St Andrew’s Day on 30 November is significant for Russia as well as for Scotland, as St Andrew is also that country’s patron saint. Here are a few of the connections which link South Ayrshire and Imperial Russia.
Surgeon Thomas Garvine, the son of an Ayr merchant, was one of many Scots who entered the service of Peter the Great as he strove to modernise Russia. Thomas worked at the hospital in the new city of St Petersburg, and there opportunity beckoned when a request for the services of a skilled physician arrived from Kangxi, one of the greatest emperors of China. Thomas duly set off as part of a Russian diplomatic mission, and in 1715-1716 he made the long and hazardous journey across Siberia and the Gobi Desert to the Chinese imperial court in Beijing.
His treatment of the emperor having apparently been successful, Thomas returned to Russia in 1718. He eventually made his way back to Ayr, and in 1724 became provost of the town, a post he held for most of the period between then and 1755. After his return to Scotland he had his portrait painted by Thomas Mosman wearing the Chinese robes which had been gifted to him. This painting used to hang in Sundrum Castle near Coylton (Thomas was related by marriage to the Hamiltons of Sundrum), but it is now owned by the Wellcome Trust. It can be viewed here on the BBC website.
1818 saw a tour of the British Isles by the twenty year-old Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the youngest brother of the Emperor Alexander I. To complete his visit to Scotland, he and his entourage travelled from Glasgow to Ayr. They arrived on 17 August and were accommodated in the King’s Arms Inn on High Street. Next morning, at a special meeting of the magistrates and council, the grand duke received the freedom of the town from Provost Hugh Cowan, being made an honorary burgess. The following day he continued on his journey, travelling to Portpatrick and crossing to Ireland.
More information on Grand Duke Michael, including a portrait, can be seen at:
On the point just south of Lendalfoot village, an attractively-landscaped area of seafront parking offers motorists on the busy A77 a haven of calm. From the centre of this area rises an impressive bronze monument in the shape of a cross. It bears the dramatic image of a four-funnelled warship steaming into action. The monument’s unveiling on 8 September 2007 was attended by representatives of South Ayrshire Council and by many Russian dignitaries and sailors. They had come to honour the gallant crew of one of their country’s hero-ships, the cruiser Varyag. (A commemorative plaque had already been installed on the site in July 2006.)
At the outbreak of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, Varyag and the little gunboat Koreets found themselves trapped in the Korean port of Chemulpo (now Incheon) by a Japanese squadron of six cruisers and nine smaller vessels. They were summoned to surrender, but despite the impossible odds against them (the Japanese flagship alone was greatly superior to Varyag) the Russians chose to come out fighting. When Varyag was too badly damaged to continue the battle any longer, with scores of her crew dead or badly wounded, both Russian ships were abandoned and then scuttled.
Varyag was raised and repaired by the Japanese, but when the two countries became allies during the First World War, the Russians bought her back. She was in a British port at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and was taken over by the Royal Navy. In 1920, the now-derelict cruiser began her final voyage to a breakers’ yard under tow, but a storm drove her aground off Lendalfoot. Much of the wreck was dismantled, but a substantial portion remains buried in the seabed. By a happy accident, Varyag’s last resting place lies off one of the most picturesque stretches of South Ayrshire’s coastline, now further enhanced by the monument and its surroundings.