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Mini Biographies of Scots and Scots Descendants (F)
Findlay of Boturich


A story of fortune and misfortune
"Interview by Sarah Powell"

Fortis in arduis (strong in adversity) is a particularly appropriate motto for the Findlays of Boturich, a family which has, at times, enjoyed great wealth but at others suffered considerable losses, more than once as a consequence of historic accidents of fate. Today, Robert Findlay, 8th of Boturich, Dunbartonshire, the eldest Findlay male and the family historian, humorously describes his own family as "stranded gentry" – a delightfully evocative term.

With the help of the family Red Book or Leabhar dearg, Robert Findlay has traced his family line back to one Findla (or Findlay) Mhor, a giant of a man with great strength who, bearing the royal banner, was killed at the battle of Pinkie in 1547. According to the 1849 edition of Burke's Landed Gentry, Findla Mhor "was buried in the churchyard of Inveresk, at a short distance from the field of battle. No monument was erected to his memory, but the place was long known in that parish by the name of the Long Highlandman's Grave"…

"In those days", notes Robert, "Scotland was not a wealthy land and for most it was enough to subsist from the fruits of soil or sea. This imposed severe limitations on enterprise; foreign trade was almost non-existent. Any spare taxable wealth was usually needed to pay, or fight, the English."

By the seventeenth century, the Findlays had become prosperous merchants in Kilmarnock, a somewhat restricted activity geographically at that time because the Scots were effectively barred from trading with the English colonies. Hence the Act of Union in 1707 gave a considerable fillip to the family fortunes. Robert Findlay explains that "the union of the parliaments of Edinburgh and Westminster was strongly debated and opposed at the time. But soon after this, the new Edinburgh arose to be called the Athens of the North, while Glasgow's new trade brought previously undreamed-of wealth flowing into the country as adventurous Scots were suddenly able to compete on equal terms with English traders under the powerful protection of the Royal Navy.

"The entrepreneurial younger sons of the Scottish gentry, who were not constrained by the duty of looking after family estates, sailed away to set up trading ventures with the colonies, making their names as Virginia merchants and in the Caribbean, and then as East India merchants and in other far-flung destinations including South America and China. While, in those days, such ventures often meant long and arduous sea journeys, fraught with dangers, the potential prizes were irresistible."

Colonial adventures

The Findlays initially turned their sights westwards, towards America.

A view of 42 Miller Street which was bought by Robert Findlay, Virginia Merchant in 1782.  In 1996 the house was restored by the Scottish Civic Trust. Sixteen-year-old Robert Findlay sailed for six weeks across the Atlantic in 1764, to join two uncles in Virginia. When he returned home, having amassed a considerable fortune, he bought a town house at 42 Miller Street in Glasgow, then one of the best houses in the merchant city, where his son, also named Robert, was born. He also bought a country house called Easterhill, a few miles up the Clyde, which from 1784 to 1895 was a Findlay home. Today, sadly, it no longer exists. The house at 42 Miller Street continued its existence as a townhouse and has recently been restored to its original state as a typical tobacco merchant's house of the time.

The revolt of the colonists and the American Declaration of Independence led to ruin for many wealthy Glasgow citizens, but not all... One of Robert Findlay's uncles cannily "did the rounds" of the ruined merchants, buying their Glasgow tobacco stocks from them at double the original cost. The merchants were happy at this, until the market price soared well past that level – with supplies no longer available. The fortunate speculator built himself a magnificent mansion house, said to be the finest in the land at the time. This house still stands today inside the front part of Glasgow's Royal Exchange.

The Findlay family then turned its sights eastwards, becoming timber merchants in Burma, and establishing trading posts in Manila in the Philippines. Little is known about the business in the Philippines, although trading continued until shortly after the First World War.

Elephants stacking teak in the T D Findlay & Son yard in Moulmein (Burma) around 1900.The Burma operation, T D Findlay and Son Ltd, East India Merchants, was set up in 1839, being founded by and named after the current Robert Findlay's great-grandfather. "It was a private family company, the smallest of the five British teak firms in Burma", explains Robert, "but when it was nationalised in 1948, it was Britain's oldest existing trading connection with Burma. The company felled trees in the Shan States and the Pegu Yomas, after ringing them to dry out on stump for a few years. To ensure future supplies, for every tree felled, five saplings were planted.

