Colin Alexander McVean

Mcvean Family and servants in Tokyo, 1872.

Colin Alexander McVean, FRGS (6 March 1838 – 18 January 1912) was a Scottish civil engineer who made a considerable contribution to Japan's engineering development in 1870s.[1]

He left two brief autobiographies, diaries, photos, letters and a collection of Japanese antiques.

Early life and careerEdit

He was first son of Reverend Donald McVean, minister of the Free Church of Iona and Mull.

After a five-year apprenticeship at Edinburgh, he joined the Hydrographic Office, Admiralty, and was engaged in a survey of the Hebrides under the direction of Captain Henry Charles Otter during 1861-64.[2] He worked together with William Maxwell, RN, Henry Scharbau[3] and W.E. Cheesman[4].

In 1865-66, he worked for railway construction at Bulgaria.

In June, just before departure to Japan, he married Mary Wood Cowan, youngest daughter of Alexander Cowan, a paper-maker in Penicuik. Marriage witness were Archibald Constable and Campbell Douglas.

Appointment in JapanEdit

McVean was informed by his friend that the Northern Lighthouse Board of Edinburgh was recruiting several engineers for lighthouse construction in Japan in February 1868. It was too late to apply for chief engineer post, and McVean was appointed as assistance engineer together with A.W. Blundell. The chief engineer was Henry Brunton.

The first lighthouse construction on Mikomoto-Jima in March to June 1869 was terrible, as Japanese masons did not know western construction manner at all. Although McVean asked Brunton revision of construction scheme, Brunton could not answer properly. McVean made up his mind to resign from the Lighthouse Office together with Blundell, and started engineering business at Yokohama under the name of Vulcan Foundry.

He met Yamao Yozo, government officer in charge of Yokosuma Arsenal and Yokohama Ironwork at Yokohama, and got close friend with him in both private life and business as they have had common experience and friends in Scotland. McVean soon suggested Yamao to found survey office to make nationwide geodetic survey.

Meanwhile, the Meiji government decided to establish the Ministry of Public Works (Japan) on 12 December 1870 by the advice of Edmund Morel, chief engineer of the Railway Construction to achieve rapid social and industrial development. After long discussions among the Cabinet members, on 28 September 1871 the government eventually arranged the Public Works consisting of 11 departments: railroads, shipyards, lighthouses, mines, an iron and steel industry, telecommunication, civil works, manufacturing, industrial promotion, engineering institution and survey[5]. Yamao headed the Engineering Institution and Survey Office, and placed McVean into chief surveyor position for survey and building.

Chief Surveyor of Public Works and Home OfficeEdit

Engineering college building designed and built by McVean and Joyner, completed in 1874.
Venus Transit Observation, directed by McVean on Gotenyama in December 1874.

1. Building Work

(1) Engineering College Buildings: McVean was appointed as a chief surveyor for the Survey Department and extensively assisted Yamao, who had to head both the Survey and Engineering Institution. Morel and Yamao rushed to open the engineering college, but Morel passed away in October 1871. While McVean concentrated to design and construct the college buildings together with Henry Batson Joyner, he endeavoured to reunite Yamao with Hugh Matheson via Colin Brown[6]. Matheson kindly arranged appointment of teaching staff for the engineering college through his connection, Lewis Gordon, William Rankine and William Thompson (Lord Kelvin).[7]

McVean asked Campbell Douglas, a prominent architect in Glasgow, to send building materials and a young architect to Japan in 1872[8]. Charles Alfred Chastel de Boinville, Anglo-French architect aged 23 arrived at Tokyo in the end of 1872.

(2) Ginza Redevelopment Scheme: In March 1872, big fire took place in downtown area of Tokyo, and McVean arranged redevelopment scheme by order of Yamao.

(3) Design of Government Officers' Residence: He prepared plan of official residences for Sanjō Sanetomi, Yamao, etc.

2. Surveying

(1) Survey School: McVean started in his duty from setting up the survey school hiring two instructor; Richard Rymer Jones[9] and George Eaton[10]

(2) Former Castle Site: In May 1872, Yamao ordered McVean to survey the former Caste site, in which new Imperial palace was to be constructed[11].

(3) Appointment of Surveyors: Cosmo Innes[12] a chief of British India's Public Works at the time, sent McVean 3 surveyors. McVean invited Henry Scharbau and W.E. Cheesman, both McVean's friends during the Hydrographic Office period.

(4) Setting up of Triangular Survey: After returned from the Britain with new instruments in May 1874, he directed nationwide triangular survey.

3. Meteorological Astrological and Seismic Observation

(1) Purchase of Instruments: McVean discussed extent of the function of the Survey Office with Yamao, when returned home to purchase various instruments in February 1873. Under the name of Yamao, he requested assistant to the Scottish Meteorological Society to start up observations including selection and setting up of instruments, observation manners, positioning of observation, role of central observatory and stations, seismic observation, special observation of typhoon, reference books.[13] According to the Memorandum with the Society, McVean bought various instruments from the Casella Co.[14], survey and astrological instruments from Troughton & Simms, and seismic instruments from Luigi Palmieri. In September 1873, McVean and Schaubau visited the Royal Observatory at Charlton to learn how to observe Venus Transit from James Simms.

(2) Observation of Venus Transit: On 4 December 1874 McVean successfully made official observation of the Venus Transit on Gotenyama in present of Sanjo Sanetomi, Ito Hirobumi, etc.[15].

