Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Playfair, Hugh Lyon

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PLAYFAIR, Sir HUGH LYON (1786–1861), Indian officer and provost of St. Andrews, was the third son of Dr. James Playfair [q. v.] He was born on 17 Nov. 1786 at Meigle, a village of East Perthshire, where his father was minister, and was educated at the grammar school of Dundee, whence he proceeded to St. Andrews. In June 1804 he obtained a commission as cadet in the artillery branch of the East India Company's Bengal army, and went to Edinburgh, where he studied mathematics for three months. In April 1804 he proceeded to Woolwich to obtain technical instruction. He passed out of Woolwich on 8 Jan. 1805, and on 8 March 1805 he sailed for Calcutta, where he arrived in the August following. He had been gazetted lieutenant on 14 May 1805.

Playfair remained at Calcutta, engaged in perfecting himself in military knowledge, till November 1806, when he was sent in command of a detachment of European artillery proceeding to the upper provinces. He obtained much commendation for having conducted his troops the whole distance of eight hundred miles to Cawnpore without having had a single man invalided or sentenced to punishment. On 22 March 1807 General Sir John Horsford appointed him to the command of the artillery at Bareilly. He greatly improved the discipline and condition of the troops there stationed, and succeeded in suppressing a robber chief in Oudh, named Tumon Singh. In November 1807 Playfair was appointed to the horse artillery and sent to Agra; and in January 1809 he marched to join the army at Saharunpoor, under Generals St. Leger and Robert (afterwards Sir Robert) Gillespie [q. v.] In February 1809 he was sent forward to Sirhind and Lascarrie, where he took part in several skirmishes with the sikhs. He returned to Agra in April 1809, and on 5 Nov. was appointed adjutant and quartermaster to the increased corps of horse artillery, ‘as the fittest officer in his regiment.’ He was removed to Meerut in March 1811, where the horse artillery was then stationed. In the autumn of 1814, General Gillespie, commanding Playfair's division, was sent up north from Meerut to attack the Kalunga or fortress of Nalapani, a stronghold of the marauding goorkhas. Gillespie was killed in the first attempted assault; Playfair's artillery corps was therefore ordered up, the batteries were opened, and the fortress capitulated on 30 Nov. 1814. During the bombardment Playfair was twice wounded. On 5 Oct. 1815 he was promoted to be captain of horse-artillery. In 1817 Playfair, owing to ill-health, obtained furlough and sailed for Europe. On the way he touched at St. Helena, and had an interview with the ex-emperor Napoleon I. He reached London on 1 June 1817. On 1 Sept. 1818 he was promoted captain. He spent the next three years in extensive travels in Scotland, Ireland, and the western countries of Europe. In 1820 he revisited St. Andrews, received the freedom of the city, and married the daughter of William Dalgleish, of Scotscraig, Fifeshire; and in the summer of that year he returned to India. He was offered the command of a troop of horse by the Marquis of Hastings, then governor-general, but declined it; soliciting and obtaining in it stead the appointment of superintendent of the great military road, telegraph towers, and post-office department between Calcutta and Benares. He discharged the duties of this post with great efficiency till June 1827, when he was promoted to be major, and was ordered to assume the command of the 4th battalion of artillery at Dum-Dum. He resigned his command on 4 July 1831, and in the autumn of that year set out for England, where he arrived on 14 March 1832. On 10 Feb. 1834 he resigned the service of the East India Company.

Playfair now settled down permanently at St. Andrews, with the municipal history of which place the rest of his life is exclusively concerned. In 1842 he was elected provost, an office he held without intermission till his death. He was an energetic reformer in municipal affairs, and the city of St. Andrews owes to him all its modern improvements. He was much interested in educational matters, established a public library, and by his personal exertions secured government grants which enabled the university of St. Andrews to carry out long-projected improvements. Lastly, Playfair enjoys the fame of having revived and put on a firm basis the celebrated golf club, to which St. Andrews owes its chief fame as a popular resort. Though the vast majority of Playfair's schemes were carried through, yet he encountered much obloquy and opposition. In 1847 his portrait, by Sir J. Watson Gordon, was placed in the old town hall; in 1856 the university of St. Andrews conferred on him the degree of LL.D., and in the same year he was knighted. Playfair died at St. Andrews on 21 Jan. 1861, and his remains were accorded a public funeral. The present Lord Playfair is the son of Sir Hugh's eldest brother, George.

[Louden's Biographical Sketch of Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair; Sir Hugh Playfair and St. Andrews (anon.); Gent. Mag. 1861, pt. i. p. 333; Dodwell and Miles's Indian Army List; St. Andrews Public Records; and numerous articles in the Scotsman and the Fifeshire Journal.]

G. P. M-y.