It is well known that Scots played crucial roles maintaining the British empire. This extended even to Java. The British ruled there for a short time from 1811-1816. The invasion of Java was arranged by Lord Minto of Roxburghshire, then Governor-General of India. Minto wanted the Dutch colonies in the Netherlands East Indies for the British empire. He appointed Stamford Raffles as lieutenant governor (Raffles later moved on to create the port at Singapore).

Raffles was a keen antiquarian and fascinated by Javanese culture. He had his chief engineer, Colin Mackenzie from Stornoway, survey the island and purloin objects that would delight western colonial orientalists. On Raffles’ orders, Mackenzie sent two large 10th and 11th century stone inscriptions to Minto as thank you gifts for appointing him governor. One stone ended up in Kolkata, the other on the Minto estate in the Scottish borders, where it still stands.

The Minto Stone, or Prasasti Sangguran, is nearly three tons, the height of a person, and is inscribed with ancient Javanese writing. The inscription is a crucial historical document from a period in Indonesian history that is still not very well understood. Because of this, the stone is considered a national treasure in Indonesia. A replica is currently being worshipped in East Java, where the stone was originally taken from. A repatriation campaign has been ongoing since 2003 between Indonesian stakeholders and the Minto estate.

To address the linked and often uncomfortable colonial histories of Scotland and Indonesia, we are making new translations and interpretations of the stones. My colleague Bagus Muljadi from the University of Nottingham and I have assembled a team of scholars from the University of Glasgow and internationally from Indonesia, the USA, and Australia to create a new understanding of the 10th century in Indonesia. We are looking at ancient concepts of empire and borders and how they persist and changed into the present. The stones also have much to tell us about early modern Javanese ideas about environmental disaster and catastrophe.

These collaborations are a form of bottom-up scientific diplomacy. We hope they will enable the restitution of the stones. We feel that the repatriation of the Sangguran is vital to Indonesia’s postcolonial development. Our cutting-edge research partnership is part of Indonesia’s ambition to be an emerging knowledge-based economy on the global stage. The research and repatriation campaign are ways to address historic legacies while forging new collaborations and exchanges between Scotland and Indonesia. In a post-Brexit Britain, a strong partner in Southeast Asia is vital. The repatriation of the Sangguran inscription could be an excellent gesture of goodwill that could strengthen Scotland’s geopolitical role in the region.

Muljadi and I have organised an international conference about the stone inscriptions today (September 18) at the University of Glasgow’s Mazumdar-Shaw Advanced Research Centre. Representatives will attend from the Indonesian government and from the town of Batu, east Java, where the stone was taken from. Scholars from around the world will also converge to discuss the state of the art of scholarship on the stones. The day-long conference is open to the public. Our hope is that collectively thinking about the Sangguran will be a step to redressing ancient injustices while forging new collaborations.

Dr Adam Bobbette is a Lecturer in Political Geology at the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical & Earth Sciences