PROMINENT ST ANDREAN GEORGE BRUCE, REFORMER

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THE first in a series of occasional articles contributed by St Andrews Preservation Trust tells the story of the man who gave his name to the town's recently reconstructed Bruce Embankment.

BUSINESSMAN, poet, naturalist, town benefactor and social reformer, George Bruce was an active town councillor who devoted a great deal of time, labour and money to his native city.

He was very much a self-made man, the son of a surgeon who died when George was seven-years-old, leaving a widow struggling to bring up two young children.

He left school aged 14 and became a joiner's apprentice. At the age of 25 he set up his own building business and began to develop property, including the Royal George and the Great Eastern, which he then let.

He became a wealthy man and was a town councillor for 40 years, committed to using his position to speak out against perceived misuse of public money or abuse of public rights.

In an interview with the Weekly News in 1887, Bruce describes himself as having had, 'a very chequered and depressing boyhood.'

A solitary child, he was attracted to 'Romance' and 'Nature' from an early age. He furthered his own education by reading voraciously, becoming something of an authority on Scottish history and literature and a prolific poet in his own right.

His book Poems and Songs (1886), displays his knowledge of the Scots language and his admiration for Robert Burns. He later became poet laureate of the St Andrews Burns Club.

A keen historian and naturalist, he wrote a number of books about St Andrews including Wrecks and Reminiscences of St Andrews Bay and A History of the Birds of St Andrews. He also acted as Fife correspondent for a number of Dundee newspapers.

A keen golfer, a crack-shot and one of the original members of the 3rd Fife Artillery, Bruce was also a gifted actor and an enthusiastic participator in amateur dramatics, organising, directing and acting in many productions throughout his life.

He was the subject of a biographical play written by local journalist, A.B.Paterson, The Man Who Was Rob Roy, which was performed at the Byre Theatre in 1974.

His poetry espoused his patriotism and his unorthodox religious views and he himself described his poems as, 'constantly waging war with conventionality, hypocrisy and sham.'

His books of poetry received mixed reviews. One critic described Destiny and Other Poems (1876), as, 'sometimes fearfully outspoken', rather like the man himself. It was also, however, described as, 'a remarkable book by a remarkable man.'

The Two Spirits is a satire on the Free and Established Churches in which Bruce ridicules the lack of charity between the two bodies.

In The Council Board, he says of town councillors, 'the only thing they mind's their groats.'

Bruce opposed many 'improvement' schemes over the years and became something of a defender of public rights.

As convener of the Harbour Committee, he was instrumental in securing 4000 from the Board of Trade for improvements to the harbour, described by one visitor as 'a disgrace to the town.'

He was closely involved in the extension of the long pier, bringing the steamer trade to St Andrews, and in 1865 he bought the old St Andrews lifeboat.

The boat was repaired and installed at Boarhills at his own expense.

In 1891, he received an award from the Norwegian government for his contribution to safety at sea.

Often at odds with his contemporaries, George Bruce remains an enigma.

He reputedly refused the honour of being made Bailie saying that he did not feel fitted to pass judgement on his fellow men.

Bruce was often criticised for his opposition to proposed 'improvements'. In 1856, one Fife journalist described him as the kind of man who, 'would take the town back 30 years to when there was grass growing in the streets.'

A man largely governed by history and tradition, Bruce may have perceived many of the proposed reforms as change merely for the sake of change.