Robert Downie of Appin
Robert Downie was a prime example of a young Scotsman of relatively humble origins whose mobility and willingness to work abroad made his fortune and allowed him to return to become a wealthy landowner and pillar of society.
Robert was born in 1771, the younger son of Robert Downie, tenant farmer and distiller of Spittaltown, Mentieth, and his wife Margaret Morrison, who also had no fewer than nine daughters - family group.
Robert followed his elder brother George, an officer in the HEICS military, to Calcutta in 1788, just as concern about corruption in the East India Company had led to its officers being banned from trading directly, private agencies like that of Downie and Maitland being set up to fill the void by entrepreneurs like the partners Robert Downie and Patrick Maitland.
Like many of his contemporaries, Robert had a native mistress, by whom he had two children before his marriage in 1804 to Mary Smith, who provided him with three daughters and a son George in Calcutta. Robert moved his family back to the UK in 1811 but tragedy struck during the voyage on HCS Astell: George died on board ship in June 1811 and was buried on St Helena. Three more children were born in the UK, the last being a son and heir, Robert, born in Edinburgh in 1814. Mary died in Edinburgh in 1819 after giving birth to a still born child.
With the aid of his substantial fortune, Robert set out to establish a place in society by becoming a landowner. He bought the estate of Dumbarrow in Forfarshire (Angus) in 1813, allowing him to style himself 'Robert Downie of Dumbarrow' but a year later, in March 1814, he purchased the much larger Appin estate in Argyllshire to become 'Robert Downie of Appin'. The estate cost £59 750, which equates in modern terms to £3.4 million.
Perhaps his most important claim to fame at this time was as chairman of the company set up in 1815 to build the Union Canal, completed in 1822. The basin on the Forth and Clyde canal near Falkirk at the point where it joined the new canal was named Port Downie in his honour and, at the Edinburgh terminus of the canal, a row of tenements at Port Hopetoun was named Downie Terrace (now part of Lothian Road).
In 1820, Robert was elected MP for Stirling Burghs; he was re-elected in 1826 but lost the seat in 1830. His parliamentary career was not distinguished, perhaps because he was an independent but perhaps also because of his lowly background - History of Parliament entry. His addresses at that time included Appin House, Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, and Downing Street, London. He continued his agency work during these days, standing security for a number of passengers en route to Bengal from an office in London, and became a director of the Canada Company - Downie Township in Ontario was named after him.
Robert Downie of Appin died on 10 September 1841 at Appin House and is buried in the crypt of St John's Episcopal Church, Edinburgh. He left over £31 000 in moveable property in Scotland and a further £13 900 outside Scotland, a total of well over £2 million in today's money; as was normal at that time, the value of his heritable property including the Appin Estate, and land in Dunfermline and West Calder, was not included in the confirmation of the estate. His only surviving son Robert became Robert Downie of Appin and automatically took ownership of the land, but the rest of his father's estate was tied up in a trust set up in 1834. Young Robert died in 1843 at the age of only 29 in London, leaving no male heir to the Appin Estate.
The Appin estate was divided up amongst the surviving daughters and ended up in the hands of different members of the Macalpine-Leny family, the main part including Appin House going to James Robert Macalpine-Leny, who became James Robert Macalpine-Downie on inheriting the property, which remained in the Macalpine-Downie family until 1958.
This web page is the work of three people: Ian Macalpine-Leny, a direct descendant of Robert Downie of Appin, Sandy Fyfe and Ian Downie. Ian Macalpine-Leny's book about his family, Nouveaux Riches to Nouveaux Pauvres, was published on 15 March 2012.