Robertson enterprises

Robertson enterprises (as at January 2019)

There are frequent references to the three Robertson brothers (John, William and James) in articles recording the merchants of Glasgow and the various commercial enterprises in which they were involved. They were the sons of John Robertson and Katherine Hutchison, I have no birth date for this John but I would place him around 1700 to 1710. Katherine, I would place at around 1720 as the Scots Magazine on 1 July 1808 recorded her death: 11 [11 June?] At Glasgow, in the 88th year of her age, Mrs Catherine Hutchison, relict of Mr John Robertson, merchant Glasgow. John junior was born on 6 Nov 1750. These dates are important as not all references to John Robertson’s enterprises draw any distinction between father and son and so by drawing a timeline of the references it may be possible to assign them to senior or junior.

While the Robertson’s did manage a number of their enterprises directly they were also involved as investors in a number of successful businesses.

Smithfield Iron Co

The Robertson family, in the year 1734, started a work at the Kelvin, near the Pointhouse, for the manufacture of articles of iron, such as nails, shovels etc. and which was named the Smithfield Iron Company. This business prospered greatly, and in the course of time, slitting, rolling, and grinding mills were added. From the first of these operations being carried on here the present Slit Mill derives its name. The business produced a good return for the money invested, and was continued by the descendants of the Robertsons for more than a hundred years after it was first started.[i]

I attribute this to John Robertson senior, at this time there was extensive trading with the colonies of America and the West Indies supplying implements etc. and importing tobacco and sugar. The profit generated probably funded his partnership in the Glasgow Arms Bank and his involvement in the Glasgow Cudbear Co.

This record is at odds with the report published in 1889 from the Regality Club (see below) which suggests that the mill was not a success.

Regality Club: In 1782 George Bogle, James Ritchie, George Oswald, James Dennistoun, Alexander Spiers, Thomas Donald, John Hamilton, George Buchanan, Allan Scott and William Robertson, all merchants in Glasgow, and partners of “Smithfield Manufactory”, sold the Slit mill, lade and dam and right of water from the Kelvin to William Robertson for £2450 sterling. Mr Robertson thereafter carried on the concern in partnership with George Bogle and John Robertson, merchants in Glasgow. It seems not to have been successful, and in 1807 the Slit mills were sold for £2850 to John Gibson of Johnston, merchant in Glasgow, and others. The present owners are Messrs. A. & J. Inglis, the well-known shipbuilders.


On McArthur’s map of Glasgow, dated 1777, there is shown a large piece of ground marked “Smithfield” immediately east of Madeira Court, and now occupied by Oswald Street. This ground which stretched from Anderston Walk to the Broomielaw, extended to three acres, and was partly occupied by the Smithfield Company factory. They sold it in 1786 to Alexander Oswald of Shieldhall, and he and his son James, the Member subsequently formed Oswald Street on this ground.[ii]

Click here to view the part of McArthur’s map that relates to Smithfield.

Click here for the full map held at the National Library of Scotland.

Click here for a view in 1807.

In the present day there are two streets: Robertson Street and Oswald Street, which I imagine bounded the area formerly known as Smithfield. However, this is some distance from the Kelvin and the Pointhouse so it must be that the works began at the Pointhouse (an inn on the east bank of the Kelvin where it flows into the Clyde) and moved to this location sometime before 1777. According to George Stewart’s Progress of Glasgow,1883:  The principal seat of this industry in Glasgow was a range of low-roofed workshops known as the ‘Smithfield Nailree’, situated near the Broomielaw, on the site of the present Robertson Street, and chiefly owned by the brothers John, William, and James Robertson, well-known merchants and bankers.

The Glasgow Herald, December 2, 1995 refers to  the slitting and and grinding mill at Pointhouse, erected in 1734 by the Smithfield Iron Company had eight water wheels.

