Robert Brownlee 1833-1908

An account of Robert Brownlee's life, family and military career.


Robert Brownlee Snr., shoemaker, was born at Dunfermline in the County of Fife in Scotland on 11 June 1793 and died Pilmuir St. Dunfermline 20 December 1853. He married Isabella Strachan, born 6 December 1790 at Coston Mill in Strathmiglo, Fife. Isabella died in Dunfermline on 3 February 1855. Robert Brownlee Jnr., was born at Kinross in Scotland on 5 May 1833

Nine years prior to his enlistment, in 1842, saw the 78th back in India in connection with the Afghan uprisings and it was while at Sukkar Sind that the regiment suffered its greatest losses. In 1844 cholera wiped out 535 officers and more than 200 members of their families. In 1845 they limped back to Bombay where, as a result of home recruiting they were restored to strength. The 78th remained in Bombay until 1849 when they were shipped to Aden.  

Perhaps as a result of the above-mentioned recruitment drive, Robert Brownlee enlisted, at Edinburgh on the 17th September 1851 aged 18, in the 78th Highland Regiment of Foot, the Ross-Shire Buffs, which was to become, 30 years later in 1881, the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, and after initial training, embarked for India and arrived in Bombay December 1852.

Three years later in Jan.1856, the 78th was sent by sea to Persia, leading the attack at the famous battles of Koosh-Ab and Mohommrah.

Nearly eighteen months later, on the 10th of May 1857, the 78th sailed from Mohommrah en route for Bombay. Touching only (across the Straits of Hormuz from Iran) at the port of Muscat, the vessels all arrived safely in Bombay harbour on the 22nd and 23rd, and there received the astounding intelligence that the entire Bengal Native Sepoy army had mutinied, seized Delhi, and in many cases massacred all the Europeans. The 78th was ordered to proceed immediately to Calcutta to put down a Sepoy uprising at Barrackpore.  Colonel Walter Hamilton, having arrived from Persia, took command of the regiment, which, numbering 28 officers and 828 men, was transferred to four ships, and arrived at Calcutta on the 9th and 10th of June and the mutineers duly disarmed.

Note: During the course of their empire building, the British, like the Romans before them, had started using locals as soldiers. All volunteers serving freely of their own will, these local Indians became known as Sepoys, and were divided into three major army groups: the Bengal Army stationed in Delhi, the Bombay Army and the Madras Army, the last two being stationed in the towns bearing their names.

By 1857, these Indian Sepoys in the Bengal Army alone numbered some 150,000. At that stage, by way of comparison, there were only some 23,000 British troops in India - scattered all over the sub-continent, and therefore not present in any one area in numbers greater than 2000.

In January 1857, the rumor spread through the Bengal army’s Sepoy ranks that the new ammunition, which had been issued to them, had been greased in fat derived from cattle and pigs. The sealed and greased paper cartridge was designed to prevent rain or the tropical humidity being absorbed by the gunpowder. Under combat conditions the soldiers needed to tear open the wrapping on the gunpowder packets with their teeth. This would contravene the religious prohibitions of the Hindus and Muslims alike, to which cattle and pigs were respectively sacred or, in the case of pigs, for Muslims, profane.  

In May 1857, some 85 Sepoys were placed under arrest by their British officers for refusing to open their ammunition charge packs - this act of defiance soon spread to almost all the Sepoy troops. Soon the British officers had a fully-fledged rebellion on their hands. The uprising was made more serious by the fact that the Sepoys were now armed with the latest weaponry, including cannons, which they had seized from their barracks. Paradoxically, all of a sudden as the rebellion unfolded, the mutineers no longer had any objections to opening the grease-impregnated cartridges with their teeth.

This photo shows an 1853 Pattern Enfield Rifled Musket as used by British soldiers in the Indian Mutiny. British military drills of the time required soldiers to bite off the end of a greased paper cartridge, pour the gunpowder contained within down the barrel, then ram the greased cartridge paper down the barrel to act as a wad, before finally ramming a musket ball down the barrel, removing the ram-rod, shouldering the rifle, adding a percussion cap, and firing.

The Sepoys laid siege to Cawnpore for 20 days. Without any water, the besieged British defenders and civilians now weak, and with tropical sickness endemic in the sweltering heat, could no longer hold out, and on 25 June 1857, they surrendered. The survivors, now only numbering about 400, were promised safe conduct out of the city but as they departed, they were brutally massacred with the exception of 3 men, 73 women, and 124 children who were taken prisoner and held in part of the buildings of the emplacement known as the Bibighar. After the three men were summarily executed by firing squad, the rebels, by now in a murderous frenzy, embarked upon a bloodletting slaughter and literally hacked the women and children to pieces with their swords and proceeded to cast their remains into a dry well.

