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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XXVII - "The Tobacco Lords"

DOWN to the middle of the eighteenth century, the years 1750 and 1760, very few "self-contained" houses had been built in Glasgow. The ancient manses of the Cathedral canons about the Bishop's Castle, Rottenrow, and the Drygate had mostly fallen on evil days, ["The townhead remained a quiet semi-rural place from the Reformation of 1560 till the erection of the first city gasworks in 1823, inhabited by carters, cow-feeders, and weavers, in strange contrast to the ever-changing, commercial lower town."—Lugton's Old Ludgings of Glasgow, p. ii.] and the wealthy merchants of the city lived, like the aristocracy of Edinburgh till a much later date, in the flats of tenements in the Goosedubs, Briggate, and the Saltmarket. Among the families who lived in these quarters were the Campbells of Blythswood and their relatives, the Douglases of Mains : and the future Duchess of Douglas—a member of the latter family was one of the belles of Glasgow who led the dance at the assemblies in the great hall of the Merchants House in Briggate.

With the rise of wealth, however, came the desire for a more ceremonious style of living. Men who had travelled abroad, and had lived in London or Virginia or the West Indies, were no longer content with family meals in a bedroom and entertaining their guests in a tavern. Houses of more ambitious sort therefore began to be built along the Trongate westward. These mansions were of a style of architecture entirely different from that of the fifteenth and sixteenth century manses and other dwellings in the Townhead. Instead of crow-stepped gables and dormer windows, they had entablatures, urns, and balustraded roofs. [See Swan's Views and Stewart's Views and Notices.] According to Dr. J. O. Mitchell there were fifteen of these first rank Georgian mansions built between 1711 and 1780. Of that number only two are still standing in the twentieth century, the mansion of Allan Dreghorn of Ruchill, behind a furniture store in Clyde Street, and that of William Cunningham of Lainshaw, the tobacco magnate, embedded in the Royal Exchange.

The first, and for fifty years the finest, of these new houses was the Shawfield Mansion, already referred to, built by Daniel Campbell of Shawfield at the west end of Trongate in 1711. For more than forty years that mansion remained without a rival. About 1753, however, Provost Murdoch—he who accompanied his brother-in-law, Provost Andrew Cochrane, to London to recover the sum in which the city had been mulcted by the Jacobite army in 1745—built the mansion which stood opposite—at the east corner of Stockwell Street—till the end of the nineteenth century, and was for long the Buck's Head Inn. And next to it Colin Dunlop, Provost a few years later, built the substantial house which, with its tympanum front, formed a feature of the Trongate till well into the twentieth century. [Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 43 note.]

The extension of the city westward brought about the demolition of an ancient landmark. Of Glasgow's eight main " ports " or gateways which existed in 1574—the Stablegreen Port, the Gallowgate Port, the Trongate or West Port, the South or Water Port, the Rottenrow Port, the Greyfriars Port, the Drygate Port, and the Port beside the Castlegate [Glasgow and its Clubs, p. ii.] —the West Port had already been removed from the neighbourhood of the Tron to the head of the Stockwell. In 1751 it was ordered to be demolished altogether. [Burgh Records, 22nd Jan.]

