The son of a Montrose Provost, who grew up to become a Victorian James Bond, is the topic of a new biography published by a former rector of Dundee University.
The life of Captain Sir Alexander Burnes has been revealed in a book by Craig Murray, who is the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan as well as a rector of the Tayside university from 2007 to 2010.
Murray’s book is the first biography of this intriguing son of Montrose, who was a British intelligence officer in India and Afghanistan in the 1820s and 30s.
He consulted “thousands of manuscripts” during his research for the book, titled ‘Sikunder Burnes, Master of the Great Game’ to uncover the truth about the spy,
The tale begins in Montrose, where his father was provost. Born in Montrose in 1805, Alexander attended Montrose Academy before going on to seek his livelihood in the East India Company.
He joined as a cadet in 1821 whereupon he began an astonishing career as a surveyor and spy in India and Afghanistan.
At age 26, Alexander Burnes was one of the first agents to be sent to Afghanistan by British Intelligence in 1831 as tensions rose between Britain and Russia over ownership of India.
He travelled in disguise and, while journeying 1000 miles up the Indus river, Burnes was involved in double-crossing deals, secret mapping and espionage.
Murray discovered these previously unpublished details along with evidence of British secret service smuggling arms to Chechen and Dagestani rebels as early as the 1830s in a bid to persuade them to wage “jihad” against Russia.
The story of Burnes’ life encompasses a cast of extraordinary figures, including Queen Victoria, King William IV, Earl Grey, Benjamin Disraeli, Lola Montez, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx.
Among Murray’s unexpected discoveries are that Alexander and his brother James invented the myths about the Knights Templars and Scottish Freemasons and that the most famous 19th-century scholar of Afghanistan, Jan Prosper Witkiewicz, was a double agent for Russia.
Murray said: “When I stared writing about Alexander Burnes it was because he had been a diplomat in the same part of the world as me.
“But it quickly took me to all sorts of discoveries about the myths of the Knights Templar and Scottish Freemasons.”
Alexander’s brother James published these in 1837, in Sketch of the History of the Knights Templar.
Murray said: “I’ve tried very hard to find any earlier mention and it is not there. So it seems like James and Alexander invented it.”
These legends went on to inspire books such as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.
Murray also claims James Burnes rose rapidly through the ranks of the Freemasonry, after learning of stories of secret symbols in Afghanistan and Freemasonry documents in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris.
Alexander was killed in Kabul in 1841.
Murray’s research has found detailed accounts of spy techniques.
He said: “Burnes would be disguised as a traveller but counted his paces as he went in order to map.
“The maps were drawn secretly at night in his tent. They would then be crushed down in amulets to be smuggled out and sent back by messengers who were themselves travelling in disguise.
“There was lots of double dealing - intercepting letters from the Russians, the use of complex codes to foil the other side.”
Burnes was also discovered to have been a relative of Scotland’s most famous son - Robert Burns - first cousin of Burnes’ father.
Murray believes that Robert Burns would have been proud of his descendant.
Professor Gerrard Carruthers, director of the Robert Burns Centre at Glasgow University, said there were parallels between the two men.
He added: “Burns himself was famously a Freemason and at the time it was associated with being cosmopolitan in outlook, intellectual and adventurous...Perhaps Alexander was imbibing something of the spirit of his uncle in his adventures.”