We have a guest post this morning, from my husband, Thomas Russell Wingate. He came across this information on New Year’s Eve and spent hours looking up more info and writing this blog entry.
ROBERT BURNS ISLAND
31 December 2012
I was inspecting YouTube’s offerings about Burns and came across a retired Sikh businessman enamored of all things Scottish. He commissioned a translation of the major works of Burns into Punjabi. He effervesces on camera when discussing Burns.
Sirdar Iqbal Singh is of interest here because he has done something no one else thought to do: he purchased an island in the Outer Hebrides and named it Robert Burns Island.
I delved into Wikipedia to find out more. I cannot learn whether the name change is official as far as the British government is concerned. Iqbal Singh talks compellingly about the worldwide importance of Burns and the fittingness of an island, a real place, named for the poet.
The island itself is 41 hectares in size.You could could set Temple Square upon it ten times. The island’s highest point is 34 meters above the Atlantic.
The official name is (or was) Vacsay. Its name is from Old Norse meaning “peat bank island.” It is off the west coast of Lewis in West Loch Roag.
Vacsay has been uninhabited since the Highland Clearances in 1827. In 1993 Iqbal Singh bought it and began his campaign to rename it.
Its “most correct” Scottish name would be Eilean Burns.
Wikipedia: “The island is Lewisian gneiss. Vacsay has an extremely complicated coastline, and is connected at low tide to several surrounding islets such as Trathasam and Liacam. It [Vacsay] is between the islands of Vuia Mor and Pabay Mor and is off Great Bernera.”
So much for the island. Let us now consider the colorful character, Iqbal Singh.
He was born in Lahore, former capital of the Sikh Kingdom of Punjab, and came to England in 1959 to pursue medical studies. He disentangled himself and ended up in real estate development. He prospered. He fit into London’s gentry.
He acquired the title Lord of Butley Manor by acquiring an estate that had once belonged to Henry VIII. (This is normal in England.)
The titles “Baron” and “Lord” embarrass him (a bit).
He keeps it unclear—and here Wikipedia is helpful and confusing—as to whether Sirdar is a given name or an hereditary title. (Many Sikhs are called Sirdars by outsiders; many Sikhs name their sons Sirdar.)
It is the same the world over: if something sounds good, it is thought to be good—but don’t ask many questions.
Maybe Iqbal Singh himself doesn’t know.
The Sikhs are a superior people—as De Gaulle said of the Jews, un people d’élite, dominateur et sûr de lui-même.
A Sikh Canadian lawyer who wrote an article for the Toronto Tribune calls him “the Sirdar.”
In 1986 Iqbal Singh, seeking a retirement home, acquired a castle in Lanarkshire. Its interior isVictorian. The nearest village is Lesmahagow (“abbey green”).
Iqbal Singh does things in a grand way.
For one thing, he has a strong-willed Swiss wife. This was undoubtedly a wise selection.
He wears a turban. No word as to whether Lady Gertrude Singh is a Sikh. If she had become one, methinks we would have heard of it.
He made sure the Scots would like him. He contributes to all manner of causes.
Around Christmas 1994, when floods displaced pensioners in Paisley, he invited the homeless into his home.
When he saw that Sikh schoolchildren in a nearby school were not wearing tartans like the other kids, he commissioned Lockcarron to design a new tartan. In 1999, the Scottish Tartans Authority officially recognized the Singh Tartan. All the Sikh kids now have them. (All Sikhs are surnamed Singh, meaning “lion”; Singapore is the Lion City.)
While he was at it, he commissioned a family crest for himself. (My sources say nothing of any offspring he may have.)
Everyone else remarks on his modesty, and Lady Gertrude’s. I remark instead on his upward mobility and his concern for symbolic capital—self-invented if need be. He is shrewdly linking himself to Scottish cachet and distancing himself from his culture of origin. He would be well aware of the poet’s radical politics.
It happens that Lanarkshire is adjacent to Ayrshire.
He is leading a campaign to rename Glasgow Prestwick Airport, a few kilometers north of Ayr, Burns International Airport. “If New York has the Kennedy Airport, Paris the De Gaulle, it’s only appropriate that ours be the Burns.”
Bravo! Burns never set foot in the Outer Hebrides, and the island has no hope of attracting tourists.
I am sure I would like this couple if I were to meet them. I already respect them.