The developments which followed, immediately to the westward, were owed to the civic aristocracy, whose fortunes were made out of the wonderful trade with Virginia, and who came to be known as the "tobacco lords." Of these some of the most notable individuals were the members of the Buchanan family. Their ancestor was George Buchanan, younger son of the laird of Gartacharan, near Drymen, who, to push his fortunes, came to Glasgow in the "killing times," fought for the Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge, and for a time had a price set upon his head. After the Revolution he appears as a prosperous maltster, visitor of the Maltmen, and deacon-convener of the Trades' House. His four sons all prospered. They were the founders of the Buchanan Society in 1725—George Buchanan of The Moss and Auchentoshan, Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier, Archibald Buchanan of Silverbanks or Auchentorlie, and Neil Buchanan of Hillington in Renfrewshire, M.P. for the Glasgow burghs. Of these the eldest was a maltman like his father, city treasurer in 1726, and a bailie in 1732, 1735, and 1738. He built himself a fine mansion on the north side of the Westergate, now Argyle Street—on the site occupied later by Messrs. Fraser & Son's warehouse—and he died, a wealthy merchant, in 1773. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 3. The Old Country Houses of the Glasgow Gentry, p. 186.] His son Andrew, again, born in 1725, built another mansion a little farther west, and on the four acres of land behind it planned the modern Buchanan Street. He was ruined and his plans were interrupted by the American War of Independence, but these were carried out by the trustees of his estate, one of whom was the celebrated Robin Carrick of the Ship Bank. The first house in the street, built about 1777, stood a little north of the site of the present Arcade, and was that occupied for many years by John Gordon of Aikenhead. The next was that of his brother Alexander—"Picture Gordon"—a fine mansion facing the site of the modern Gordon Street, which was the residence later of Henry Monteith of Carstairs. [Frazer's Making of Buchanan Street, p. 41.]

Meanwhile the second of the four brothers, Andrew of Drumpellier, born in 1690, had been among the first to take advantage of the opening Virginia trade. While still comparatively young he had five vessels at sea in that business. The double profits of the outward and inward trade enabled him, like others of his neighbours, to amass a large fortune in a few years. He was chosen Dean of Guild in 1728 and Provost in 1740 and 1741. It was he who in the former year was empowered to borrow £3000 from the Royal Bank for the purchase of meal to feed the poor of the city. When the Jacobite army invaded Glasgow in 1745, and its quarter-master, Hay, demanded £500 from him with the threat that, if he refused, his house would be plundered, his reply was, "Plunder away: I wont pay a single farthing!" Having purchased the country estate of Drumpellier, he proposed, like his friends Provost Murdoch and Colin Dunlop, to build a handsome city residence for himself, and to that end purchased a number of small properties, malt-kilns, and vegetable gardens extending from the Westergate to the Back Cow Loan. He cleared away the barns, byres, and malt-kilns on the ground, laid out a roadway, which he named Virginia Street, northward from the Wester-gate, and proceeded to sell plots for the building of mansion houses. The first of these plots, on the east side of the street, he disposed of in 1753 to his brother, Archibald Buchanan of Silverbanks or Auchentorlie, who built on it a handsome mansion with a short double stair in front in the style of the time. [Eleven years later the Silverbanks mansion was purchased by Sir Walter Maxwell of Pollok and the partners of the Thistle Bank, which occupied it for eighty years. On its site was afterwards built the ill-fated City of Glasgow Bank.—Glasghu Facies, ii. 1019.] Five years later the plot to the south of this, at the corner of the street, was acquired by the Highland Club, which built on

the spot the famous Black Bull Inn. But before Andrew Buchanan could bring his plans to fruition, death stilled his ambitions and he was laid in the Ramshorn kirkyard in 1759. The traffic of modern Ingram Street rumbles over the stout old Provost's dust. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, pp. 4, 6, 12, 15, 17. Glasgow Past and Present, p. 517.]

While Andrew Buchanan's elder son James inherited Drumpellier and was twice elected Provost of Glasgow—from his facial peculiarities he was known as "Provost Cheeks"—the younger son, George, became owner of the Glasgow property. Carrying out his father's plans he built on the northern end of his ground, next the Back Cow Loan, a handsome residence which eclipsed even its neighbour, the Shawfield Mansion, and was certainly the grandest house yet built by a Glasgow tobacco lord. The Virginia Mansion, as it was called, was indeed a splendid residence, with a gateway about the line of the present Wilson Street, porters' lodges on each side, and vineries and peach-houses against its garden walls. Already, before he was thirty, its owner had purchased the estate of Windyedge in Old Monkland, east of Glasgow, had laid out the grounds there with great taste, and had given it the name of Mount Vernon—which it still bears—in honour of his friend, George Washington, whose estate of that name neighboured his own in Virginia. He did not live long, however, to enjoy his great possessions. In July, 1762, he was carried from the Virginia Mansion to the family burial-place in the Ramshorn kirkyard, a few hundred yards away.

