Hugh Lyon Playfair

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Hugh Lyon Playfair
The grave of Hugh Lyon Playfair, St Andrews Cathedral churchyard

Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair (20 February 1787 – 19 January 1861) was a Scottish politician, soldier and photographic pioneer. He was Provost of St Andrews from 1842 to 1861.

Playfair took a strong interest in photography during its pioneer years and worked with Sir David Brewster to develop the calotype process. Though not a member Playfair was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Calotype Club one of the world's first photographic societies (1843).[1]

He was also a keen cellist.


He was born in Meigle in Perthshire the third son of the Reverend James Playfair and Margaret Lyon. He was educated at Dundee Grammar School.[2]

His later education was at St. Andrews University. He was commissioned in 1804 into the Bengal Horse Artillery. After his commission he was sent to Edinburgh University for three months for instruction in range-finding and ballistics. He served in India from 1805 to 1817 and from 1820 to 1834. He was initially based in Calcutta but in November 1806 had to undertake an 800-mile march with his brigade to Cawnpore. In March 1807 General Sir John Horsford placed him in charge of the troops at Bareilly and was required to suppress the robber-chief Tumon Singh in Oudh. In November 1807 he was appointed in charge of the horse artillery in Agra and in 1809 undertook another very long march to Saharunpoor. In 1811 he was moved to Meerut and required to oversee the siege of the fortress at Nalapani. He was twice wounded during the siege but successfully captured the fortress.[3]

Due to ill-health he was sent back to Britain to recover. His ship moored at St. Helena en-route and he was privileged to meet and interview Napoleon. His second period of duty in India was much less eventful.

In 1834 he retired from the army to St Andrews where he served as Provost from 1842 till his death in 1861. Whilst Provost he is credited with building St Andrews Public Library, agreeing that the railway network be extended to serve the town and achieving various grants for improvements to St Andrews University. He also revived St Andrews Golf Club which (contrary to popular belief) had fallen into disrepair in the 1850s due to under-use.[4] In his time, St Andrews "was transformed into a thriving modern burgh".

In 1856 he became a Knight Bachelor, and in the same year was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) by St. Andrews University. He revived the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews and was one of the promoters of the St Andrews Railway.

He is buried on the north wall of St Andrews Cathedral Churchyard, beneath a distinctive and large white monument, with a military motif.


He married Jane Dalgelish, daughter of William Dalgleish of Scotscraig, Fife, on 10 July 1809.

He was uncle to Lyon Playfair, 1st Baron Playfair who was named in his honour.

His grandson, Elliot Minto Playfair (1826-1899), was a Lieutenant General in the Royal Artillery.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Dictionary of National Biography: Hugh Lyon Playfair
  3. ^ Dictionary of National Biography: Hugh Lyon Playfair
  4. ^
  • L. G. Pine, The New Extinct Peerage 1884-1971: Containing Extinct, Abeyant, Dormant and Suspended Peerages With Genealogies and Arms (London, U.K.: Heraldry Today, 1972)