ALMOST two centuries after his death, a unique collection of Asian art and antiquities amassed by Stornoway-born super-collector, Colin Mackenzie, is to become the centrepiece of a festival devoted to the links between the Western Isles and India.

Collector Extraordinaire opens on August 11 at Museum nan Eilean, Lews Castle, Stornoway. It features a host of unusual items from the world-famous Mackenzie Collection, which will be displayed together for the first time under one roof.

The Mackenzie Collection is the oldest and largest collection of ancient South Asian art in the world and is made up of a remarkable range of material collected by Mackenzie, who left Lewis at the age of 29 in 1783, never to return.

Loading article content

Mackenzie rose steadily through the ranks from army officer and after 30 years service he was appointed the first Surveyor General of India. Along the way he developed a passion for collecting and researching with the help of his Indian Brahmin assistants. He died in Calcutta in 1821.

Mackenzie’s collection, held by The British Museum, The British Library and the V&A in London, includes beautiful figures intricately carved in stone, maps, coins, ancient palm leaf manuscripts and thousands of drawings and sketches from across India and Java depicting ancient monuments, people and customs.


THE story of Colin Mackenzie has inspired Purvai, 2017, a festival which celebrates the Hebrides’ South Asian heritage links.

This ten-day festival, devised by Stornaway arts centre, delves into the links between Gaelic and Asian culture and bring them to life for the 21st century audience.

Purvai, from August 10-19, presents a series of events encompassing Gaelic and Asian culture. This includes visual arts exhibitions, theatre performances, education programme, arts and crafts activities, special Diwali celebrations and a family festival day.

“Purvai 2017 is the culmination of over five years work researching the collection in London and India, travelling and engaging artists from the Hebrides with India and South Asia and vice versa,” said Catherine Maclean, curator of Purvai. “I am delighted audiences will finally get to see and experience this remarkable collection during Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, especially here on the island.

“Colin Mackenzie never forgot the island and held onto his Hebridean and Gaelic identity throughout his life in India right up until the end. The collection is a significant, important and rich body of historical material, but how we can interpret and use it as an inspiration for new creative works, understanding and relating to one another is what’s really important today.”


HIGHLIGHTS at the festival include Yatra, which means “journey”, a brand new commissioned score depicting Mackenzie’s journey from the Outer Hebrides to India which uses Gaelic vocal traditions and the islanders’ songs of travel and seafaring as well as the traditional Indian Raag and folk music he would have experienced and encountered during his travels. A scaled-down version of Yatra will also be performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 21and the full show will tour in India during January 2018.

Dalbir Singh Rattan, the lead composer on Yatra and tabla maestro, who has played with The Stone Roses and Paul Weller, will also, along with sitar virtuoso, Roopa Panesar, present an evening of classical Indian music.

In addition, actor, director and playwright, Sudha Bhuchar, will stage her critically acclaimed play, Child of the Divide, the story of a young boy separated from his family during the Partition of India.

Also at the festival photographer and artist, Arpita Shah, will research stories of South Asian Hebridean families and their journeys to Stornoway and the islands using the medium of tea. The result will be a fully interactive Chai stall where people can share their own individual stories, discussing notions of home and identity over a Copan Chai. Copan is the Gaelic word which refers to a cup of tea.


OTHER guests include Sona Datta, presenter of BBC4’s Treasures of the Indus, who will discuss the famous temple and monuments of Mahabalipuram in South India which are extensively documented in the Mackenzie Collection while, in a collaboration with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, award-winning crime writer Abir Mukherjee and poet and 2017 Robert Louis Stevenson Writing Fellow, Nalini Paul, will present a literary journey capturing their personal responses to the collection.

Collector Extraordinaire has been made possible thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Purvai is also a signature event of Scotland’s 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology celebrations. The Purvai Festival has also received funding from EventScotland and the Purvai Project has received funding from British Council to take elements of the project to India as part of the British Council’s UK INDIA 2017 programme.

The exhibition, Collector Extraordinaire, is free admission. Tickets for the Purvai Festival are available at