Meanwhile building plots in Virginia Street had been sold to other two of the great tobacco traders, John Bowman of Ashgrove, afterwards Provost of Glasgow, and Alexander Speirs, afterwards of Elderslie. The latter was an incomer from Edinburgh who had been attracted to the western city by the prospect of fortune in the Virginia trade. He purchased plots of ground on each side of Virginia Street, just outside the gates of the Virginia Mansion, built himself a house on the western side, and proceeded to ally himself with the merchant aristocracy of the city by marrying Mary, daughter of Archibald Buchanan of Auchentorlie. The lady's mother was a daughter of Provost Murdoch and niece of Provost Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier and Neil Buchanan of Hillington, M.P. for the Glasgow burghs. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, pp. 20 and 22. Glasghu Facies, ii. 1030.]

Alexander Speirs was one of the four young men, who started at one time in business, to whose talents and spirit Provost Cochrane attributed the sudden rise of Glasgow to trading opulence. The four, he said, had not io,000 among them when they began. They were William Cuninghame, afterwards of Lainshaw, Alexander Speirs of Elderslie, John Glassford of Dougalston, and James Ritchie of Busby. [Sir John Dalrymple, Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, appendix, quoted by Strang, Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 42.] Of the four, Speirs is the only one whose descendant retains his position and possessions at the present day. [Many of the personal possessions of the old tobacco lord, including his snuff-box and his tall gold-headed malacca cane, are preserved by his great-great-grandson, Mr. A. A. Hagart Speirs of Elderslie, at Houston House, his seat in Renfrewshire.] He prospered rapidly, was one of the founders of the Glasgow Arms Bank in 1750, and was the greatest of all the importers of tobacco. Of 90,000 hogsheads imported into Britain in 1772, 49,000 were imported by the merchants of Glasgow. Of these, Alexander Speirs & Co. imported 6035 hogsheads and John Glassford & Co. 4506. [Glasgow Past and Present, p. 521.] This business was conducted in a style befitting its importance. Among its chief customers were the Farmers-General of France, who on one occasion at any rate gave a single order for six thousand hogsheads. The orders of the Farmers-General were transmitted through Forbes's Bank, and Sir Charles Forbes describes how he and his partner, Mr. Herries, on one occasion journeyed from Edinburgh to Glasgow to adjust certain purchases. "As we went on a very agreeable errand," he says, "we were received with open arms, and entertained in the most sumptuous manner by the merchants during the time that we remained there." [Memoirs of a Banking House, p. 44.] For the purpose of such entertainments a handsome house was necessary. Accordingly in 1770 Speirs purchased the fine Virginia Mansion from the trustees of the late George Buchanan, of whom he was himself one. At the same time, with fortune on a rising tide, he set about the creation of a country estate. He bought a goodly number of the little properties of the bonnet lairds of Govan, and acquired the estate of Elderslie, the reputed birthplace of the Scottish patriot, Sir William Wallace, from the last of that family, Helen Wallace, wife of Archibald Campbell of Succoth and Garscube, with other lands—altogether some io,000 acres—in Renfrewshire. He had the whole consolidated into a barony under the name of Elderslie, holding of the Crown, and on the historic King's Inch, by the river side, built a stately mansion, to be known as Elderslie House. The mansion took five years to build, and late in 1782 Speirs established himself there with his family. Alas, before the year closed he was dead, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had accomplished his ambition and had founded a territorial house. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 21. Mitchell's Old Glasgow Essays, P. 315. The portraits of Alexander Speirs and his wife hang in the Merchants House.]

