and became the largest landowner in Penang, as well as a pioneer cultivator of nutmeg, cloves and other spices. Since a nutmeg tree takes twenty years to reach full production, it was his eldest son George who continued his efforts and he and his brothers reaped the financial benefits.

The grandest house in the village is Longformacus House, an early 18th century mansion. According to Historic Environment Scotland, Longformacus House remains one of the most significant buildings in the parish and indeed, within Scotland as a whole.’

We know that the Brown family owned Longformacus House and Estate for many generations but they were not the original owners. It seems likely that David Brown was not born in this house and his descendants probably purchased it after they had made their fortune in Penang.

The Brown family have their own exclusive burial ground in the corner of the Longformacus church graveyard. David Brown himself is not buried there (his grave is in Penang’s old Protestant Cemetery) but some of his descendants are buried at Longformacus.

Altogether there are 21 graves with the surname Brown in this cemetery according to the Borders Family History Society.

The central arch on this wall commemorates David Wardlaw Brown who was the second son of David Brown. The inscription reads: Sacred to the memory of David Wardlaw Brown of Longformacus and Glugar who died 26th September 1864 aged 52. Margaret Turnbull Tait, widow of the above who died 9th May 1891 aged 73.

Penang

David Brown donated land at Jalan Dato Kramat to the local municipality for use as a sports field. The place is known as Padang Brown or Padang Dato Kramat today and a substantial monument to Brown stands in one corner of the padang, surrounded by food stalls known as the Padang Brown Food Complex.

The inscription on the memorial reads: “This monument was erected by public subscription by the European and native inhabitants of Pinang: To the memory of the late David Brown Esquire in testimony of their esteem and approbation of his character and for his unwearied zeal and usefulness as a member of the community during the long period of 25 years which he was a resident on the island. His death took place on the 12th September 1825 in the 49th year of his age on board the H.C.S. Windsor Castle on her passage to Malacca.”

As for Glugor House, his son George Wilson Brown lived there following David Brown’s death. The house is no longer there. The estate became Glugor Barracks, before it was renamed Minden Barracks and now forms part of the Universiti Sains Malaysia campus in Gelugor.

Nutmeg is still popular in Penang today, particularly as a drink. In the 1500s it was said to have cured the common cold and could even prevent plague. Perhaps if it could be reinvented as a cure for Covid-19, it could once again become valuable and sought after.

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