The enormity of the massacre made “Remember Cawnpore!” the British battle cry for the duration of the Indian Mutiny.

Despite being vastly outnumbered, the 78th was instrumental in the recapture of the garrison town of Cawnpore in July 1857.

"...At last the enemy caught sight, and opened a very heavy and well-directed fire on us, which we had to pass till we got to the turning-point. Then we moved down in line upon them, and opened fire on their guns, which were in a very strong position in a village. We silenced two with our artillery, but all we could do, we couldn't get at the third heavy gun, and it was so well masked. The 78th were ordered to charge and take the gun. I never saw anything so fine. The men went on, with sloped arms, like a wall till within a hundred yards not a shot was fired. At the word 'Charge', they broke just like an eager pack of hounds, and the village was taken in an instant..."
Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, Cawnpore, Indian Mutiny, July 17, 1857

After the Battle of Cawnpore, Havelock addressed the officers of the 78th thus:
"Gentlemen, I am glad of this opportunity of saying a few words to you, which you may repeat to your men. I am now upwards of sixty years old; I have been forty years in the service; I have been engaged in action almost seven-and-twenty times. But in the whole of my career I have never seen any regiment behave better - nay, more, I have never seen any regiment behave so well as the 78th Highlanders this day. I am proud of you, and if ever I have the good luck to be made a Major General, the first thing I shall do will be to go to the Duke of Cambridge and request that when my turn arrives for a Colonelcy of a regiment, I may have the 78th Highlanders. And this, gentlemen, you hear from a man who is not in the habit of saying more than he means. I am not a Highlander, but I wish I was one." 

In this photo you will see the Non Commissioned Officers and men of the Light Company, 78th Regiment of Foot, c.1859

Following the battle at Cawnpore the 78th proceeded to Lucknow where, as had been the case in Delhi and Cawnpore, the British garrison was besieged, this time by 60,000 mutineers. The 78th arrived there on September 25th. Battle weary, the combined force of British regulars burst into the residency. The lead troops were the 78th highlanders and in their furious push into the Residency they bayoneted a few loyal Sepoys by mistake. The 78th's uniforms were ragged and patched and their bearded faces were grimy with the smoke of powder. Under the joint command of Sir Henry Havelock and Sir James Outram the 78th had fought a gruelling campaign up from Cawnpore. Unfortunately, they were only a thousand men and no sooner had the Residency gates closed behind them than the siege continued. Now reinforced, the odds of the mutineers exploiting a breach in the Residency wall had been considerably reduced, but the added troops placed a heavy burden on the Residency’s dwindling supplies.

Robert Brownlee was promoted to Corporal 1 November 1857 whilst besieged at Lucknow.

The situation seemed dim, the mutineers continued their artillery bombardment, and the supplies started to run out. Doctors had no more medicines to give the sick and wounded. The rations became smaller every day and it seemed as if 78th’s long, gallant march might have been in vain. Once again eyes and ears were strained for signs of relief. Throughout it all the Union Jack flew from the Residency roof and was never taken down, as custom dictates it should each evening. By sweltering day and airless night it hung limply from the flagpole, a symbol of British defiance. The 78th fiercely defended the Residency for six weeks until Sir Colin Campbell’s forces finally relieved it on the 17th November. For their defence of Lucknow and gallantry in the Indian Mutiny, eight men of the 78th Highland Regiment were awarded Victoria Crosses including a V.C. awarded to the regiment as a whole. 

"Jessie's Dream" (The Relief of Lucknow), 1858 By Frederick Goodall (1822-1904)

When all those besieged in the Residency had become resigned to the belief that they were about to suffer the same fate as had befallen those in Cawnpore, a young woman named Jessie Brown claimed that she had heard the pipes of Campbell’s relief column, though it eventually transpired that, at the time, they were still many day’s march from Lucknow, This inspirational story of hope over despair, which appeared in British newspapers after the siege had been relieved, gripped the hearts of the Empire.

In 1858 the 78th found themselves part of the Rohilkand Field Force in company with the Highland Brigade. They marched northwest, capturing the town of Bareilly in March. The 78th garrisoned the town until ordered back to Fort George, Inverness, in 1859.

On their arrival in Scotland the regiment received a hero’s welcome. They were feted and hailed as the "Saviours of India".

