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Scots in Sweden
Scots in Sweden, by Jonas Berg and Bo Lagercrantz
Nineteenth Century


At the beginning of the century there was, as has already been mentioned, a large Scottish colony in Gothenburg. This now grew still larger, as the pattern of trade changed.

The coalition wars of 1806-12 were followed by the Continental blockade, which provided businessmen in Gothenburg with a unique opportunity to make their fortunes. Sweden was outside the blockade, and Gothenburg was a suitable port for trans-shipment. This was accompanied by a peculiar development of prices, as when the price of foodstuffs, for instance, soared as the result of purchases by the British Navy, which lay off Gothenburg. This situation attracted many enterprising young Scots. Many of those who had made a fortune were, however, hard hit by the depression that followed around 1815, and many firms went bankrupt.

When business conditions steadied once more, in the early 1820’s, it was found that the city offered rich opportunities for business also under normal conditions. Business men became aware as never before of the great natural resources of Sweden.

The stevedore's gang in Gothenburg
The stevedore's gang in Gothenburg had the exclusive rights to all transports
inside the harbour.  Detail of engraving by Elias Martin's school, around 1780.

Exports of pig iron via Gothenburg rose steeply at this time, in step with the increasing production in Värmland. Scandinavian timber exports to Britain had previously been mainly from Norway, where the Ostlandet forests, conveniently situated near the coast, had been exploited. Now, in spite of the difficulty of transport, the Swedish forests also began to be exploited. Business in Gothenburg flourished.

Timber from Värmland was soon being shipped abroad via Lake Vaner and the Trollhätte Canal, which had been built in 1800 to join the lake with the sea. The leading figures in this development were Robert and James Dickson, from Kelso and Montrose, who settled in Gothenburg in the early 19th century. Their firm, James Dickson and Co., was one of the largest merchant houses in Gothenburg, rivalling even David Carnegie and Co., and having as its main area of operations the factories, sawmills and forests of Värmland. With a merchant fleet that was for some time the largest in Sweden they exported Swedish iron and timber, working in cooperation with the eldest brother Peter, who managed the London firm of Dickson Bros. Return cargoes were made up of colonial goods, which were in great demand in Sweden.

The most outstanding period in the history of the firm was just before and during the Crimean War, when the Dicksons also shifted the emphasis of their operations from Värmland to the rich forests of Norrland, at the northern end of the Baltic. The firm’s local manager in Norrland was James Robertson Dickson, who built loading stations on one river after another, and organised timber-ways down which the timber was floated to the great water saws on the coast.

James Jameson Dickson and Oscar Dickson (who was created baron by Oscar II) were among the great Swedish philanthropists in the late 19th century, and they made donations not only to Gothenburg but to a variety of scientific institutions, including the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm. Both Adolf Eric Nordenskiöld, the famous Arctic explorer, and Artur Hazelius, who founded the Nordiska Museet, benefited from their generosity.

William Gibson (1783-1857) was one of the most outstanding members of the Scottish colony in Gothenburg in the early 19th century. Born in Arbroath, where his father was a sailmaker and shipowner, he left Scotland for Gothenburg at the age of 14, and was employed in an ironmonger’s. By the age of 23 he was able to open his own business, and like many others he made a fortune out of timber and iron exports during the Continental blockade. The depression in 1815 hit him very hard, and for a number of years afterwards he seems to have tried his hand in building and construction. In the early 1820’s, however, he began, following his father, to specialise in rope-making and sail-making. In 1834 he moved his factory from Gothenburg out to Jonsered, east of the city, and here he and his friend and partner, Alexander Keiller, built up, with the help of Scottish and English workmen, the highly modern factory that soon dominated the entire Scandinavian market. A foundry was added and in the 1850’s an engineering shop that produced agricultural machinery. A cotton spinning mill and a weaving mill were also added around this period.

After the death of William Gibson, the management of the Jonseredfabriken was taken over by his son William (1816-65), who developed the engineering shop in particular, and with great success started to manufacture timber processing machines, which came to be of great importance for the Swedish timber industry. The latter’s son, William Gibson III (1848-1917), successfully carried on the proud traditions of the firm, and still further expanded its production programme.

Alexander Keiller (1804-74) was a technician of outstanding versatility. Born in Dundee, he came to Gothenburg in 1826 and became William Gibson’s partner and colleague, helping to build up the great enterprise at Jonsered. After the two friends had separated, in 1839, he founded a mechanical engineering shop that soon became one of the largest in Sweden. He also founded a shipyard, and was active as a wholesale dealer. He turned his hand also to mining.

The inner harbour of Gothenburg
The inner harbour of Gothenburg.  Detail of engraving by Elias Martin's
school, around 1780.

During the 1860s Alexander Keiller ran into financial difficulties, but succeeded finally in consolidating his position. Of his many concerns, the shipyard in particular grew – under the name of Gotaverken – to be one of the largest in Scandinavia. This was largely due to the work of his sons Alexander and James Keiller.

Free Churchmen

Absolute monarchy was buried in Sweden with Charles XII. A few months after his death in 1718 a new constitution was accepted, which gave the Riksdag strongly increased powers, at the expense of the monarch. The era in Swedish history known as the "Age of Freedom" had begun. As yet, however, this was far from being a religious and spiritual freedom. And the grip of the Lutheran State Church on the Swedish people had not been weakened.

