Glasgow, Scotland and links with emergent U.S.A. via the tobacco industry

                 (Above image is a capture of the Gallery of Modern Art in central Glasgow which has its origins in a mansion built by a tobacco merchant named William Cunninghame.)

At the start of the 18th century Glasgow was a poor town on the wrong side of a poor, isolated country on the fringes of Europe but by the end of the century had been transformed to become the second city of an empire at the forefront of a new industrial society. Key influences on the city’s growth were (a) collapse of the Darien scheme in the 1690s (a failed colony in Panama) which effectively bankrupted the Scottish ruling class and (b) union with England in 1707 which immensely benefited the ruling class.

Colonial trade drove the transformation of Glasgow between 1740 and 1775 but, above all, the trade in tobacco made much of the Glasgow we see today. This trade was inextricably linked with slavery and the slave trade. Glasgow found its niche by directly supplying the American colonies with manufactured goods, linen cloth and iron, without which they could not survive. The ships returned to Britain with colonial goods, mainly tobacco from mainland Maryland and Virginia but also sugar and other exotic products of slavery from the Caribbean islands.

Access to the (British) empire transformed Glasgow’s isolated position. The city’s north westerly location proved a disadvantage for African slave voyages but proved a positive advantage when travelling to the American colonies.

As the big slave plantations on the coast of the Americas were owned or controlled by English merchants the Scots were forced to work with the smaller tobacco plots further up the Chesapeake river. Playing the role of middlemen, the Scots exchanged tobacco for manufactured goods from the growers or agents and then sold on, mainly to the French market.

In the 1770s Glasgow controlled over half of all the British trade in tobacco, which made up over one third of Scotland’s imports and over half its exports. This trade was immensely profitable as a consequence of which the tobacco traders soon became some of the richest men in the world.
The colonial trade led directly to the development of industry on Scotland’s west coast, e.g. shipyards, rope works, leather works and sugar refineries.

Tobacco was so central to Glasgow’s economy that almost every Provost of Glasgow (Civic Head of the Council) had tobacco merchant interests. Tobacco merchants set up a number of banks in order to deal with their bills of trading. The Scottish banking system grew as a direct result of the tobacco trade. In 1775 the trade collapsed due to the American Revolution. The former colonies, now free of the obligation to transport goods in British ships, simply by-passed Glasgow and sold directly to the European markets. Whilst this marked the end of the Tobacco Lords era, the emergence of the cotton industries and improvements to the steam engine would see the city grow larger and wealthier as the industrial revolution of the 19th century took Glasgow to greater heights.

Some Leading Tobacco Barons and their influence on Glasgow

George Buchanan was the second son of Provost (Mayor) Andrew Buchanan, one of the famous “Virginia Dons”. The eldest son, James was Provost of Glasgow twice. These gentlemen had large plantations in Virginia, then under the British Crown, from which province came the greatest proportion of tobacco imported by the merchants of Glasgow.

George Buchanan (B 1728 D 1762) built, prior to his death at age 34, with the profits from the Virginia trade a spacious town mansion at the head of Virginia Street. It was one of the most splendid private residences then in Glasgow, and was designated the “Virginia Mansion”. The Corinthian hospitality suite now occupies this site.

Andrew Buchanan was born 1725 and died about 1783. He forsook the family malt business for the tobacco industry which had enriched his three uncles, as it proved an unlucky choice! He was head of two great Virginia houses Buchanan Hastie & Co., and Andrew Buchanan & Co., and in 1777, in the crash of the American revolt, both fell and he was utterly ruined. James Buchanan was also a partner with his cousin Andrew in Buchanan Hastie & Co., and a was also ruined in 1777.

Neil Buchanan was also a Virginia merchant and Member of Parliament. His plantations adjoined that of the elder brother of George Washington, on the banks of the Potomac, in Virginia.