In Tom Devine’s doctoral thesis he states that there were two West of Scotland malleable ironworks – Smithfield and Dalnotter. The only evidence I have of the commercial activities of Smithfield is contained in a PRO document which is a claim by William Robertson & Co against Admiral Lord Rodney, privateer. In October 1780 a consignment of 419 casks of nails from Smithfield were shipped on board Princess Amelia to Saint Christopher in the West Indies from where they were forwarded to St Eustatia. Part of the consignment was sold but the remaining part was seized by Rodney and sold. The claim was to reimburse William Robertson & Co to the value of the seized goods; it took nearly ten years to settle in their favour!

Click here for Wikipedia reference to Lord Rodney.

Click here for more information about the St Eustatia connection

In the book by J R Hume and J Butt: ‘Muirkirk 1786-1802, the creation of a Scottish Industrial Community’ reference is made to the Smithfield Company which had an extensive export trade in agricultural implements and nails with American and West Indian plantations.

Glasgow Cudbear Co.

The Glasgow Cudbear Works, managed by George Macintosh and the Prestonpans Vitriol Co, the foundation of which in 1749 has been described as an epoch- making step in the history of bleaching. In 1779 the first of these was managed by Adam Grant ‘dyer in Glasgow’ and by Macintosh himself, but the bulk of the capital was supplied by John Glassford, James Gordon, George Bogle and John Robertson.[3]

Macintosh employed only Gaelic speaking workers to protect his formulae and processes. Cudbear is a Turkey Red dye which was difficult to perfect. His son, Charles Macintosh, went on to develop the material used to make raincoats.

The Statistical Account of Barony Parish (1796) has a very interesting article about the work of George Macintosh to develop the Turkey Red dyeing process.[4]

I think the location of the Cudbear works is probably in modern day Dennistoun. Using the cathedral as a reference and on the 1778 map there is a road leading to Craig’s Park (possibly now the cemetery); on the modern day map running parallel to Alexandra Parade is a street Craigpark

Click here to view McArthur’s map of 1778 showing the Cudbair Works,taken from the NLS.

Click here to view the full map on the National Library of Scotland’s website

By the time of Fleming’s map of 1897, the area occupied by the Cudbear Company has grown considerably. Adjacent to the factory is Dunchattan which is Macintosh’s home. Click here to view  the map

Glasgow Arms Bank

This was established in 1750 as Cochran Murdoch & Co and had thirty-one partners, and did not include John Robertson at that time. [5] The partners, who were highly respectable, consisted of the following, viz;, Andrew Cochran, John Murdoch, George Murdoch, Robert Christie, John Campbell, John Murdoch, junior, Laurence Dinwiddie, John Hamilton, sen., James Donald, William Crawford, sen., Thomas Dunsmore, John Jamieson, John Bowman, John Brown, John Glassford, William Crawford, jun., Robert Scott, sen., George Carmichael, Archibald Ingram, James Ritchie, Archibald Buchanan, Thomas Hopkirk, merchants, Robert Findlay, tanner, Robert Barbour, weaver, and John Wardrop, writer all in Glasgow.[6] Cochran was Provost Cochran, whose cautious and wise policy in the memorable 1745 had won for him the respect and confidence of all classes of the community; and John Murdoch, who succeeded to the Provostship in 1746 and 1747, and who  was also Provost in the year the Bank  was opened.

In 1763 the partnership changed to Spiers, Murdoch & Co which this time included John Robertson, Merchant. By 1772 the number of partners had reduced to ten.

It was afterwards [no specific date] changed to Murdoch, Robertson & Co the partners of which were – John Bowman, merchant Glasgow; George Murdoch, late Comptroller of the Customs, Port-Glasgow; John Robertson, and Peter Murdoch, merchants, Glasgow, formerly partners of Spiers, Murdoch, and Co.;- Mr. Spiers, Mr Blackburn, and Mr Donald, having retired. In 1793, the Glasgow Arms, Merchant’s Bank, and Messrs. Thomson’s Bank, failed but all of them paid in full. The trustee for the creditors of the “Arms” was Mr Walter Ewing McLea, merchant in Glasgow, father of James Ewing, Esq of Levenside.[7]

In 1793 no fewer than 1956 bankruptcies passed through the Gazette, of which number 26 were banking companies. Three Glasgow banks were among the failures recorded, …..the Glasgow Arms.[8]

The French revolutionary war of 1793 was the main cause for the bankruptcies.

