A tale of two islands

Islanders like to recall achievements of those who went forth in times past to earn fame and fortune – which makes it surprising that the story of Sir John Pringle and his successors is not up there with the most celebrated of them

By Brian Wilson
Monday, 19th April 2021, 2:59 pm

I first tuned into it when I chanced to hear on Isles FM the repeat of an interview with Colin Scott Mackenzie which had first been broadcast on Radio Ranul – the hospital service – at a time when Colin was procurator fiscal in Stornoway.

Most of his answers were short and circumspect particularly when questions impinged upon his professional responsibilities. But then a gem presented itself. Asked about his travels, Colin mentioned that, of course, he had visited his Caribbean relations on several occasions. “At one time,” he said, “they were the biggest landowners in Jamaica”.

That sounded worthy of further inquiry and fortunately Colin Scott Mackenzie is extremely well versed in the history, not least through past visits to cousins, now several times removed, in Jamaica. It is the story of an extraordinary family which has made a huge and beneficial impact on Jamaican society, down to the present day.

Sign up to our daily Stornoway Gazette Today newsletter

Much of his earlier knowledge came through his maternal grandfather, Willie John Tolmie, a highly respected pharmacist in Stornoway who topped the Town Council poll when he was over 80 and died in 1957. Willie John’s mother was the sister of the young man who left Lewis and eventually became Sir John Pringle.

Pringle is a Borders name and their father was recruited by the Lewis proprietor, Sir James Matheson, in the 1840s to promote sheep husbandry. One of the tacksmen he visited was John Mackenzie of Linshader, a native of Glenelg who brought his sister, Isabella, from the mainland to keep house for him. To cut a long story short, John Pringle and Isabella became an item, much to the disapproval of her brother.

Determination to break the relationship extended to exiling Isabella to Reef in Uig where MacKenzie’s sister was married. This did not work and the couple eloped on horseback to Stornoway, pursued by Isabella’s irate brother and his posse, once the news reached them. They narrowly made it onto a fishing boat and were dropped off on the Sutherland coast.

John and Isabella married and in 1848 produced their first-born, John Pringle, at which point the Linshader tacksman relented. The Pringle family returned to Lewis, the wealthy MacKenzie set up John senior with a butcher’s shop in Cromwell Street and doted upon his young nephew who spent much time at Linshader and became a seasonal gillie at nearby Grimersta.

Uncle John probably funded the boy through medical school in Aberdeen. At Grimersta, he had developed a friendship with Earl Grey, formerly Secretary of State for the Colonies and a regular fishing guest. With a shortage of local medical positions available, John applied for a post as superintendent of a new hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, with Grey as his referee. As Colin Scott Mackenzie puts it: “All these years of showing the toffs how to cast a straight line paid off. John got the job”.

John Pringle, the Gaelic-speaking Lewis doctor, arrived in Jamaica in the early 1870s at a time of social upheaval. The ending of slavery in 1838 had left a destitute population as many of the sugar plantation owners went bankrupt or retreated to the UK. John soon married into a long-established Jewish family which had been expelled from Portugal and prospered in Jamaica, owning several large properties in Kingston.

When Dr John Pringle married Amy Levy, he found – much to his surprise – that a dowry of £80,000 had been settled upon her, in today’s money £10 million, making the young Lewis doctor a very wealthy man. He set up in private practice while also tending the poor but increasingly, he turned his attention to the fact that land was dirt cheap and started buying up former sugar plantations, for which there was no market. Within a few years, he was the biggest landowner in Jamaica.

Pringle’s masterstroke was to recognise that sugar was finished on the island and turn his attention to bananas. At that time, refrigerated travel was opening up the North American market. Pringle won recognition not only as a brilliant entrepreneur but also as a good employer and a supporter of Jamaica’s progress towards de-colonisation and social justice, as a member of the island’s legislature.

According to one Jamaican account: “John Pringle brought with him, from his own experiences on the fringes of British society in the Outer Hebrides, a working social conscience which members of his family inherited”. His politics identified with the Fabian Socialist movement, the objectives of which included decolonisation of Britain’s empire through peaceful change.

In 1910, he was knighted in recognition of public service and myriad good works, specifically his contribution to the restoration of Kingston following a devastating earthquake in 1907. Toward the end of his life, Pringle was instrumental in forming the Jamaica Banana Producers’ Association, a cooperative to challenge the dominance of the United Fruit Company of America and the British companies, Elders and Fyffes.