(3) Meteorology: Each of the numbers of Mr. McVean's publication gave the tri-daily observations of the various meteorological elements for five days, beginning with 2 December 1875[16].

4. Discard

The Public Works released the Survey Office to newly founded Home Office (Naimu sho) in January 1874. The minister Toshimichi Ookubo had negative idea for appointment of foreign officers and discarded high ranking foreign officers including McVean, Richard Henry Brunton (Lighthouse) and Murray Day (Hokaido Development Agency) in 1876.

5. Life in Tokyo

(1) John Francis Campbell visited: Campbell of Isley was a friends of Reverend Donald McVean, and stayed at McVean's residence of Tokyo in November 1874[17]. McVean took Campbell to several places around Tokyo including Nikko. Campbell walked along Nakasendō Post-way through Lake Suwa and Lake Biwa toward Kyoto for 2 months, and left Japan from Kobe to next destination[18].

(2) Sending Bird Skins to Henry Eeles Dresser: Dresser got interested in McVean's research on "On the Ornithology of Yedo (Tokyo)", asked McVean to send bird skins to London[19][20].

Back Home and RetirementEdit

After worked at several place as engineer, in 1885 McVean settled down at Scotland. He rented residence of Duke of Argyll at Kilmore, Isle of Mull, and retired there with his family. The McVeans took care of his grand children including Colin McVean Gubbins.

When the McVeans were living in Edinburgh in 1877-1878, they met Isabella Bird quit frequently. Bird got interested in visiting to Japan, but hesitated travelling alone. McVean introduced Bird his wide circle of acquaintances in Japan so that she could make safe journey[21].

For 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition, McVean lent his collection of Japanese arts more than 1,000 items to the Kelvingrove Museum[22].

Social LifeEdit

1. Royal Physical Society in Edinburgh, 1873. "On the Ornithology of Yedo" read in 1874 Annual Meeting of Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh.

2. Scottish Meteorological Society, 1873.

3. Royal Company of Archers, Queen’s Body Guard for Scotland, 1873.

4. Royal Geographical Society, 1874.


  • 1. Colin Alexander McVean, Celtic Monthly, 24 December 1898.
  • 2. Little Journal, Griffis' Collection, Rutgers University, 1908.
  • 3. McVean Archives, National Library of Scotland.
  • 4. McVean Website
  • 5. Olive Checkland, Japan and Britain After 18590Creating Cultural Bridges, 1989, ISBN 0-333-48346-4.
  • 6. Hugh Cortazzi and Gordon Daniels ed., Britain and Japan 1859-1991, 1991, ISBN 0-415-05966-6.


  1. ^ Hideo Izumida, Reconsideration of Commencement of Engineering Education under the Ministry of Public Works in Meiji Japan, Journal of Architectural Institute of Japan, February 2016, Vol.81-No.720, pp.477-487.
  2. ^ Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1876-77, pp.152-153.
  3. ^ He was a French-born surveyor and cartographer, who was hired by the Admiralty in c. 1845, Japan's Home Office in 1874-1877, and then the Royal Geographical Society. Refer to, Martin Daunton: the Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain, 2005, p.326.
  4. ^ Archive# G220:4/44, the Royal Greenwich Museum.
  5. ^ Hideo Izumida: Reconsideration of Foundation of Ministry of Public Works, Transaction of Japan Institution of Architecture, 2016.
  6. ^ Colin Brown was Euing Lecturer of the Andersonian College. He compiled "The Songs of Scotland (1873)" with J. Pittman.
  7. ^ James Oswald Dykes, Memorials of Hugh M Matheson, 1899, p.30, pp.205-206.
  8. ^ McVean Diary May 14, 1872
  9. ^ He was the second son of Thomas Rymer Jone, an eminent naturalist and professor in Kings's College. His brother, Thomas Manson was also civil engineer. Refer to Thomas Manson's Obituary (Transaction of Institute of Civil Engineers 1894.
  10. ^ McVean Diary January 1, 1872.
  11. ^ McVean Diary April 21, 1872.
  12. ^ Obituary: Cosmo Innes, Transaction of Institute of Civil Engineers 1887. Cosmo Innes was the youngest son of the well-known Cosmo Innes, Advocate, and Professor of History at Edinburgh University.
  13. ^ "Report from the Scottish Meteorological Society on Application of Japanese Government," The Nature. February 26, 1874.
  14. ^
  15. ^ The Far East: Venus Transit, January 4, 1875.
  16. ^ Meteorology in Japan, Nature volume 14, 1876, pp.295–296. "Contribution of C.A. McVean on Japan's Meteorology" by Captain Tizard, Report to Meteorological Council, 1875.
  17. ^ McVean Diary December 1874.
  18. ^ Letter from J. F. Campbell of Islay to the Duke of Argyll -date unknown 1878. If you have the means will you let folks in Mull know that I am greatly obliged to Colin McVean head of the topographical survey department here - He is flourishing as also wife & child - he lodged me at Yeddo & went a ten days trip 90 miles with me to Nikko. We jabbered Gaelic a good deal & fraternised much. We fed on porridge for breakfast & toddy before bed Through him I got to know many pleasant people in Yeddo & had a good time.
  19. ^ McVean Diary, March 25, 1875
  20. ^ Henry A. McGhie, Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, Books and Business, 2017, p.332
  21. ^ McVean Diary 1877 & 1878. Isabella Bird's Letter to McVean dated Feb 24/78, 7 Atholl Crescent Edinburgh
  22. ^ Kelvingrove museum - Japanese Art - Property of C.A. McVean, McVean Archives.