Sir John McNeill of Colonsay (1795 to 1883)
The Act of Union in 1707 meant that Scotland's people could find opportunity within the greatest power of its time: the British Empire. While the Campbells of Inverneill found status and wealth in the military and engineering worlds, the McNeills of Colonsay produced Sir John McNeill, a medical doctor, diplomat, expert on Persia and Afghanistan, chairman of the Board of Supervision for the new Scottish Poor Law Act (1845), head of an enquiry into the effects of the Potato Famine in the Highlands, primary force behind the Highland Emigration Society; ally with Florence Nightingale in providing better care for Britain's soldiers (particularly in the Crimea); and he was associated with the Royal Asiatic Society for some 60 years.
Sir John, born in 1795 on Colonsay, was the third of six sons of John McNeill and Hester MacNeill of Dunmore. He studied medicine in Edinburgh, became a medical doctor, and joined the British East India Company in Bombay, where he became a surgeon. He retired from this service in 1836. Between 1835 and 1838, he served as secretary to a special British embassy in Teheran, Persia. He displayed great ability and indeed, wore a Persian decoration of the "Sun and Lion of the first class." The result of the latter experience was a pamphlet, "Progress and Present Positions of Russia in the East", in which he focused attention upon Russian aggression in Asia.
McNeill returned to Teheran as Britain's envoy in 1837. The ruler of Persia at that time was Mohammed Shah, who wanted to attack and capture Herat in western Afghanistan. In this desire, Shah was supported by the Russians, while the British did everything in their power to stymie that plan. It was through British efforts that this particular siege of Herat was raised, the Shah having ‘mounted his horse and ridden away." For his exemplary work in Persia, McNeill was awarded a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath (civil division). In 1841, he led a new mission to Persia in which a commercial treaty was concluded between Britain and Persia.
A Scottish Poor Law Act was promulgated in 1845, its aim being to regularize the treatment of the poor and sick throughout the Highlands. Sir John was appointed the first Chairman of the Board entrusted with its administration. He occupied this position for 33 years. During the Potato Famine of 1848, he was in charge of a special enquiry into the condition of the Western Highlands and Islands. In order to complete his report, he personally inspected 27 of the most distressed parishes. His "Report on the State of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland", completed in 1851, provides a clear and vivid picture of the area at the time. (He did not go to Knapdale or Kintyre, by the way) The result of this effort was the "Highland Emigration Society", headed by Sir John. The idea was to support emigration from the Highlands to Australia. The landed proprietors were asked to pay one third of the costs, while the emigrants gave a promissory note undertaking to repay one third. The Society would provide the rest of the expenses and also make all the arrangements.
As war with Russia in the Crimea commenced, Sir John presided over another Commission of Inquiry into the Administration of Supplies of the Army, which was in a mess. The report he made was rejected by the Army. 25 years later, McNeill rebuked that judgement, given the appalling disease suffered by the soldiers because of the Army's incompetence.
Sir John was married 3 times: to Innes Robinson in 1814, Elizabeth Wilson in 1823, and Lady Emma Campbell, a daughter of the 7th Duke of Argyll, in 1870. His only child was a daughter by his second wife, born in Persia and named Ferooza. In 1870, he purchased Colonsay and Oronsay from his brother, Duncan. He died in Cannes in 1883.
One of Ferooza's daughters, Florence Stewart MacAlister, wrote a "Memoir of the Right Hon. Sir John McNeill, GCB, and of his second wife, Elizabeth Wilson." It was published in 1910, and is now available on the web. It is a well written book, and has excellent chapters on the Board of Supervision and the Emigration Society.
Sir John McNeill died at Cannes in 1883. A bust of him is in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
As to the Islands of Colonsay and Oronsay, John de Vere Loder wrote a remarkably complete book in 1935. Its title is: "Colonsay and Oronsay in the Isles of Argyll: their history, flora, fauna and topography.