"A couple of hundred contractors' elephants then dragged the logs to the nearest floating stream to await the rains which would carry them to the main river. Here they were turned into rafts large enough to carry a whole family downstream to a railhead or to the base in Moulmein where the logs were sawn into saleable products, latterly including fine tongue-and-groove parquet flooring.

"But T D Findlay's finest achievement was the creation of the Irrawaddy Flotilla, a fleet of over 600 shallow draught ships, built in Dumbarton by T D Findlay's co-founder Peter Denny, whose statue still stands in that town. The ships were specifically designed to navigate the Irrawaddy and they became the lifeblood of the nation's prosperity, ensuring trade up and down the great rivers, and aiding Burma's transformation into the rice-bowl of Asia."

An artist's impression of one of the shallow draught ships of the Irrawaddy Flotilla, which were built in Dumbarton for T D Findlay & Son by the company's co-founder Peter Denny.But this exotic industry was to come to an abrupt end when the Japanese invaded Burma in November 1941. The company scuttled its flotilla to prevent it falling into the hands of the Japanese, "and this action", notes Robert Findlay, "brought Burmese trade and transport to a standstill. The flotilla had been the greatest-ever fleet for river transport in the world. The teak business paid off its employees, and dispensed with the elephants. In 1945, following the liberation of Burma by the 14th Army, the family endeavoured to build up the Burma business once again, only to see it nationalised by the new, independent Burmese government in 1948" – a catastrophe for the Findlay family which saw its capital decimated.

Life at Boturich

Going back just over a century, in 1839 the then Robert Findlay purchased the Boturich estate in Dunbartonshire from the executors of his maternal grandfather's estate. At his early death, the Boturich estate passed to his father, who was also called Robert. The Easterhill estate, just east of old Glasgow, on the banks of the Clyde, was at that time inhabited by a junior branch of the family. The father of the current Robert Findlay was a member of this junior branch and, in 1930, he acquired Boturich and established his family home there, bringing family pictures and furniture that were formerly in Easterhill. He also substantially restored and extended Boturich.

The current Robert Findlay was born a decade or so before these events, latterly growing up at Boturich with a brother and three stepbrothers. His mother had died when he was five and his father married again. He was a teenager when war broke out: "I was doing my school certificate at Harrow when the war began," he explains, "and we spent hours between exams digging trenches across the rugger fields to stop gliders landing. Harrow also had its share of firebombs.

Robert Findlay on leave from the depot in Quetta (Baluchistan, India as it was then), fishing in Kashmir."I spent the first winter after leaving school as an apprentice chartered accountant in Glasgow and was called up in the spring of 1942 to the Black Watch depot in Perth. After a stint with the Officer Cadet Training Unit in Morecambe, I became a junior officer in the Indian Army and was shipped out to the 8th Gurkha depot in Quetta (now West Pakistan) and then on to the 4/8th Gurkha battalion which took me from Kohima in the north down to the Sittang bend in the south of Burma. En route I was wounded and evacuated, rejoining the battalion later.

"I was away from the UK for four years, journeying post-war to Bangkok, Malaya and Java. In early 1947, aged 23, I was demobilised. Like most British officers, I was full of admiration for the Gurkhas and it was with heavy heart that I left my men when I returned home. Today I still feel a warm glow when I look back on my former life as a Gurkha BO [British officer] – distance lends enchantment to the memories.

"In Glasgow I completed my chartered accountancy qualifications and, while doing so, became involved in several other enterprises, including acting as shore manager for Gavin Maxwell's shark fisheries, and helping to install Great Britain's first overhead ski tow, at Glencoe.

an artist's impression of Boturich - end 19th/early 20th century"All along, I had intended to join my father in the family business, but only did so to complete its winding-up after my father died in 1950. Subsequently I worked in various industries, ranging from nuts and bolts and railway engines to biscuits, before setting up my own shop-fitting business on Clydeside.