An interesting point about this account was that its author admitted to having entered into his research with the expectation that Pringle was a scion of one of the old Scottish slave-owning families who had played a notorious part in Jamaica’s sugar-based economy. The more he found out, the more apparent it became that nothing could have been further from the truth.

The same writer found: “The Pringles were close friends of Norman Manley, one of the country’s political fathers, and were involved in Manley’s creation of Jamaica Welfare which evolved into one of the government’s most vital social agencies. They were, apparently, strong supporters and backers of black nationalist, pan-Africanist and Jamaica national hero, Marcus Garvey”.

Garvey was a controversial figure within the wider movement for black people’s rights, particularly in the United States, but retains iconic status in his native Jamaica. In 1916, Garvey wrote: “I shall always repose confidence in the white and coloured gentry of Jamaica who never failed to encourage and help me to succeed”. Those he named including the Governor General, Sir Henry Manning, and Sir John Pringle - the doctor from Linshader.

Of the six Pringle children, the youngest – Minnie Pringle-Simson - appears to have been most attuned to her parents’ social ethos. Her home became a centre of political debate and she was also involved in the cult of Moral Rearmament. Land was turned over to a farming co-operative which grew into the world-wide brand of Walkerswood Caribbean Foods.

A Guardian article in 2007 reported: “Inspired by a Fabian social conscience, Minnie opened Bromley (her estate) to blacks and whites alike, with villagers joining in morning prayers. Her daughter, Fiona Edwards, and grandsons, Johnathan and Roddy, have continued the community tradition”.

Roddy was quoted as saying that as a white Jamaican, he had been involved in “a grand theft from people who had not been paid properly for their part in the nation’s development”. Denouncing “the western model of maximising profit”, he says “the best way for people of European descent to be involved in reparations is to engage in sustainable, fair businesses”.

Otherwise, the children of Sir John and Amy seem to have dissipated a large part of the family fortune on less noble pursuits, though the Pringle name continued to be prominent in Jamaican public affairs. The Great Depression and a slump in world banana prices also took its toll.

The next exceptional figure was John Kenneth MacKenzie Pringle, grandson of Sir John and Amy, who seems to have combined a playboy lifestyle with entrepreneurial genius. By the early 1950s, he was living in Paris and married to a Canadian model. But he had a vision that took him back to Jamaica.

Though most of the Pringle properties had gone, his mother had continued to operate an hotel, Sunset Lodge, at Montego Bay which she had made fashionable with the rich and famous. According to his Times obituary, the young John “…revelled in the contact with the moneyed and titled, and was fired with the ambition to restore the family to the wealth and prominence it had enjoyed in his grandfather’s day”.

His concept, subsequently taken up around the world, was to sell villas to the rich and famous which would be rented out for the large parts of the year when they were not using them. The result was the Round Hill Hotel, near Montego Bay – which flourishes to this day.

According to his obituaries, John was seated next to Noel Coward on a flight and seized the opportunity to pitch the Round Hill idea to him. Eventually, Coward patted him on the knee and said: ’Dear boy, if only you’ll stop going on about your damned cottages, I’ll buy one of them‘.” Next day, Coward introduced him to Fred Astaire’s sister, who bought another and the venture was off and running.

The Round Hill Hotel became extremely famous with “a guest book that contained names like John and Jackie Kennedy, the Aga Khan, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein, who often played the Steinway for fellow guests”. It was the start of the Jamaican tourism industry and image.

Pringle’s own personality was crucial to the success of the hotel but eventually he tired of the lifestyle and retreated to Switzerland. However, when Jamaica gained its independence in 1962, he was invited back to be the country’s first Director of Tourism, a role he fulfilled with outstanding success.

John Pringle is now universally recognised as “the father of Jamaican tourism”, in normal times the country’s main source of revenues. In later life, he moved to London but was asked by Michael Manley, when he became Prime Minister in 1972, to become the country’s Ambassador at Large, supporting both the tourism and banana industries.

He died in 2007 at the age of 81 with massive tributes paid to him from every quarter of Jamaican society.

Four generations of Lewis Pringles have had a profound effect on the economic and political history of Jamaica and the family name continues to be held in high regard. Though there have been a few twists and turns along the way, the “working social conscience” imported along with a Hebridean upbringing has served Jamaica well.