James Syme Lindsay

Royal Artillery

Photo courtesy
BC Archives
Call Number G-09709

James Syme Lindsay was born 28 August 1829, and baptized on St. Valentine's Day, 1830, at Kilconquhar, Fife, Scotland.

"Whispering Jimmy" on the Wagon Road  

Among the colourful figures who built and travelled the Cariboo Road was Sergeant James Lindsay of the Royal Engineers' Columbian Detachment.

Lindsay joined the Royal Artillery in 1846, days after his 18th birthday.  For many years he served the great guns of Gibraltar.  His lieutenant there remembered him as a 'lang-legget, keen-eyed Scot' whom he boxed regularly for exercise.

The Rock of Gibraltar

While on Gibraltar, Lindsay appears in "Gunner Jingo's Jubilee", the 1896 autobiography of Thomas Bland Strange.  

Just as the morning gun boomed at sunrise, the big Sergeant - Crawford Lindsay (sic) bursts into the room of the sub on duty calling: "Sir, there's a Spanish Guarda-costa chasing a Contra-bandista!  She has let drive at her already, the puir deevil has run up the Jack and is making straight for the Guard Battery.  Ye ken, sir, we perrmit no hosteelities in oor waters - so 'ave just lodded number one gun."

Jumping out of bed and scrambling into his uniform, the Lieutenant was quickly standing on the parapet of the battery with a telescope to his unwashed eye.  Sure enough, there they were, like two great sea-birds skimming along the waves, their tall lateen sails spread like white wings before the spanking breeze, dashing the foam from their bows.  The Guarda-costa could no longer fire her solitary bow gun, as the shot would have come direct for the British Battery.

The Lieutenant's sympathies as well as those of his Scotch Sergeant had gone out to the gallant little craft, smuggler though she was, that flew our flag.   Rather than surrender she had stood on, despite the chasing shot, and now, every reef shaken out, she staggered under her huge lateen sails.  She was rushing to destruction on the black rocks round which the sea foamed like an angry cauldron.  No time was to be lost.  A shot could not be fired to check the mad race, without risk of striking both -they were in exact line and close together- there was nothing for it but to shoot over their heads, letting the Spaniard know she was breaking the Law of Nations in carrying hostilities into neutral waters.

A word from the officer and the keen-eyed Scot had taken his line of sight and sent his iron message.  It fell beyond both and went dancing along in jets of spray, that rose in tiny fountains far away.  The strong breeze cleared away the smoke and seemed even to carry off the report, but it bore to the gunners the derisive shout of the crew of the Guarda-costa, who realized that the guns from their great height could not be depressed to strike.

The smuggler could not change her course without being boarded, but she managed to swing into a little cove, where she dropped her wings and lay in comparative safety.  Some of her crew scrambled onto a ledge of rock at the foot of the battery wall.  The Spaniard hove to, lowered her boat, and also pulled into the little cove, and proceeded to make prisoners of the smugglers.  The sub shouted in his best Spanish that this would not be permitted and the captors must consider themselves prisoners.  The jeering retort was: "Come and take us."

Calling for a rope, it was made fast to the muzzle of a gun, the guard were ordered to load with ball, and before they had realized the situation, the officer had slid down amongst the Spaniards, and was politely informing the Captain that he was a prisoner.  The answer was a volley of "puniateros" and "carajos" with an accompanying flourish of his sword.  The English officer had no sword, but he pointed to the levelled carbines of the gunners, who crowded the embrasures of the battery.

The Spanish Captain noted the grey eye of Crawford Lindsay behind the sight of his carbine, which was reduced in length to a round O.  He, therefore, became more polite, an understanding was arrived at -- the matter was to be referred without delay to the Governor of Gibraltar, and the Spaniard gave his parole that he would await the decision.  The honour of a Spaniard can always be trusted, be he peasant, robber, or Hidalgo.  The English officer ordered the withdrawal of the guard, and swarmed back up the rope.

His captain, when routed out of bed, was somewhat sleepily perplexed.  "Tut, tut!" he said, "what an awkward complication!  You are so impulsive, Jingo!  Sliding down a rope!  How unseemly for an officer in charge of the guard!"

But the orders were distinct and had been obeyed in a fashion, eccentric perhaps, but practical.  A messenger was dispatched to the Governor, and an order came for the release of the Spanish officer and a safe conduct for the Contra-bandista into Gibraltar Bay."

[The above action appears to have occurred in the first year Jingo was at Gibraltar, 1852.]