Pietism was at this time winning more and more adherents. Characteristically enough it had won great ground among the comparatively few of Charles XII’s many officers who had returned to Sweden after often more than ten years as prisoners-of-war in Russia. Without hesitation, however, the Lutheran priesthood tried to suppress Pietism. By the Conventicle Edict of 1726 religious meetings of "known and unknown, few or more" in private houses were forbidden. The aim was to preserve unity of religion, but unfortunately by this edict laymen were excluded from all church activities.

The result of this blow was that Pietism developed in an increasingly radical direction. The Conventicle Edict was to keep many Swedish tempers boiling, and the victory of freedom on this particular frontier was only to come into sight 130 years later. Its champions at this time found inspiration to a great extent in Scotland, whose Free Church was described by one of them as "a lantern in the hills, a brilliant light for all Protestants, in the beam of which they can see and behold the glory and power of Jesus Christ, His grace and mercy, Who still today confirms his Word, and does not allow Himself to be without witness."

At an early stage of the struggle two Scottish zealots crossed the North Sea to help their fellow Free Churchmen. The first one to come was missionary John Paterson, in 1807 sent by the Religious Tract Society in London, to work for the spreading of spiritual writing in Sweden. On his initiative, the Evangelical Society was founded to work to this end in 1808 and a few years later also the Swedish Bible Society.

In 1830 there came to Sweden the Methodist preacher George Scott, whose twelve years stay in Sweden coincided with a very flourishing period for the Swedish revivalist movement. His main object in coming was the cure of souls among his countrymen in Stockholm, but he soon established intimate contacts with Swedish Free Churchmen. During his journeys to England and the United States he collected money for their support. He met stubborn resistance from the Lutheran priesthood and from certain political circles, and once his life was actually threatened during a service.

A third Scot who was of great help in the Swedish Free Church movement was James Lumsden, a Professor of Aberdeen University. After a visit to Sweden in the 1850s he published his book Sweden—Its Religious State and Prospects: with some Notices of the Revivals and Persecutions which are at Present taking place in that Country. For the rest of his days he maintained a lively correspondence with his Swedish friends, helped them financially, and contributed many articles to Swedish religious publications. In 1852 he wrote expressing his pleasure that people in Sweden had at last become conscious of the fact that basic principles of religious freedom had been expressly stated in § 16 of the Swedish constitutional reform of 1809.

It was along this line that the long struggle for freedom at last began to give result. In 1865 James Lumsden’s closest friend in Sweden, Hans Jacob Lundberg, founded Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen, the Swedish Evangelical Foundation, which became the leading organ of the revivalist movement. Two years later the hated Conventicle Edict was rescinded, and practically complete religious freedom had become a fact.

The founder of the Swedish Salvation Army, Hanna Ouchterlony, was also of Scottish origin, one of her ancestors having immigrated in the middle of the 18th century. After establishing herself as a bookseller in a small town in Southern Sweden in the early 1870’s, when the emancipation of women was still in its early stages in Sweden, she underwent a religious crisis that brought her into contact with Bramwell Booth. In 1882 she was appointed by William Booth to be pioneer of the Salvation Army in Sweden, and thanks to her outstanding talent for organisation it rapidly established a foothold in this country. In 1888 she established the movement also in Norway, and was later active at the Salvation Army headquarters in London.

The Thorburn Family

The Thorburn family stem from the county of Roxburgh in south Scotland. William Thorburn moved from there to Leith, and became a wholesale dealer in tea. He lived 1756-1844, and had numerous children including William and James.

James Thorburn emigrated to Gothenburg, where he attained burgership as a wholesale merchant in 1819. Together with a countryman, William Brodie, he ran the wholesale firm of Brodie and Thorburn. After some years in Sweden he ran into financial difficulties, and his elder brother William was sent over, in 1822, to clear things up.

William Thorburn, 1780-1851, visited Norway on his way home from Gothenburg in 1822 and attracted by the scenery bought the estate of Kasen, outside Uddevalla, from the Kock family, for a barrel of gold. In the following year he moved, with his wife, Jessy Macfie Thorburn, and his four sons, and his daughter, to Kasen. It is possible that he had only intended to use his new estate as a summer residence, but he disagreed with his brother George over the business in Scotland and stayed in Sweden. To begin with he lived purely as rentier, but from 1825 he operated a shipping company with four ships that he had taken over when settling his brother’s affairs in Gothenburg. During the 1840’s he liquidated this business, which had brought him little but trouble.

He realised at an early stage the possibilities of Swedish oats as an export commodity, but it was really his sons who built up the family’s grain export firm. A contributory cause of his interest in agriculture may have been the marriage of his daughter in 1845 to a landowner, Edward Nonnen of Degeberg, an Englishman who was one of the great reformers of Swedish agriculture. Shortly before his death, William Thorburn was made an honorary member of the Skaraborg County Agricultural Society.

The two sons took over the business on their father’s death. William F. Thorburn was 31 and Robert M. Thorburn 23 in 1851. The firm came to play a dominant role in Swedish grain exports. These were only a temporary phenomenon in the Swedish economy, but during the decades that followed large quantities of oats were shipped to England. The two brothers had a sister who married another Scot, William A Macfie.

A vegetable-oil plant belonging to the firm in Uddevalla still exists. With two other Scots from Uddevalla, R.H. Jobson and William Andrew Macfie, William Franklin Thorburn (1820-1903) introduced into Sweden the sport of curling. Their curling club — founded in 1846 — later enjoyed the patronage of Oscar II, and played an important part in social life around Uddevalla. The game was played in furs and silk-hats, often to the accompaniment of music by the Regimental Band.


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