On entering Inverness, Colonel MacIntyre halted the regiment in front of the house of General John MacKenzie, who had originally raised the light company of the 78th Highlanders, and who was at the time the oldest officer in the British army. The men gave three cheers for the gallant veteran before proceeding along the crowded streets, the pipe band playing the ‘tunes of glory’ to receive their much-deserved adulation at the banqueting hall.

Drummers of the 78th Regiment of Foot, 1860 - Bass Drummer and a side Drummer in Drill Order, 1860

This photograph shows the moument which was erected on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle to the memory of the 256 men from all ranks of the 78th that had fallen during the Indian Mutiny. This toll included the lives of six drummers.

The medals for the Persian campaign were received in February 1860, and on the 18th of that month were issued to the regiment. Out of the 36 officers and 866 men who served in Persia in the early part of the year 1857, only 15 officers and 445 men at this time remained ‘on the strength’ of the regiment. (Note: the term ‘on the strength’ means battle ready as opposed to ‘off the strength’ meaning, for any reason, unfit for service).

In this photo the two medals he is wearing are the India General Service Medal with the ‘Persia’ clasp and the Indian Mutiny Medal with two clasps ‘Lucknow’, and the very rare ‘Defence of Lucknow’ clasp, which was only awarded to those who were besieged inside the Residency. Soldiers of Sir Colin Campbell’s column that finally relieved the city were eligible for the ‘relief of Lucknow’ clasp

Inscription on the 78th’s memorial on Edinburgh Castle esplanade read:
Sacred to the Memory of the Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, and Private Soldiers of the LXXVIII Regiment who fell in the suppression of the Mutiny of the Native Army of India in the years MDCCCLVII and MDCCCLVIII, this Memorial is erected as a Tribute of respect by their surviving brother officers and comrades, and by many officers who formerly belonged to the Regiment.  - Anno Domini MDCCCLXI.

An artist’s impression of the 78th (Highlanders) Regiment (Ross-shire Buffs) at Edinburgh Castle, 1860 - 1861

The soldiers and their families, many of the children in military uniform, enjoy a day at the Castle. The soldiers having recently returned from duty in India, where they helped to put down the Mutiny. During the campaign the regiment lost some 256 men of all ranks, but returned home the ' Saviours of India'.

Robert Brownlee was promoted to Sergeant 5/10/1860

Robert Brownlee married Margaret McKellar [born Glasgow 8 June 1843] on 18th February 1861. The marriage may have been a matter of “now or never,” as the regiment was about to move out three days later.

The 78th left Fort-George, Inverness, in two detachments, on the 21st and 24th of February 1861, for Edinburgh, where its reception was most enthusiastic. The streets were rendered almost impassable by the people that thronged in there thousands to witness the arrival of the ‘Saviours of India’, the glorious 78th. In Edinburgh, as had been the case at Fort-George, the people showed their appreciation of the regiment’s services by feting officers and men. On the 23rd of March the officers were entertained at a banquet given by the Royal Company of Archers, Queen’s Body-Guard for Scotland; and on the 21st of April a grand banquet was given to the officers and men by the citizens of Edinburgh, in the Corn Exchange.

Robert re-engaged in Aberdeen for a further 11 years service on 18th March 1861.

The 78th remained in Edinburgh till April 1861, furnishing detachments to Greenlaw and Hamilton. The detachment stationed at the latter place was duly banqueted, and the freedom of the borough conferred upon Lieutenant-Colonel MacIntyre, C.B.

In 1861 their noted runic cross-monument was erected on Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade.

The 78th left Edinburgh for Aldershot in detachments between April 27th and May 8th, 1861, remaining in huts till the end of August when it removed into the permanent barracks. After staying a year at Aldershot it was removed on the 15th of May 1862 to Shorncliffe Barracks in Kent, where it spent about another year, removing to Dover on the 26th of May 1863. Here it was quartered on the Western heights, furnishing detachments regularly to the Castle Hill Fort, to be employed as engineer working parties. After staying in Dover until August 1864, the 78th embarked on the 5th of that month, under command of Colonel J. A. Ewart, C.B., for Ireland, disembarking at Kingstown on the 8th, and proceeding to Dublin. Here the regiment remained for another year, when it received the route for Gibraltar. During this period there is little to record in connection with the peaceful career of the 78th.

Robert's son, Duncan Robert Brownlee, was born Camp Shorncliffe (near Folkestone, Kent) 14 March 1863, died Dover 24 May 1864.