 In the Edinburgh Gazette Nov 5 to Nov 8 1816 there was this notice:

Notice to the creditors of the late John Robertson, Banker and Merchant in Glasgow.

The trustee on the estate of the said John Robertson being now about to pay such of his creditors whose debts were owing previous to the original sequestration of his estate in 1792, and who have lodged their claims, the whole amount of their debts, agreeable to the scheme of division which lies in the Trustee’s hands, he hereby gives notice, and certifies to such persons who have claims against the said John Robertson, and who have not hitherto lodged the same, that unless they do so between and Candelmas next, they will be cut off from all share of the funds which will be divided among such Creditors as have proved their debts to the extent thereof; and he will then denude himself of the residues of the said estate in favour of the said John Robertson’s representatives, who will be answerable for such of his debts as may have been contracted subsequent to the original sequestration, as far as the said residue of the funds will admit.

(Signed) James Hill.

1, South Frederick Street, Glasgow

The Glasgow Arms Bank creditors were paid out in full.

From the above extracts of the research I have completed, I conclude that John Robertson senior was involved in the Glasgow Arms Bank around 1763 and that John junior became involved when it changed its name to Murdoch, Robertson & Co.

John junior was married to Elizabeth Murdoch in 1766, the daughter of the Bailie John Murdoch who was partner to John senior. John Robertson was married at age 16 to a woman 10 years his senior; was this a marriage of convenience to cement the financing of the bank? According to Tom Devine in “Scotland’s Empire” it was not uncommon for marriages to take place between the merchant families for commercial advantage, also there were relatively few families in what has become known as the “merchant elite”.

John Robertson (this would be junior) sold the property “Plantation” around 1793[9], possibly to realise funds to meet the bank’s obligations. It is perhaps fanciful, but an entry in the local news of Caribbeana Magazine on April 27, 1793 raises speculation: Passengers arrived in the Roselle from Leith [included] John Robertson. Did he travel to the plantations to liquidate his assets or perhaps to “see out his days”? This is the same ship (by name and route association) that Robert Burns was booked on to emigrate to Jamaica in 1786.

Glasgow Merchants’ Bank

It was felt that the two main Glasgow banks, the Arms Bank and the Ship Bank, were run by the local merchants to serve their own interests and smaller businesses were not well catered for. This gave rise to the Glasgow Merchant Banking Company being formed in 1769 by a syndicate of 70 partners, all lesser men.[10] The tobacco magnates, being the dominant element in the Merchants’ House, let it be known that the Merchants’ House had nothing to do with the Merchants’ Bank. I have read in a number of sources, but notably, “Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship”, James Robertson, brother of John and William was cashier and a partner in this bank. Given the reaction of the Merchants’ House to its establishment, perhaps there was a family disagreement over his partnership!

Like the Arms Bank, the Merchants’ Bank was also in difficulty in 1793 and according to S.G. Checkland “The final disappearance of the Merchants’ Bank accompanied by the absconding of its cashier to America, in 1798, with a large sum of its money, meant the end of ‘popular’ banking in Glasgow”. Charles W Munn does confirm however, that the creditors of the bank were paid out in full. So was there a scandal in the family with James Robertson?

Browsing the Caledonian Mercury newspaper for the period 1770 to 1790 shows the business model that the Merchants’ Bank employed. There are advertisements for ships ready to take on cargo and passengers bound for North Carolina and South Carolina. Anybody wishing to use the service is to contact James Robertson at the Merchants’ Bank. So I assume the bank would finance the voyage taking a share in the proceeds realised from the sale of the cargo and berths. There are also frequent references to forged notes in circulation, so perhaps their security was not of the best.