Rivalling Alexander Speirs in importance among the great tobacco traders was John Glassford of Whitehill and Dougalston. A native of Paisley, where his father was a merchant and magistrate, Glassford attained prosperity in the city while still a young man. In 1739, while only twenty-four, he rode to London in company with Andrew Thomson of Faskine, afterwards founder of the bank bearing his name. They rode their own horses, and were evidently men of means. [The difficulties of their journey are detailed in Dugald Bannatyne's notebook, quoted in Pagan's Glasgow in 1847, and in Cleland's Statistical Tables, 1832, p. 156.] Some half-dozen years later, after the Jacobite rebellion, Glassford acquired Whitehill, part of the old Easter Craigs of Glasgow, and now embodied in Dennistoun. He enclosed the whole thirty acres with a wall, built a country mansion, and laid out the place with gardens, conservatories, and ornamental walks. For twelve years he resided there, dispensing princely hospitality and driving daily to and from the city in a coach and four. But in 1759 he purchased, for 17oo guineas, the famous Shawfield Mansion in Trongate from the second William Macdowall of Castle Semple, son of the West Indian magnate. He then sold Whitehill to another Virginia merchant, John Wallace of Neilstonside and Cessnock, a descendant of the family which gave Scotland its patriot hero. From that time till his death in 1783 Glassford lived partly in the Shawfield Mansion and partly at the beautiful estate of Dougalston, which he also acquired, near Bardowie Loch, a few miles north of the city. Like Alexander Speirs he was early allied by marriage with the ruling caste in Glasgow, his sister Rebecca being the wife of Archibald Ingram, founder of the printwork industry, and Provost of the city in 1762. But his own matrimonial alliances were more ambitious still. Of his first wife nothing is known ; his second marriage was with Anne, second daughter of Sir John Nisbet, Bart., of Dean, now part of Edinburgh, and his third wife was Lady Margaret Mackenzie, daughter of the last Earl of Cromarty. He carried on business on a great scale, had twenty-five ships with their cargoes on the sea at once, and turned over annually more than half a million sterling. [Tobias Smollett, quoted in Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 39. Glassford's office, in the third storey of the town's tenement at the corner of Gallowgate and High Street, cost him £13 per annum. The floor below was rented by Provost Andrew Cochrane at £14.---Burgh Records, 12th Nov. 7747.] In addition he was concerned in various local enterprises. He was a chief partner in the Glasgow Tanwork Company, perhaps the largest in Europe in its time. He was one of the first partners in the Glasgow Arms Bank, started in 1750. He was principal partner in the original cudbear factory, which carried on the rather odorous business of dye-making from certain Highland lichens. With his brother-in-law, Provost Ingram, he had a share in the Print-field at Pollokshaws. And he was a leading partner in the aristocratic Thistle Bank, whose business lay largely among the rich Nest Indian merchants. It was largely, also, his support, with that of one or two other wealthy merchants, which enabled the Foulis brothers to carry on their famous Academy of the Fine Arts. By Tobias Smollett, who as a surgeon's apprentice must often have looked with awe on the great man pacing the plainstanes, he is commemorated in the pages of Humphry Clinker. He died at the age of sixty-eight in the Shawfield Mansion, and lies, along with his second and third wives and several of his descendants, in the Ramshorn churchyard, close behind the railings in Ingram Street. [Glasghu Facies, pp. 757, 956. Glasgow Past and Present. Mitchell, Old Glasgow Essays, pp. 80, 122. Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 215. Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry. Burgh Records, 12th Nov. 1747.]

Nine years after John Glassford's death, his trustees sold the Shawfield Mansion for £9850 to William Horn, a builder, who demolished the house, and over its site, and through the great garden behind, formed the thoroughfare now known as Glassford Street. [Glasgow and its Clubs, p. ii. Mitchell, p. 22.] A street branching from it long bore the name of Garthland Street, from the estate of the Macdowalls, once the owners of the site. This has lately been changed to Garth Street.