Robert Brownlee was appointed Colour Sergeant on 7 May 1864, at Dover. 

Robert's son Arthur Brownlee was born at Aberdeen on 6 November 1864 (Why she gave birth to Arthur in Aberdeen is not known. According to records the regiment was based in Dublin at that time)

The 78th had been at home for nearly six years, when on the 2nd of August 1865, it embarked at Kingstown (Ireland) for Gibraltar, the whole strength of the regiment at the time being 33 officers, 713 men, 74 women, and 95 children. Asiatic cholera was prevalent at Gibraltar at the time of the regiment’s arrival, and it therefore encamped on Windmill Hill until the 18th of October. The loss to the regiment from cholera was only 5 men, 1 woman, and 1 child.

In this photo, Robert Brownlee is on the extreme left of photo, with other fellow NCOs, at Montreal in 1867.

Robert's daughter Lilly Brownlee was born in Wellington Front Barracks in Gibraltar on 14 January 1867. Lilly later married Charles Hall in Belfast on 24 July 1886 and she was widowed in 1899. Three years later, she married James Giffen at Ayr on 6 January 1903. The family immigrated to Australia in 1919, and Lilly died at Russell Vale, N.S.W Australia on 7 June 1940.                                                                 

Barracks at Gibraltar c1886

Gibraltar Barracks façade in 1910

Having spent so much of its career in the sweltering climate of the Far East, the 78th embarked on the 6th July 1867, for service at two of the British army’s coldest postings – Quebec and Nova Scotia.  (Daughter Mary Brownlee #1 born Montreal 27 February 1869 and died one month later 23 March 1869)  After being transhipped at Quebec on board a river steamer, the regiment landed at Montreal on the 23rd of July 1867. The regular routine of garrison duty at Montreal was relieved by a course of musketry instruction at Chambly, and by a sojourn in camp at Point Levis on the fortification of which place the regiment was for some time engaged. The regiment remained in Montreal, with occasional excursions to Quebec City, for almost two years. On the 8th of May 1869 the regiment left Montreal; and, after being transhipped at Quebec, proceeded to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

78th Highlanders' in camp, Point Levis, Montreal, Quebec - 1867

To hear the pipe tune, '78th Highlanders Farewell to Montreal 1869', CTRL+click here to download midi file.

The 78th arrived in Halifax on the afternoon of May 14, 1869 aboard the troopship "Crocodile". A total of 765 men disembarked in full dress uniform. In its dark green kilts, red doublets, tall feather bonnets, the 78th made an immediate impression on Halifax as it marched into town from the docks. One newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, printed that: "...They presented a fine appearance. It is a long time since Halifax had a regiment wearing the kilt, and the appearance of the men created quite a sensation." The ‘British Colonist’ observed, "The troops, clad in highland attire, presented a very fine appearance and were very much admired."

For two years the regiment spent its time billeted both at the Halifax Citadel Barracks and at Wellington Barracks.  Additionally each summer men from the regiment were camped at Bedford to practice musketry at the military range.

Photo of the parade ground at the Halifax Citadel.

The officers and men of the 78th participated enthusiastically in the social life of the city.  They joined the North British Society local Masonic order in large numbers and participated actively in the Highland Society of Nova Scotia. On their departure in 1871, the famous brew master and then Grandmaster of the Masonic Lodge of Nova Scotia, Alexander Keith, hosted a farewell ball complete with a musical tribute composed in their honour.

In compliance with orders received, the 78th, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander MacKenzie, C.B., embarked on board H.M.’s troop-ship "Orontes," on the 25th of November 1871, (with them went 17 young Nova Scotian women who had married members of the regiment) and arrived at Queenstown Ireland, on the 17th of December, where the regiment was transhipped and conveyed to Belfast, arriving in Belfast Lough on the 20th, and disembarking next day. The strength of the regiment on its arrival in the United Kingdom was 32 officers and 472 non-commissioned officers and men.

Robert. Brownlee returned to Scotland ahead of the regiment and was appointed Colour Sergeant with the Royal Scots Fusiliers (the rest of the 78th didn’t leave Nova Scotia until Nov.1871.) At this point after 20 years and 17 days service with the 78th, Robert Brownlee transferred to 3rd battalion 21st Regiment Royal Scots Fusiliers, on 1st March 1870 (The RSF was a lowland county, militia regiment), based at the, (now demolished), Ayr Barracks, whereupon he served a further 19 years and 358 days as a Staff Sergeant Instructor in Musketry. 