Muirkirk Iron Company

Expansion of the Iron industry in Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century was the result of the invention of new ways of applying steam power to the furnaces, forges and mills. The local availability [in Muirkirk] of coal and ironstone led in 1787 to proposals by John Gillies (of the Dalnotter Iron Works), William Robertson (of the Smithfield Iron Co.) and John Grieve (of Bo’ness) for the setting up of iron Furnaces and forges in Muirkirk, some twenty miles south of Glasgow in the hills on the Lanarkshire/Ayrshire border. These three were joined in 1788 by Thomas Edington, manager of Cadells of Cramond (for by now the Cadell family had bought the Crammond Iron Works from the Carron Company) with the result that the following year saw the establishment of the Muirkirk Iron Works.[11]

The first ironworks in Ayrshire, at Muirkirk, was founded in 1787 and continued in production until 1921. The remains of the blowing-engine house, furnace bank and foundations of three furnaces are spectacular. There are also considerable remains of the works canal.[12]

In the book by J R Hume and J Butt: ‘Muirkirk 1786-1802, the creation of a Scottish Industrial Community’ reference is made to the Smithfield Company which had an extensive export trade in agricultural implements and nails with American and West Indian plantations.

 The book also has some interesting references to the Glasgow Arms Bank and its difficulties referred to below: In 1792-93 the Glasgow Arms Bank and The Merchants’ Bank ran into difficulties, and since the Muirkirk Iron Company was linked with these failures through common partners, there were good grounds for Stewart’s fear that the ‘whole Ironworks will soon come to sale’ But the partners in the Muirkirk concern were able to carry on the works because of an advance of £819:19:0 made by the Royal Bank of Scotland in November 1793. By 1795 the Company was beginning to emerge from its financial difficulties, and in 1796 it had an operating account of £2,000 with the Royal Bank

Hume and Butt are clear that the foundation of the village of Muirkirk is inextricably linked to the Ironworks: there were mounting disputes between Muirkirk Iron Company and McAdam who worked the tar kilns. McAadm left his Maybole estate in 1798 and moved to live in Falmouth and became a professional road builder. But the social organisation of Muirkirk could not be overthrown by personal disasters or tragedies; an industrial community based on mining and iron-working had evolved, which remained viable until the twentieth century.

The site of the Muirkirk Ironworks was 9 sq. kilometres and by the description on the Canmore website, it was a substantial undertaking. I have no information on when the Robertsons ceased to be involved.

Caribbean plantations.

The page on this website,  “Jamaican Connections”, describes the connection to a plantation at Black River, Jamaica. On the map of Jamaica in 1804 (see link below), there is a plantation in the Black River area noted as J. Robertson. I have no proof that this is the particular plantation, but the circumstantial evidence points to this as being the case.

J Robertson’s plantation Black River, Jamaica 1804 (click to open map in a new window).

John Robertson and his brother William were partners in Robert McKay & Co.[13] Through this partnership the brothers had an interest in two further estates in Jamaica: Heywood Hall, St Mary, and Iter Boreale, St George. Both were sugar plantations, exporting sugar and rum to Glasgow. Heywood Hall had a mill powered by wind and cattle and in 1811 had 196 slaves. The Robert McKay partnership owned Heywood Hall Estate valued at £23,513.[14]

Link to map of Jamaica showing Heywood Hall Plantation in 1804.

Link to a map of Jamaica showing Iter Boreale Plantation in 1804.

A legal document based on the estate accounts of Iter Boreale and Heywood Hall outlines the practicalities of the Glasgow-West India trade. Sugar was the most valuable commodity and Iter Boreale was the most productive plantation. The produce was transported in two ships on biannual journeys: 383 hogsheads of sugar were shipped from both plantations in 1820. Robert Mackay & Co. became bankrupt around 1818. [15]

Tom Devine has produced an analysis of sugar imports into Greenock from Robert MacKay & Co, Jamaica:

1778 784 hogsheads (second largest importer)

1779 380 hogsheads

1781 300 hogsheads

1782 615 hogsheads

1783 187 hogsheads.

According to the UCL website “Legacies of British Slave-ownership”. John Robertson also had an interest in a plantation in St. Vincent along with Cecilia Douglas. She was the widow of Gilbert Douglas who was a West India merchant in Glasgow, with large plantations in the Island of St. Vincent including, at the time of his death, Mount Pleasant, a sugar plantation and a cotton plantation, Fairfield, in Demerara. His residence in the city was on the north side of George Square, later becoming one of the hotels.

