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The Elusive Alexander Burnes - some mysteries from our programme 'Death in Kabul'!

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Louise Yeoman | 10:30 UK time, Monday, 21 November 2011

It began with a murder. November 2nd 1841: the grisly deaths of the Scottish explorer Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother Charlie: hacked to death in Kabul, and it ended with the massacre of an entire British army, wiped out in (what's now) Afghanistan in January 1842. Burnes' dedicated and loving family back home in Montrose were devastated by their loss. They were even more shocked when others tried to pin the catastrophe on their charming high-living celebrity son, and whispered that his love life was to blame. And then there was the will....

I ferreted it out from National Archives in Kew, and there in the middle of the usual family bequests and charitable donations was, would you believe it, a fallen woman! Even today it's a jaw dropper:

"I charge my father to find out a poor unfortunate misled girl whom I know in London and give her £200. Captain Oakes late of our army knows her or if not his brother Charles Oakes, barrister at law, both sons of Lady Oakes, Mitcham, Surrey. The 'nom de guerre' of the poor demoiselle is 'Emma Graham' but this is not her true name. The mode of life will soon end her days and this legacy, if she be spared, must be paid."
If anyone questioned his will, he left upon them 'the curses of a man no more'.

There was no chance of hushing it up - the codicil to the will had to be authenticated by teachers from Montrose Academy who knew Burnes' handwriting. The mysterious 'Emma Graham' must have been the talk of the burgh. And he'd set her up for life - that sum would have been equivalent to something like £156,000 in average earnings. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the reading of that will! And I'd love to know who 'Emma' was and what was her story? Maybe one day I'll find her.

But there was another puzzle.

Burnes' family never received Alexander and Charlie's bodies back from Kabul. But perhaps they put a memorial somewhere else? Leafing through a unique copy of a family book in National Library of Scotland, I thought I'd found it. There was a handwritten page copied from the gravestone of Sir Alexander's parents Elizabeth and James Burnes which mentioned both the tragic brothers

"They were the parents of a numerous family of whom Sir Alexander and Charles fell at Cabool November 2nd 1841" and it was labelled 'inscription... in the Dalry Cemetery at Edinburgh"

A quick email to the council's excellent and very helpful bereavement services soon turned up the plot, and we set off, myself and Mark Jardine the presenter in hot pursuit of the gravestone. But when we got there - more mystery!

Mark Jardine

Historian: Mark Jardine

The Burnes family stone wasn't there! Stuart Fagan, the council cemeteries officer could prove this was the exact plot where the parents were buried. I could prove there had been a stone, but instead here was a dapper late 1920s affair with lead lettering and a neatly-cut ivy pattern dedicated to a family of Cockburns. What had happened?

Had the new stone been set up by relations? One of the names rang a bell, but when I looked them up, the family on the stone were no relation to the Burnes family at all. They could be traced though, and their death records told a typical Scots story of rags to riches, from parents who were poor farm labourers to a son who managed a rubber factory and lived in a big house in douce Merchiston Park. His widow had set up her own modern and elegant family memorial. The Burnes family had scattered from Scotland by that point, and Alice Bowman was probably fed up of seeing their stone on her plot where she had buried her 2 1/2year old son and her husband. I think she most likely got rid of it. I wish she hadn't, but I do understand.

So the fallen brothers lost their only memorial in Scotland, apart from (I'm told by Craig Murray) a plaque in the Kirk in Montrose which mentions Alexander as donating to the steeple fund. Though I suppose of course, we can count the book! If it wasn't for this sad family heirloom in National Library of Scotland, we would never have known about the inscription in the first place!


  • Comment number 1.

    Dr. Louise,

    Why is there no photie of you attached to this article?

    We should be telt!


  • Comment number 2.

    An unlistenable programme disjointed with varying quality of sounds all pached together. I didn't even get any pain points about this man, so old hat colonial tosh there was too little ingo on the man to hold a programme together lamest load of rubbish I've heard from BBC but then I know how they choose producers. The teachers pet approach rather than creativity and technical flair. Totally lame and waste of airspace... after I've been raving to friends abroad who are learning english to listen in BBC Scotland. It was like you had the back of a cigarette packets worth of info in the man and why so many comments from disparate experts chopping back and forth. Totally ill conceive weak rubbish. And totally irrelevant even as 'history'.


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