The Depot Barracks at Ayr.
(Note tartan trews on all other than piper as in the RSF only the bandsmen were kilted)

In 1873 Ayr was nominated as headquarters of the Royal North British Fusiliers.  In 1881 the county regiment was renamed the Royal Scots Fusiliers.  The barracks were renamed the Churchill Barracks in 1942.  (Ayr Swimming Pool is now on the site)

Son Robert Brownlee born Peebles St. Newton on Ayr 27 May 1870.

Granted silver Long Service and Good Conduct Medal 9 August 1870

Son Neil McKellar Brownlee born Russell St. Newton on Ayr 21 September 1872

Wife Margaret McKellar died Main St. Newton on Ayr 29 March 1874 at age 30.

Remarried on 31 December 1874 to Janet Rusk (born Ayr 10 February 1840).


Son, John Rusk Brownlee, born 15 Garden St.Wallacetown, Ayr 17 October 1875

Daughter, Mary Brownlee  (#2), born 15 Garden St. Wallacetown, Ayr 26 December 1876

Son, Charles Dinning Brownlee, born 15 Garden St. Wallacetown, Ayr 19 October 1878

Son, James Alexander Brownlee born 15 Garden St. Wallacetown, Ayr 8 June 1880 died 22 September 1914 when his ship, HMS Aboukir, was Sunk by the German submarine U-9.

BROWNLEE, Petty Officer, JAMES ALEXANDER, 186918 Royal Navy Age 34 Husband of Annie Brownlee, of 103, Chaucer Rd., Gillingham, Kent.  —  Source:  HMS Aboukir honour roll.

Photo of HMS Aboukir.

James had married Annie Bonnar in 1904 at Cowdenbeath, Annie was born 1881, near Campbelltown, died 1969, Gillingham (Kent.) James was killed in the opening days of WW1, aboard the HMS Aboukir, which was sunk in its first month of war. The navy, as compensation educated all three of James’ sons. Information supplied by Eunice Brownlee of Northampton, UK.

Wife, Janet (Rusk) Brownlee died from post-operative peritonitis 28 February 1881 aged 40, at 25 Garden St. Wallacetown in the Parish of St. Quivox (Ayr) Leaving four children aged +/- 6, 5, 3, and 1, their tender ages most likely necessitated the urgency of his next marriage. 

Robert Brownlee at age 48 married Mary McKenzie, aged 31, 20 April 1882 at Ayr.

Discharged from military service due to termination of period of engagement on 26th September 1891.

Robert Brownlee died of heart failure at the age of 75 on Friday 17th July 1908 in his home at 143 South Harbour St. Ayr.  The funeral, with full military honours, was held on the following Monday 20 July 1908. He was buried at Ayr’s Wallacetown cemetery beside his first wife Margaret McKellar.

According to his obituary in the 'Peoples Journal, an Ayr newspaper, at the time of Robert Brownlee’s death, his sons Arthur, Neil, John, and Charles were all deceased; in 1908 the eldest, Alexander would have been 44, and the youngest, Charles 30 years of age—Neil, who suffered from wasting consumption, had died suddenly fifteen years earlier at Ayr on 13 October 1893 aged 21 but no death record exists for any of the other three sons having died in Scotland.  As all three were soldiers, it is possible they died in various foreign lands of the Empire, e.g. there were 20,000 British deaths in the Boer War alone.  Son James was to die at sea six years later in 1914.

Out of all the children born, only Lilly and, perhaps Mary, appear to have survived to old age, though nothing more is known about Mary.  On a handwritten list of her siblings written out before her death in 1940, Lilly (Brownlee) Giffen only mentions the birth details of half sister Mary, and the other full and half brothers, and makes no reference to the times and places of their death.

Third wife, Mary McKenzie is not mentioned in Robert Brownlee’s obituary and initially it wasn’t known whether or not she survived him.  Oddly, the census of 1901 shows that he declared his marital status as "W”?? i.e. Widower?? This would give the impression that he and wife Mary had separated, and that he was unaware of her location, and unsure whether she was still living.  However, records show that she outlived him by fifteen years, and died twelve hours after an operation at the Ayr County Hospital, on May 21st 1923.  The death certificate states her usual place of residence as 1 Peebles St. Ayr about a mile across the river from South Harbour Street where Robert Brownlee had lived for many years.

Information supplied by Larry Hall

Above: 3225 Colour Sergeant Robert Brownlee at age 44, Montreal, Quebec 1868

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Chart 10078

Obituary from the 'Peoples Journal, an Ayr newspaper.