"A Private Empire" by Stephen Foster charts in fine detail the story of five generations of a single family, the Macphersons of Blairgowrie, in Perthshire. Starting with Allan Macpherson, who lived from 1740 to 1816, many members of the family were assiduous letter writers and collectors of family papers, and the result is an extensive archive that preserves enough of the detail to allow a real insight to be gained into the lives and feelings of people living over the past two and a half centuries.
This may not so far sound like a strong recommendation for a book. But there are several important factors which ensure that "A Private Empire" is no ordinary family history of interest only to family members: factors which allow this excellent book to transcend the parochial and come to serve as a far reaching and fascinating story of the types of role played by many Scots in the wider history of Britain and, in particular, its Empire, over recent centuries.
The first of these factors has already been referred to: the sheer quantity of information that has survived about the lives of key members of the Macpherson family dating right back to the 1700s. The second is that this was, and still is, a family with very wide horizons. The first Allan Macpherson left Scotland as a private soldier to fight against the French in North America in the Seven Years' War. He later embarked on a career in the upper echelons of the East India Company, in effect helping govern the sub-continent and extend the hold of the British Empire there. His sons spent time in the West Indies and in New South Wales, before later generations of Macphersons consolidated their position in Australia. In short, this was not only a family with a large historical archive, it was also a family with some very interesting stories to tell that shed valuable light on the wider history of their times.
Add in the third factor, and the result is an enthralling read and an important piece of history. Author Stephen Foster is a historian based in Canberra, Australia and has written this book with the full cooperation of the family. What makes "A Private Empire" such an outstanding book is that here is a historian who can, and does, write in an accessible and engaging style that draws you into the stories of the family members and brings them to life as real, credible people. And it would be remiss not to mention, if only in passing, the unusually high quality of the presentation and production of every aspect of this book, from the layout and typeface to the illustrations.