"Jingo had mastered Spanish with an occasional help from certain dark-eyed dictionaries, and the too ardent pursuit of knowledge was varied by bouts of boxing and single-stick with his sergeant, who had a drop of good blood in him, as his name and appearance implied.  Had the "lang-legget Scot" served under Louis XI instead of Victoria he might have been a Quentin Durward; as it was, he served his time as a sergeant, took his discharge, and became Sheriff or Head Constable in the rough early days of British Columbia, where Crawford Lindsay's heavy hand was too much for the rowdiest miner." 

[The reference to Quentin Durward is to a novel by Walter Scott, whose hero is a soldier of fortune from a family of impoverished Scottish nobility.]

[A note on why Strange may have called Lindsay - "Crawford Lindsay":

"Sir David Lindsay who was created Earl of Crawford in 1398...  In 1652, the title passed to a cadet branch first of Spynie, then of Balcarres, which was an earldom. Edzell Castle, Brechin, was acquired by the Crawford Lindsays, who built a new castle in the sixteenth the 18th century the lines of Crawford and Balcarres were united."

In short, the head of Clan Lindsay is the Earl of Crawford Balcarres.  So Strange may have been making a reference to Lindsay's supposed noble roots when he selected this pseudonym.]

In 1858, tired of garrison life, Lindsay volunteered for the 160-man force of Royal Engineers being sent to the booming colony of British Columbia.  Perhaps his decision was influenced by a desire to keep an eye on his sister, married to an Engineer of this same Detachment.  Corporal John McKenney was an Irishman whose fondness for drink may explain his eight appearances in the Regimental Defaulters' Book and his two Court-Martials.

Lindsay was a likeable but eccentric soldier.  While sailing from England, he "fished" for albatross with a line from the ship's deck.  In B.C., his good friend Sgt. McMurphy recalled sighting "a large Bear a little distance off today -- Lindsay started in pursuit but lost it -- his only weapon was an axe!"  He was also said to be a bit too fond of his drink.  In Barkerville, he is remembered as 'Whispering Jimmy' for his habit of gossiping when liquor loosened his tongue.

"...I think Serjeant Lindsay took charge of the packing outfit; he used to ride about on the smallest horse he could get, and as he was a very large man his feet nearly touched the ground and he was a sight, but always good natured when laughed at. "

-- Reminiscenses of Mrs. S. C. Alison.

New Westminster
12 November 1859


I am desired by Your Excellency to forwards further accounts without delay.  No exertion is wanting on my part to comply with your instructions.  I have written again and again for sundry outstanding Accounts and daily expect my repeated requests to be complied with.

I have at the same time to state that not only have I but one Accountant Clerk for the Accounts of the Lands and Works Department, (Civil and Military) -- but also for those of the Detachment (150 strong) of which he is the Pay Corporal, and which, as you know, at present much divided.

The same Clerk is the one that the Treasurer has applied for!  Captain Gosset could not have been aware of this circumstance.

I have every desire to meet his wishes and therefore, though of the greatest inconvenience to the duties and responsibilities resting on me, I spare Sergeant Lindsay RA to assist him for a short time in recasting the Accounts already sent in.  Captain Gosset mentions that a week will be sufficient and I must beg that Sergeant Lindsay be not detained beyond that time.

I have the honor to be,
Your most obedient,
Humble Servant,

RC Moody
Co. Comd.

Sgt. Lindsay's main task was inspecting work done by entrepreneurs who had contracted to build the roads so badly needed in the colony.  Lindsay's surviving reports show he was not an easy man to please.  "There are a quantity of stumps above the surface," sniffs one letter.  "I consider this to be only a good trail, but not a Waggon Road."


A new trail is to be cut from New Westminster to Semiahmoo, W.T.

-- 30th January, 1860
The British Colonist

The Cariboo Road in particular became very familiar to Whispering Jimmy.  In 1861 he likely led soldiers guarding the Gold Escort from Barkerville.  In 1863 the Engineers' commander, Col. Moody, sent him to resolve a dispute over the route the Road would follow north of Williams Lake.  One report even describes how Lindsay, transporting a prisoner, managed the 380-mile trip from Barkerville to Yale by horse and steamboat in an amazing 30 hours.

Lindsay received the Army Long Service and Good Conduct medal, and upon retirement from the army he became a policeman, and eventually Chief Constable of Cariboo.  For many years he was stationed at the Courthouse in Richfield which stands today.  He died in 1890, aged 62, and is buried at Barkerville at the end of the magnificent Road he helped to build.