In the early nineteenth century, Millbank was occupied by James Neilson (1752/3-1821) and his wife, Anne Stuart (1777-1856). They had eleven children. James Neilson is said to have made money in the Indies, but it was his daughter, who emerges in an extraordinary story. On 26 April 1820, The Caledonian Mercury noted her wedding, performed by the Rev Dr Buchanan at St Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh. ‘Anne, fourth daughter of James Neilson, Esq., of Millbank’ had married ‘Alexander Iranovitch, Sultan Khatte Gherry Krim Gherry’.i
Katti Geray (the name is transcribed from Cyrillic script, and is spelt a number of ways) was a member of the ruling Geray family, Khans of the Crimea, who were deposed when Russia annexed the country from the Ottoman Empire in 1783.ii He was evidently a personable young man. In the early years of the nineteenth century, he encountered a group of Scots missionaries, from the Edinburgh Missionary Society, who believed that Islam was in decline and the time was ripe to convert ‘barbarian peoples to an enlightened position’. The Tsar, Alexander I, was impressed by their argument. He gave them land and permission to ransom young slaves and teach them Christianity. The leading figures in this initial move were Rev Henry Brunton and Alexander Paterson. They translated the New Testament and published pamphlets, but ultimately found great opposition to conversion – they had seriously underestimated the strength of Islam, which commanded ‘not only individual consciences but dominated every aspect of social and cultural life.’ However, Kati Geray was attracted to the mission and was baptised in 1807. Despite the hostility of his own countrymen and family, he began to work on spreading Christianity. He joined the Russian army, and, in 1815, he commanded the Cossack regiment which accompanied the Persian envoy to St Petersburg, along with diplomatic gifts of two elephants and twenty-four stallions. On this occasion, he met the Tsar. He evidently impressed him with his zeal and idealism, and gained his affectionate support.
The Scottish mission agreed to send Katti Geray to Edinburgh in 1816 to further his education. The Tsar gave him a salary of 6,000 roubles, and offered to pay his expenses. While in Edinburgh, he worked out a plan to found a seminary in the Crimea, and returned there to examine the feasibility before presenting the idea to the Tsar. Alexander approved, and offered him assistance.
In 1819, Katti Geray returned to Edinburgh to promote his idea throughout Scotland and Ireland, and while there he fell in love with Anne Neilson. One version of this story, told by a friend of Katti Geray, Dr Robert Lyall, says that Anne Neilson incurred her father’s ‘invincible displeasure, which he carried out so far as to disinherit her; he even died without pardoning this strong proof of unequivocal love’. iii But, given the formal marriage and press announcements, Lyall’s idea may be qualified. Neilson died in 1821, and there is evidence that Anne’s family stayed in touch.iv
Robert Lyall visited the couple in the mid 1820s, at Sympheropole. Katti Geray hospitably ‘invited us to take up our quarters at his house, and would not admit any excuse for non-compliance’. Lyall commented that many of the Sultana’s friends considered the affair as very romantic – as it seems to us – ‘but, perhaps, with less room than they imagined. For it must not be forgotten, that previous to his marriage, the Sultan had not only become a Christian, but was almost transformed into a Briton, and spoke English with as much fluency as his native tongue. At Sympheropole his house was arranged in the English style; almost every portable article within it was of British manufacture, and British customs and manners alone prevailed… His wife’, Lyall added, ‘seemed a very modest amiable person, and was highly prized by her husband, by whom she had one daughter at the time of our visit, and I believe now has two or three more children.’
The attempts by the Scottish mission and Geray to set up an effective seminary to convert the Muslims proved unsuccessful. The death of Alexander I lost them essential patronage, the fierce resistance of the Muslims and the hostility of the Orthodox Church undermined their work. By 1822, the Scottish Missionary Society found that ‘the aspect of things in Russia had become so dark and gloomy, that many of the Directors had begun to entertain strong doubts, as to the propriety of persevering in cultivating a field which appeared so barren and unpromising’, and by 1825, most of the Scottish missionaries in the Russian empire had been withdrawn.
Khatti Geray was left to continue on his own, but his attempts met with utter failure. He was, however, comfortably placed – Alexander I had remained a friend until his death in 1825, giving him a pension of 6,000 roubles, and Nicholas I followed Alexander’s advice in giving Katti Geray a grant of land, enabling him to have a house in the mountains, a large dwelling in Akmescit, and a beautiful seaside villa with a vineyard. His wife bore fourteen children, six of whom died in infancy. Their first child, Aleksandrina, born in St Petersburg in 1821, was baptised by the Tsar himself at the Winter Palace. She later married the German Baron von Gersdorff. The only child who returned to Britain was Anne Margaret, who married Thomas Upton and settled back in Edinburgh.
Khatti Geray died in 1847. His wife continued to live in Akmescit, but found herself very awkwardly placed on the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853. At least two of her sons were fighting on the Russian side against the British, but a letter to her from the British naval Captain, Thomas Saumarez Brock, offering her protection, was intercepted by the Russians and brought her under suspicion. Given that Saumurez Brock had earlier been sent on a political mission to the area, effectively spying out the land and bringing back sketches and descriptions, the Russians would have good reason to regard the correspondence with suspicion.v
Anne was offered the protection of the Tsar, but she was under surveillance. The stress and her sense of divided loyalty must have been fearful. Sadly, she fell ill, and died in the course of the war, in June 1855.
Her mother, Anne Stuart Neilson, survived her daughter by a year. Like her daughter, she had had the heartbreak of seeing seven of her eleven children die before her.
i Caledonian Mercury, 27 April 1820.
ii This piece is substantially based on Hakan Kirimli, ‘Crimean Tatars, Nogays, and Scottish missionaries. The story of Katti Geray and other baptised descendants of the Crimean khans’, Cahiers du Monde Russe, 2004.
iii Dr Robert Lyall, Travels in Russia, the Krimea, the Caucasus and Georgia, London, 1825, vol 1, pp. 238-9.
iv Her young brother, Robert Grierson Neilson, born in 1814, died in the Crimea on 16 May 1839. Information from the family gravestone in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard.
v Saumurez Brock, ‘Views in Circassia, with Notes by the late Admiral Saumurez Brock, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, vol 14, March 1892, p173.