JOHN KEAY: The Great Arc & the Legacy of Colonel Colin Mackenzie


John Keay

John Keay is the author of about 20 books all factual, mostly historical and largely to do with Asia, exploration or Scotland. His first book stayed in print for 30 years; many others have become classics.

His combination of meticulous research, irreverent wit, powerful narrative and lively prose has invariably been complimented by reviewers and readers.

(c) British Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Colonel Colin Mackenzie (c) British Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

51WW70E9STLUK based and a full-time author since 1973, he also wrote and presented over 100 documentaries for BBC Radios £ and 4 from 1975 – 95 and guest lectured tour groups 1990 – 2000.  He reviews on related subjects, occasionally speaks on them and travels extensively.


Colonel Colin Mackenzie was born in Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, in 1754, only 8 years after the Battle of Culloden, in what was described at the time as one of a “hundred misirable (sic) houses or huts”.  He would die 68 years later in Calcutta, as the first Surveyor General of India.

His compatriot, Sir Alexander Mackenzie – they were not related – was born 11 years later in 1765 a stone’s throw away in Stornoway.  He was to discover the source of the then yet-to-be-named Mackenzie River in Canada.

Colin Mackenzie was an extraordinary man. A polymath: mathematician, map-maker and a military surveyor of remarkable insight and resource, his passion and insatiable curiosity for the cultural heritage of India led him to amass a vast collection of manuscripts, coins, drawings, artefacts and engravings.  It resides among with the British Library, British Museum, V&A, National Library of Scotland in the UK, and in the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, University of Chennai and the Museum of India.

It has been recorded that during his 3 decades of surveying Mackenzie acquired a huge wealth of materials comprising 1,568 literary manuscripts, 2,070 local tracts. 8,076 inscriptions, 2,159 translations, 79 plans, 2,630 drawings, 6,218 coins and 146 images.

Chaired by David Green, former Principal of Lews Castle College, UHI, and current Chairman of An Lanntair.

Copyright © 2011-2015 An Lanntair