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Ivory exhibition

Money Can’t Own Ivory, Only Elephants Can

Exploration of the Brodie family in India through ivory objects on display at Brodie Castle

Elephant ivory has fundamentally shaped societies, cultures and economies throughout human history. As a material product, it represents the commodification of one of the most iconic and loved animals on Earth. This makes ivory an extremely complicated subject, at times intensely controversial and often highly emotive.

This exhibition provides a small glimpse into the complex world of ivory. It focuses on the Brodie family in India, illustrating how and why demand for ivory in the West came about.

Like many wealthy British families, and especially those who had lived in the East, the Brodie family acquired many items made of, or embellished with, ivory. These included functional objects like fans, fly whisks and paper knives, all of which were transformed into highly decorative pieces through the carving of the ivory. The faces of those who owned these pieces are brought to life in a series of finely painted miniatures. Ivory was discovered as an ideal surface for portrait miniatures around 1700. Before that, they had been painted on vellum (calf skin). Initially used in Venice, one of the major ports where Asian goods were imported, ivory quickly gained popularity across Europe.

Highlighting our ivory items, we hope to provide you with a route to thinking about the different values put on ivory in the past, and how we can think about future elephant conservation practices that target ivory consumers.

An illustration on yellow paper of a man riding an elephant.
A tinted drawing of a Mughal prince riding an elephant, Mughal School, Northern India, 18th-early 19th century

The Brodies and India

The first of the Brodie family to go to India was Alexander Brodie, a younger brother of James, 21st Brodie of Brodie. He returned from India around 1783, having made a fortune. He had risen quickly through the ranks of the East India Company in Madras (Chennai) and then in Vellore, managing supplies and sales, and had made huge profits. He became a Member of Parliament and, on 15 March 1796, voted against the abolition of the slave trade.

Alexander’s only daughter Elizabeth became the 5th and last Duchess of Gordon. It was said that she was able to make this marriage match due to her dowry of £100,000 and the prospect of inheriting a similar amount. Elizabeth did not have children and she bequeathed her possessions back to the family at Brodie Castle. These included numerous Indian objects, many either made of, or incorporating, ivory.

The success of Alexander Brodie in India is very likely to have resulted in the decision for both sons of his older brother James to relocate to India. This ended badly when James’s son and heir (also James) drowned in a boating accident off Madras. He left a widow, Ann Storey, and seven children, all of whom were born in India, between 1795 and 1803.

Sailing home to England, Ann met her second husband: East India Company Officer, Thomas Bowser (1749–1833). Bowser was one of the officers who received finials from the famed throne of Sultan Tipu Sultan following the fall of Seringapatam in 1799 and the subsequent murder of the Sultan by British troops.

Upon return to Britain, the Brodie family maintained a social circle of people connected to India and the British Armed Forces. Their aunt Charlotte had married Matthew Keith MacAlister of Glenbarr, a Colonel in the Honourable East India Company Service.

Ivory in Trust collections

Many of our properties have collections of ivory objects, with notable collections at Crathes Castle, Hill of Tarvit Mansion and Newhailes House. One of the most striking pieces in the Trust’s ivory collections is a huge ivory elephant tusk on display at Fyvie Castle. Weighing 65 lbs, the tusk is the epitome of a trophy piece, a powerful symbol of colonial prowess and personal achievement. It was presented to Lord and Lady Leith of Fyvie Castle by Lieutenant Colonel A D Milne of the East African Medical Service, Kenya.

The National Trust for Scotland’s exhibition, Money Can’t Own Ivory, Only Elephants Can, does not look to celebrate ivory, but hopes to encourage visitors to engage with the historic and contemporary issues around the material and its trade, through the story of the Brodie family and their connections to India.

This exhibition was inspired by conservation social scientist Molly Brown, PhD Student at the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, University of York. Her work draws on sources from across the UK, Africa and Asia to highlight the role that demand has played in forming our values towards ivory and elephants.

Read more about Molly’s research

You can visit the exhibition during Brodie Castle’s opening hours. Lasting around 55 minutes, tours are led by one of our trained guides and take in the main rooms, covering the history of the Brodie family.

Book your tour online in advance