The beneficiaries of the compensation paid by the government are John Murdoch Robertson and John Robertson (his sister), John Spens Munro (husband to Margaret Robertson, John’s daughter), together with Cecilia Douglas, a distant cousin of John Murdoch Robertson. He and his sister, John Robertson, shared compensation of £3,013 12s 7d (approximately £150,000 today).


John Campbell senior was a very successful Glasgow merchant. He married Mary Murdoch, a sister of John Robertson’s wife, Elizabeth. I suspect that John Campbell and John Robertson were close colleagues; there is reference to John Robertson, for John Campbell Sen.


I have researched quite widely now and as far as tobacco trade with Virginia is concerned, I have found no indication of Robertson involvement in that trade. Tom Devine’s work produced an analysis to show tobacco imports from Robert MacKay & Co, Jamaica into Glasgow as in 1778 25 Hogsheads and in 1779 15 Hogsheads. It is possible these were trades conducted in Jamaica as apposed to grown by Robert MacKay & Co. I am drawn to conclude that the Robertson’s had no direct interests in tobacco and concentrated on sugar and rum.

The Spinningdale Cotton Co

George Dempster (1732-1818) was the Member of Parliament for Perth, St Andrews and Dundee. He was instrumental in collaborating with Richard Arkwright and David Dale to establish the Stanley Cotton Mill outside Perth in 1784 on land set aside for the purpose by the Duke of Atholl. Spinningdale, was conspicuously philanthropic, it was established with the specific intention to create industry, wealth and employment in the Highlands.[17] The intention at Spinningdale was to produce shawls, simple coarse fabrics and handkerchiefs…made from raw materials imported into Glasgow and shipped monthly from Leith or Edinburgh.[18]

In 1786 George Dempster bought the property of Skibo in Sutherland on the Dornoch Firth and in 1791 he invited George Macintosh (see above, Glasgow Cudbear Co) to view his plan to establish a cotton mill at Spinningdale (near to Skibo) to provide employment to the Sutherland population. Macintosh enlisted the support of David Dale in the venture. “In addition to four members who initially held two £100 shares – David Dale, George Macintosh, Captain John [Dempster’s half-brother] and Dempster himself – there were fifteen other shareholders with a single £100 share. The tobacco merchants included three members of the Robertson family in Glasgow, William and James, who were brothers of John Robertson who owned extensive estates in the West Indies and managed the Glasgow Arms Bank, along with Andrew Robertson [probably his uncle]…. it seems that Dempster, Dale and Macintosh had allowed their enthusiasm to get the better of them, especially in going ahead without fully understanding the project’s capital requirements.”[19]

Unfortunately, this was not a success and in 1804 “David Dale had apparently at long last persuaded George Macintosh to sell it [Spinningdale], having himself handed the management of New Lanark over to Robert Owen at the beginning of the century.” [20]

So while John Robertson himself was not an investor in Spinningdale, his two brothers William and James and his uncle were. It is highly likely that Macintosh introduced them to Dempster’s scheme having worked with John Robertson as an investor in the Glasgow Cudbear Co. The timeline of this points to this being John Robertson junior (1750-bef 1816))

[1] Paisley Herald Dec 3 1870.


[3] T M Devine Tobacco Lords.


[5] Paisley Herald 15 September, 1855

[6] Paisley Herald of 15 Sept, 1855

[7] Scottish Banking a History 1695-1973 S.G. Checkland also Glasgow, past and present. James Pagan 1851

[8] Curiosities of Glasgow Citizenship by George Stewart 1881

[9] Paisley Herald December 3, 1870

[10] Charles W Munn; Scottish Provincial Banking Companies 1747-1864 and S.G.Checkland; Scottish Banking a History 1695-1793

[11] David Daiches; Glasgow


[13] SRO CC9/7/84/253

[14] Scottish Record Office TD1/88 Articles of Agreement between JM Heywood and R McKay & Co.

[15] Stephen Mullen; A Glasgow-West India Merchant House and the Imperial Dividend, 1779–1867


[17] New Lanark

[18] John Evans; The Life and Times of George Dempster

[19] John Evans; The Life and Times of George Dempster

[20] John Evans; The Life and Times of George Dempster