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William Macao

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William Macao, the first Chinese immigrant to Scotland 1, came to Scotland around 1775. He worked as a servant to David Urquhart at the Braelangwell estate on the Black Isle, Ross & Cromarty 2. He then worked as a footman for Thomas Lockhart, a Commissioner of Excise, in Edinburgh from 1779 to 1781. In 1781, Macao became as an Assistant for Male Servants at the Board of Excise in Edinburgh. He was promoted on various occasions, retiring in 1823 as the Excise’s Scottish Accountant of the Superannuation Fund. In 1793, he married Helen Ross and they had three children; Ann (1795), Henrietta (1796) and William Ross (1800). Helen Macao died in 1802 as a result of giving birth to a stillborn son. Macao was the first Chinese to be baptised into the Church of Scotland, and probably the first to be baptised into the Protestant faith 3. He was an Elder at the Rose Street Church in Edinburgh for a number of years. In 1818, Macao was involved in an intriguing court case linked to a clause in the Scottish Parliament Act of 1695 establishing the Bank of Scotland. This clause stated that all foreigners (aliens) who purchased shares in the bank would, ‘thereby become a naturalized Scotsman … and as such, a naturalized British subject to all intents and purposes whatsoever’ and in 1818 a significant number of ‘aliens’ in Britain purchased Bank of Scotland stock as a way of claiming British nationality. To test the legality of this, the Government and Bank of Scotland agreed that one of those who had bought stock should bring a court case to test the clause’s validity. William Macao was selected and in January 1819, the case was heard and it was ruled that Macao ‘having joined as a partner of the bank is, while he remains a partner thereof, a naturalised Scotsman, to all intents and purposes, whatsoever.’ However, the court did not make a judgement as to whether this also meant Macao was a naturalised British subject. The Government appealed and eighteen months later the full Scottish Court of Session overturned the ruling. However, this still means that William Macao has the unique status of being the only individual since the Act of Union to have been legally decreed a Scottish citizen as since 1707 all other citizens of Scotland have been legally designated British. Macao died at his house in Henderson Row, Edinburgh on 31 October 1831 and was buried alongside his wife and stillborn son in St Cuthbert’s Cemetery.


The Chinese in Britain - A History of Visitors and Settlers. Price, Barclay. Published by Amberley Books. 2019.
The Times (Scotland News), 'Extraordinary tale of First Chinese Scotsman'. 16 Feb 2018.

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