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Splendour of the Scots Samurai

Judy Mackie visits the exotic home of the Aberdeen industrialist whose life is said to have inspired 'Madame Butterfly'

To say the north-east industrialist Thomas Blake Glover was big in Japan is to practise the ancient art of understatement. The Victorian pioneer was huge in Japan - and it is only recently that the folks back home have realised it.

The curator of the Aberdeen home of TB Glover's parents, John Liddell, well remembers the moment he realised the man's full impact.

"In 1995, I visited Nagasaki to find out how famous he really was in Japan. The first bus I saw carried an advert for Kirin lager - alleged to be the third most popular beer in the world - and there was Thomas Glover's face staring out at me from the poster. I knew then that, unlike his home region, Nagasaki still recognised his remarkable achievements."

Visitors to the stately Victorian house, which opened only last year, are stunned to discover the extent to which the son of a Fraserburgh coastguard helped to industrialise and modernise Japan. For not only did Glover found the Japan Brewing Company - makers of Kirin beer - he also introduced the first railway locomotive, mint, dry dock, mechanised coal mine and modern warships. What's more, he was a pivotal figure in the Mitsubishi empire and played a key role in the overthrow of the Shogun and restoration of the Emperor.

His life is claimed to have inspired the story and play on which Puccini based his opera Madame Butterfly. However, teachers introducing their classes to this extraordinary man may be relieved to hear that Mr Liddell omits to tell visiting school parties the lurid details of Glover's Japanese mistress, who attempted suicide when her relationship and son to Glover went unacknowledged.

Mr Liddell, who is secretary to the Grampian-Japan Trust which administers the house, has liaised with the local authority's urban studies centre to complement its practical support for environmental education by linking in to class projects on Victorian times. An education pack and website are planned and meanwhile he provides a platform for teachers to be proactive in exploring the house and its diverse contents. P> The walls of the ante-room, for example, are covered with framed Japanese embroideries of Eastern sealife (Glover's illegitimate son went on to introduce modern methods of fishing to Japan), and there is an opium-den opulence to the drawing room, with its blood-red decor and clutter of Japanese knick-knacks.

"My role is to promote the life and work of 'the Scottish Samurai' and I am happy for teachers to bring out the Victorian aspects of the place in any way they think suitable for their pupils," he says.

For Danestone Primary's visiting P5s this involves a hands-on guessing game about the use of the old-fashioned kitchen utensils and a discussion on the contrast between the comfortable master bedroom and the servants' room and the very different lives of their former occupants.

"The house is a fantastic resource and we're lucky to have it on our doorstep," says senior teacher Kathleen Craig.

Two rooms demonstrate the might of the man, who is believed to have bought the house as a retirement gift for his parents. One, just off the downstairs hallway, holds a beautifully crafted model of the modern-day Glover House in Nagasaki, the city's most popular tourist spot, attracting a yearly average of 1.8 million visitors.

The other, named the students' bedroom, contains a wonderful full-scale suit of Samurai armour, presented as a gift, as were many of the exquisite eastern artefacts, by the Mitsubishi Corporation. Surprisingly, it is not this which makes the room so special to many visitors, but the simple set of black and white photographs depicting groups of Japanese youths whom Glover smuggled out of their homeland during the 1860s to be educated in Britain, several lodging in his parents' house while they attended the local Chanonry School. One went on to found a well-respected Californian winery, while another, Hirobumi Ho, became Japan's first prime minister.

The Thomas Blake Glover House, 79 Balgownie Road, Aberdeen, AB22 8JS Tel 01224 709303.

email Open to school parties by arrangement. pound;1 per child; teachers and other accompanying adults free. The official tour takes about an hour.

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