DESPITE many English Tories misguidedly attempting to pretend that it is still extant, and an honours system that bizarrely still uses the name, the British Empire is a thing of the past, not least because Scotland has become increasingly sidelined within the Union.

I have written before of my belief that the Empire project could not have succeeded without massive Scottish input, and this week sees the anniversary of the death of one of the great Scottish figures of the Empire, Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, who died on January 27, 1860.

Brisbane was a soldier first and foremost who then became a colonial administrator in Australia and throughout his life was an astronomer of note – indeed at one point in his life he was more famous for his achievements in astronomy than his other considerable accomplishments.

The National:

Born on July 27, 1773, at Brisbane House near Largs in Ayrshire, he was the son of Sir Thomas Brisbane and his wife Eleanora, the daughter of Sir William Bruce. Thomas Brisbane senior was a career soldier who fought for the Hanoverian side at Culloden and it was always anticipated that his son and heir would join the army.

After his education by tutors and then studies in maths and astronomy at Edinburgh University, Brisbane was commissioned at the age of 16 as an ensign in the 38th (First Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot and was sent to serve in Ireland where he became friends with another junior officer, Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. Promoted to captain in 1793, he served in Flanders in the first part of the French Revolutionary Wars and then moved to the West Indies as a major in the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot, becoming a lieutenant-colonel in 1800. As often happened to officers in those days, when the war subsided Brisbane was put on half-pay and he was able to go home to Scotland where he exercised his love of astronomy by building Scotland’s second observatory in the grounds of Brisbane House.

It is probable that he began to study astronomy more seriously after a ship he was aboard in 1795 was nearly shipwrecked because the captain had steered the wrong course in those days of navigation by the stars.

The Napoleonic Wars came to be focused on the Iberian Peninsula where Brisbane, now a full colonel, went to serve courageously under his old friend Wellington. He played a leading part in some of the biggest battles of that war, especially the Battle of Vitoria in which he led a brigade to make a crucial intervention. He also continued to practise his astronomy and that was the reason why Wellington credited him as the man “who kept the time of the British Army”.

Promoted to major-general on Wellington’s insistence and garlanded with medals and honours – he was knighted for his military service - Brisbane fought in the American War of 1812 and was then a commander in the occupation of France before he returned to Scotland where in 1819 he married Anna Makdougall, heiress of Makerstoun estate in what was then Roxburghshire but is now the Scottish Borders, whose unusual surname he would later add to his. They would have four children, and tragically they all predeceased Brisbane.

By this time Brisbane was already a Fellow of the Royal Society due to his astronomy work, and had been sent to command forces in Ireland. He had also become interested in moving to Australia as an administrator, a well-trodden path in the Empire for army officers. Indeed his predecessor as Governor of New South Wales was also a soldier turned administrator, the controversial Scottish general Lachlan Macquarie.

Wellington intervened again to help his old friend become Governor and Brisbane and his wife duly set off for Australia where they landed in November, 1821. The colony of New South Wales was hugely important to Britain and Brisbane set about improving the lot of its settlers and the way the colony was run, notably bringing in a sort of advisory council that would later become the first such quasi-democratic body in Australia.

The distribution of land and grants to support new settlements came to dominate his time in office.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography records: “Brisbane promised land only to those with the inclination and ability to use it productively, forbade the acceptance of chits signed by irresponsible persons as valid titles, and gave tickets-of-occupation only when extra stock had actually been obtained. He granted land to sons of established settlers only if their fathers' properties had been considerably improved, and to immigrants in proportion to their capital.”

Brisbane helped set up the colony’s agricultural society for the improvement of land use and became its first patron. He also built an observatory and is thus considered one of the first patrons of science in Australian history.

He was liberal in his beliefs, allowing the first free press in Australia, and he encouraged religious tolerance and the conversion of convicts into full citizens, which angered many immigrants to the colony. He promoted the exploration of land north of the colony in particular, and the explorer John Oxley in 1923 discovered the river and area which he named Brisbane after the governor – it is now the third largest city in Australia the capital of Queensland state.

His improvements were such that he became popular with the ordinary citizens, yet he was troubled by faction fighting amongst his officials, and that eventually led to his recall home in 1825. He threw himself into philanthropic works – he provided a school for the Largs area - and the improvement of his estates, building another observatory at Makerstoun.

While in Australia he had surveyed the southern skies at night and charted literally thousands of stars. For this he was awarded honorary doctorates by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and later became President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, while in his native land he succeeded Sir Walter Scott as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1832.

Brisbane remained on the Army’s books and was made a general in 1841, but was too frail to serve abroad, though he lived until he was 86, dying in the same room at Brisbane House that he had been born in.