The Life of Major General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane,Bt

At a recent meeting of Largs PROBUS Club, a member, George Newlands, gave a short account of the action-packed career of Largs’ most notable native-born son, Major General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane,1st Baronet, GCB, GCH, FRS, FRSE.

Sir Thomas Brisbane by James Faed (1850)

Born in Brisbane House (blown up by the Commandos in 1942) on July 23rd 1773, Thomas Brisbane spent his early years at home, before attending Edinburgh University and boarding school in London’s Kensington. All this before the age of sixteen, when he embarked on his army career, joining the 38th Regiment of Foot in 1789, with the rank of Ensign. He first served in Ireland, where he struck up a life-long friendship with another young officer, Arthur Wellesley – later to become the Duke of Wellington. His army service took him to Flanders, the West Indies, Spain, France and Canada, with numerous decorations awarded along the way.

In 1821 Brisbane was appointed Governor of the British colony of New South Wales, still very much a penal colony, but transitioning to a free settlement. Brisbane introduced a wide range of improvements to the well-being of the population and the economy of the region, though not without making enemies.  His tenure as Governor was cut short after four years, but not before a river and fledgling penal settlement 500 miles to the north of Sydney, was named after him, which grew to be the modern-day city of Brisbane.

Outside of the army and colonial administration, Brisbane’s great passion was astronomy. He built Scotland’s second only observatory on his own Brisbane estate, a further observatory in Parramatta, outside of Sydney, and two more on his wife’s inherited estate of Makerstoun in the Scottish borders. He also catalogued 7835 stars in the southern hemisphere, and received many awards for his astronomy studies from his scientific peers.

In his later years, Thomas Brisbane did much to improve both the town of Largs and the health and well-being of its inhabitants. He died on January 27th 1860 and is interred, together with his family, in the ancient Brisbane Vault in the old Largs Churchyard. 

To learn more about the remarkable life of Thomas MakDougall Brisbane, George recommends local author Valerie Campbell’s book ‘We Will Not Forget’ which is available in Largs Museum when it re-opens, or email