New exploits for the original tinker, tailor, soldier and spy

Dr Ian Findlay, author of 'The Survivor of Cabool'.
Dr Ian Findlay, author of 'The Survivor of Cabool'.

Army officer, diplomat, spy, explorer, womaniser – just some of the terms used to describe Sir Alexander Burnes.

He also became famous for his career as a British spy in the first half of the 19th century.

And this larger than life character proved irresistible to author Ian Findlay, who became hooked after researching his life story and decided he would be ideal material for an historical novel.

His real-life exploits already read like a Boys’ Own story but The Secret Survivor of Cabool takes the premise that the adventurer did not die in Khabul in 1841, as his biography states, but instead survived to continue his career for the empire against foreign powers.

Born in Montrose in 1805, son of the town’s provost, Burnes joined the army of the East India Company at the age of 16.

He discovered a talent for languages while serving in India, learning both Hindi and Persian.

As a result he was appointed as an interpreter in 1822 before being transferred four years later to assist the political agent in Kutch, western India.

He developed an interest in the local history and geography of the region, much of which had yet to be explored by the British.

Burnes’ career took a different turn, however, when he was posted to Afghanistan which, at that time, was stuck between the British and Russian empires, both of which feared incursion by the other into their territory through the remote kingdom.

At the Government’s request, Burnes turned spy and became a key player in The Great Game of espionage between the two nations which sent him into largely unknown territory on a journey of exploration, diplomacy and danger.

In 1831, travelling disguised as a native, Burnes undertook the expedition which made his name, mapping the route through Kabul to Bukhara and producing the first detailed accounts of Afghan politics, earning him the nickname Bokhara Burnes.

His memoir, Travels into Bokhara, was a bestseller when it was first published in 1835. A master of disguise, one of his favourites was what he called the Armenian watchmaker.

A retired teacher and lecturer now living in Inverurie, Dr Findlay researched Burnes during a visit to the National Library of Scotland.

He said: “I knew the then head of the old books section and he asked what I was doing.

“I said I was trying to find a good Scottish person I could write a novel about, one who wasn’t well known.

“He suggested Alexander Burnes so I started researching about 10 years ago and, while it has taken a long time to take shape, it’s now a 14-chapter historical novel which takes the story of the real Burnes through Victoria’s reign.

“I decided he was the right subject very soon because he was a very resourceful guy and very brave.

“Biographies about Burnes, without exception, say he was assassinated in Khabul in 1841.

“I researched that thoroughly and found there were different versions.

“So I thought I could take author’s license – he survives, is diverted back into the spy service and I follow him through to the 1870s.

“My story takes Burnes through a lot of 19th century events which I also researched thoroughly before writing.”

Dr Findlay’s novel also sees the fictional Burnes becoming involved directly or indirectly key events of the 19th century including the American Civil War, the Crimean War and the war in Abyssinia in 1868, some of which involve his son Charles James Burnes.

The real Burnes, who was a distant relative of the poet Robert Burns, was knighted in 1838 while serving in India, where he remained.

He is still remembered in his home town, however, mainly through Montrose Academy’s Dux Medal, which was instituted in his memory by his brother James.

Dr Findlay added: “There are a lot of stories about him that appeal but possibly my favourite is the time he survived an evil emir’s pit of carefully bred vermin.

“Diplomats had to take their chances to find out which leaders were hostile.

“But his secretary managed to worm his way into the emir’s confidence and get Burnes out of the fix.

“It fascinated me what these guys went through for Queen and country.”

The Secret Survivor of Cabool is available now on Amazon.