Former Pupil Biographies
George Bruce (1825 – 1904)
|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
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
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
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.