Colin Alexander McVean – One of the Scots engineers who modernised Japan

By Colin Houston, Great Grandson of Colin Alexander McVean 

WHEN: Wednesday 7pm – 7th June 2023

WHERE:  University of Edinburgh, 50 George Square, Project Room 1.06.  Click here to sign-up for the in person event

ZOOM:  This event will be streamed on zoom, click here to sign-up for the online event

Colin Alexander McVean (1838 – 1912) was the son of a Free Church minister on Iona. He trained as a civil engineer and following some time with the Admiralty survey and the building of railways in Bulgaria and parts of the Ottoman Empire, he headed to Japan as one of the first civil engineers from Scotland at the time of the Meiji restoration. He was involved in the construction of lighthouses, had his own foundry business, for a period of time, and latterly was then appointed Surveyor in Chief to the Emperor of Japan. He was responsible for the first surveys of Japan, the building of roads and bridges, mapping out Tokyo and in particular supervising the construction of Ginza district. He was involved in the building of primary and secondary schools and also the first engineering technical college. He founded the meteorological society, also the astronomical society, brought in the first seismographs and in his spare time, as a keen bird watcher, published some works on the ornithology of Yedo (Tokyo). He spent 8 years in Japan from 1868 to 1876 and achieved an enormous amount in that time, passing on his skill and enthusiasm to a young team of Japanese recruits in the survey department. Never forgetting his Scottish roots, he took every opportunity to celebrate Scotland and share with others his traditions and culture. However, what is also fascinating is the social aspects of his time in Japan. His wife entertained the wives of many high-profile Japanese officials, and they shared tips on many aspects of being a good wife! The McVean’s were privileged to live in Yedo (Tokyo) in a small area of the ministry of public works with another 9 westerners, primarily Scots and their families, and not be part of the foreign legations/enclaves where the majority of westerners lived.

Colin will give some background to McVean’s time in Japan but also highlight the unique lifestyle and Japanese contacts that he and his wife made in their time in Japan.

Colin Houston has worked in tourism in Scotland for over 47 years. He is currently an international tourism consultant and co- founder of Aurora Spirit Distillery, situated in Arctic Norway. Colin has a keen interest in genealogy and tracing his family history, one particular fascination is in his Great-Grandfather, Colin Alexander McVean who spent eight years in Japan. When Colin’s aunt died in1998 he discovered boxes of diaries, papers and also a unique photo album from his Great -Grandfathers time in Japan. Colin has set about transcribing and digitising much of this archive material.

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4 thoughts on “Colin Alexander McVean – One of the Scots engineers who modernised Japan

  1. I have possession of very old photos, Scottish Engineer with similar storyline of Colin A McVean and would like to donate them to any interested person or society

    1. Hi Anne,
      Thank you for your comment. We’d be very happy to accept your donation. If you would like to proceed, please let us know how you would like to communicate further and discuss this. If you have a Facebook account, then you can contact us directly through messenger, if not we can drop you an email. We have your email through WordPress as you have commented on this post, so no need to post it here publically.
      Kind regards,

  2. I am pleased to receive a reply. I could just post the whole bundle out to you if you send your address. Mr William McLimont (McClymont) was Irish and presumably moved to Stevenston, Ayrshire to work for the Armstrong Company, (Although I.C.I. was the huge “dynamite” factory in Stevenston and I believe all his 3 children worked there – William, James and Gertrude). There is a well thumbed bible with a beautifully inscribed dedication to him from his church in Kilwinning dated 13th February 1908. The photographs of his congregation in Hiratsuka, Japan sent to his family are just delightful. The most liked by me is the letter sent to Kilwinning by a Maisie Kinugasa “a bible woman in Oiso” singing his praises and how he will be so much missed as he returning home. Dated 26 January 1911. I was the McClymont’s neighbour in Kilwinning and as they had no descendants, Gertie gave them to me as she knew I was interested in seeing the photos/letters and they had no descendants at all to pass them on to. Being 80 I am not savvy enough to be on facebook and can only communicate through this email.

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