Of different fate from the Shawfield Mansion and the Virginia Mansion, the splendid dwelling built by another of these great tobacco lords still remains to testify to the wealth and taste of that time. William Cuninghame was another of Provost Cochrane's " four young men." When the American War of Independence broke out he was a junior partner in the firm which held the largest stock of tobacco in the United Kingdom. The average cost of their great stock had been threepence per pound. Immediately upon the declaration of independence by America the price rose to sixpence. Thereupon seeing they had doubled their capital, the partners of the firm held a meeting, and resolved to take advantage of the opportunity and effect an immediate sale. The British forces in America, it was thought, must shortly suppress the rebellion, whereupon plentiful supplies of tobacco would again become available, and the price would fall to its previous level. But Mr. Cuninghame was of a different opinion. He took over the whole stock as his personal property, and was able to give the other partners of the firm security for the amount of his purchase. His judgment proved to be correct. In consequence of the misfortunes to the British armies tobacco continued to rise in price till it reached the astonishing figure of three shillings and sixpence per pound. By that time Cuninghame had sold his entire stock at an enormous profit, and had realized a very handsome fortune. With this he bought the fine estate of Lainshaw in Ayrshire, and proceeded to build himself a splendid residence in Glasgow. On the west side of the Cow Loan, which is now Queen Street, and facing the Back Cow Loan, now Ingram Street, stood at that time a cow-feeder's thatched steading with byre and midden, the property of one Neilson, a "land labourer in Garioch," near Maryhill. Here Cuninghame saw possibilites, as Sir Walter Scott did later in the Tweedside farm of Clartyhole. He purchased the steading, and on its site in 1778 raised one of the finest houses of its time in the West of Scotland—at a cost, it is said, of £10,000.

After several changes of ownership this mansion still stands. At Cuninghame's death in 1789 it was bought by the great firm of William Stirling & Sons, which used one of the wings as an office, while the main building was occupied by successive members of the family. In 1817 the house was purchased by the Royal Bank, which built a double stair in front and installed its tellers in the drawing-room. Ten years later, the old coffee-room at the Cross having become too small for their meeting-place, an association of merchants, with James Ewing of Strathleven at its head, acquired the house and built round it, to the plans of the architect Hamilton, the present handsome Royal Exchange. The old Lainshaw mansion still stands behind the colonnaded Queen Street front, its rooms being mostly occupied as shipbroking and insurance offices. [Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship, p. 193. Alison's Anecdotage, p. 127. Other sites proposed for the new Exchange were between Virginia and Miller Streets in Argyle Street, and at the head of Glassford Street, and the Town Council supported the Argyle Street location.—Burgh Records, 25th May, 1827.]

These were the most notable of the Glasgow merchants who realized fortunes out of the trade with the American colonies, who trod the plainstanes at the Cross in scarlet cloaks and three-cornered hats, and, known as "tobacco lords," formed a civic aristocracy of hauteur and exclusiveness that have not been forgotten at the present day. [Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 40.] The trade lasted for fifty years, and came to an end with the declaration of independence by the United States. Upon that event the estates owned by many British subjects in America were confiscated, and the owners were ruined. Among those who suffered in this way was the father of the famous Mrs. Grant of Laggan, authoress of Letters from the Mountains, Memoirs of an American Lady, and the well-known song, "O where, tell me where." Captain McVicar was a resident in the Goosedubs, then a fashionable quarter of the city, where his daughter was born. Shortly afterwards he was ordered with his regiment to America, where he took part in the conquest of Canada. Some years later he resigned his commission, took up his allotment of 2000 acres in Vermont, and acquired the similar allotment of a brother officer. In 1768 he was compelled by ill-health to return to Scotland, and on the outbreak of the revolutionary war was deprived of his estate and reduced to depend on an appointment as barrack-master at Fort Augustus.

Another family which suffered in similar fashion was that of Hugh Wyllie, who died suddenly after his election to the Lord Provostship in 1781. His property was in America; no remittances came home after his death, and the Town Council granted his widow £50 per annum, to be repaid when remittances were received. [Burgh Records, 18th Nov. 1782.]

Soon after the declaration of independence by America the "tobacco lords" ceased to lead the social life of the city, and the scarlet cloaks gradually disappeared from the plainstanes of the Trongate.

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