"During this time I felt constrained to stay within reach of Boturich. In 1957 my stepmother gave up the life-rent of the estate and, with a bachelor brother, I took it over. We had some splendid parties there, benefiting from the tennis court and the boat on Loch Lomond, which bounded the estate along its western shoreline, and organising bonfires and shotgun weekends! Latterly there was water-skiing to keep our parties busy. I also managed to dance on most of the main ballroom floors of Scotland, from Skye to the Borders, and enjoyed a week's stalking in Mull every autumn (having once captained the Harrow VIII, I fancied myself as a shot). All this was fitted in between the daily drive to 'the office', wherever that happened to be.

"Marriage came when I was 41 and Liisa joined me from her home in Finland, where I had met her on a forestry visit. We married in 1964 and the next ten years totally changed my life by adding three more to Boturich's resident family: a boy followed by two girls, all of whom are now grown up and, with their spouses, a great joy to us."

A new life at Knockour

"We all had fun living in the parts of Boturich we needed. But, in 1984, Lisa and I were forced to sell up and leave 'the big hoose' and its home fields. We had been fortunate to stay so long, but the situation we faced was very different from that experienced by my father when he moved there in 1930. We did not enjoy Burmese business support and heavy marginal taxation was throttling the growth of business enterprises. We were also faced with heavy death duties on the death of my father.

Robert and Liisa Findlay's Scandia-hus, built on the site of the old kennels."Consequently, we sold Boturich and its nearby fields and built ourselves a special kithouse called a Scandia-hus where the kennels had stood and from where we enjoy unrivalled views down to the loch and the hills behind. Our house arrived on three long lorries despatched from the Swedish factory, ready to erect. Complete it looks remarkably like an old style building – in stone with lath and plaster internal walls. The differences are its plus points: no draughts, thick insulation, triple glazing throughout, and attractive architectural design.

A view looking north from Knockour showing Knockour Wood below the house along the shore of Loch Lomond with Ben Lomond in the distance."My wife has made it our ideal home and is delighted by the change. I confess mainly to a feeling of relief at extracting myself and my family from an untenable position and leaving a house that I had grown to love for other, better-endowed hands to care for.

"In 1960 I had become an underwriter at Lloyd's. We were not long into our new abode in the 1980s when the Lloyd's disaster struck, and for a time we faced bankruptcy as half a million in losses drained any liquid reserves. Fortunately we then enjoyed three splendid years before pulling out of Lloyd's at the end of 1996, in relief, sadder and poorer but possibly wiser.

"We still maintained most of the former estate's 1000 acres, and especially Knockour Wood along the shore and Knockour Hill which rises to some 650 feet in the centre. These gave the local name to our new house. Now it is to Knockour estate, rather than to Boturich estate, that I devote my time and interest. I am its 'caretaker' in many ways, from the annual grazings to the planting and felling, the care of roads, drains, fences and water supplies, and the accounting of costs among the community of owners who bought the cottages and use the roads.

"I loved my young days planting up the woods here, but I never thought I'd be reaping them too. Near sea level in the mild, wet West of Scotland, they grow fast. Within the estate's Woodland Grant Scheme, some field areas have been turned over to Nordman Christmas Trees; elsewhere, the land is providing sites for masts to serve mobile telephony – all this helps the land pay its way. We are soon to gain a mains water supply, as we did electricity a few years ago, replacing the countryside's current 'DIY' arrangements.

"Today I would describe the Boturich estate as an owner-occupier neighbourhood of road-sharing, minor capitalists who enjoy the countryside quiet and neighbourhood security – a practical and happy solution to many needs, ours and theirs. I'm unexpectedly approaching my eighties, but not yet allowed 'off-duty'. And reliving our family history for Burke's Landed Gentry is helping to keep me out of mischief."

The Findlay family in June 2000 at the wedding at Knockour of Anne,
The Findlay family in June 2000 at the wedding at Knockour of Anne, youngest daughter of Robert and Liisa, to Niall Jenkins. From left to right: middle daughter Alex, Robert, Liisa in Finnish costume, Anne and Niall, Liisa's 93-year old mother, Mrs Ahtiala, from Helsinki, Rob Findlay and his then fiancée Aoife (they married in Tipperary in December 2000).

Our thanks to Burkes Landed Gentry for this story


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