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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 Academy magazine

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 distinguished career.

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 favourably 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 recognised 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 favourable terms of our telegraph convention with Persia. On his return home he received his honour 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 Museum, 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 honour which he highly appreciated

. Gold Berry (1911), pp.13-15. © Kilmarnock Academy