Buchanan Street

John Glassford (1715-1783) was one of the most prominent and prosperous of the Scottish “tobacco lords”. He was a leading force in the establishment of Glasgow as an international trading centre. By the latter part of the 18th century, Glassford controlled a major portion of the Chesapeake tobacco trade despite never having travelled to America. Represented by agents or factors, Glassford established a system of branch stores along the Potomac River for the purpose of purchasing tobacco directly from planters. By this direct method of purchase Glassford and his associates were able to pay higher prices for tobacco than English consignment merchants. While higher prices brought the Scottish firm new customers, its ability to extend credit and provide planters with consumer goods helped to ensure its domination of the Chesapeake tobacco trade. The sale of goods such hardware, rum, wine, sugar, salt, and slaves became a major source of revenue for the branch stores.
Glassford and Company operated stores in Maryland at Baltimore, Benedict, Bladensburg, Chaptico, Georgetown, Leonardtown, Llewellin’s Warehouse, Lower Marlboro, Newport, Nottingham, Piscataway, and Upper Marlboro.

In Glassford and Company’s most successful years, those prior to the American Revolution, the company owned a fleet of 25 ships and imported 10pct of all tobacco received by Great Britain. The value of Glassford’s yearly imports over this period has been estimated to be in excess of £500,000.

Glassford Street

William Cunninghame : (1731-1799) Around 1778 Cunninghame built a large mansion in the Palladian style in Queen Street, central Glasgow at cost of GBP10,000.00.  Cunninghame was a super-rich tobacco merchant and slave trader  The building comprised three stories with wings at right angles and facing each other. Remnants of the Cunninghame mansion can be found in the current Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art- entrance hall, ellipse with rooflight; mansion house galleries on first floor; and former drawing room on first floor.

Gallery of Modern Art


The Ship bank was established in 1749 and was the first of the Scottish provincial banking companies to be formed in Glasgow. It was previously known as Dunlop, Houston & Co, after the principal partners, but derived its more commonly used name from the motif on its notes of a ship in full sail.
This was a partnership-not limited liability-comprising six members of Glasgow’s wealthy merchant elite who had made their fortunes from the tobacco and West Indian trades. Andrew Buchanan was one of the founding partners.

Despite strong competition from the two Edinburgh banks the Ship Bank managed to establish itself and by 1752 recorded circulation of £41,438 and a net profit of £2,163. By 1761 the comparative figures were £82,331 and £12,900.

The original partnership ended in 1775 by which time Andrew Buchanan and two other founding partners were dead and two new partners had been admitted. There seems to have been a lapse in the partnership for a time, perhaps as a result of the devastating impact of the American Wars of Independence on Glasgow’s tobacco trade.

The impact of the American War on Glasgow’s tobacco trade was lessened by the development of trade in the alternative commodities of sugar and rum, and this recovery is reflected in the figures of the Ship Bank’s balance sheets where total footings rose from £120,352 in 1777 to £346,638 in 1792.
The partnership went through various changes eventually merging with the Glasgow Banking Company in 1836 to fend off competition from the large-scale joint stock banks. The merged entity was named Glasgow Ship Bank was initially established as a partnership of 28. The new bank was acquired by the Union Bank of Scotland in 1843 -and hence a link with the Corinthinian images of which can be found in the bottom section of this post.

Glasgow’s Merchant City

This lies at the heart of Glasgow’s City Centre, where historically the tobacco lairds and traders which once made Glasgow the Second City of the (British) Empire came to do business, socialise and build their townhouses and later their warehouses. This area still possesses a remarkable consistency of materials and rhythm and demonstrates a strong civic pride through the number of buildings adorned with carved coats of arms. Despite the area falling victim to the inner city obsolescence that afflicted many parts of urban Britain in the 20th Century, the Merchant City became the scene of a remarkable public sector led renaissance during the 1980s.
Note particular street names:
  • Virginia Street (Tobacco/Colony/State)
  • Jamaica Street (Sugar)
  • Glassford Street (John Glassford, a Tobacco Baron )
  • Buchanan Street (Andrew Buchanan, member of family of Tobacco Barons)
  • Dunlop Street (Colin Dunlop, Virginia Merchant and founding partner in the Ship Bank.)
                                                      Virginia Place and Virginia Street

Specific Places of Interest

Virginia Galleries

Originally the Tobacco Exchange 1819, later the Sugar Exchange.
Unfortunately, the building was demolished in Sept 2003 and the site is now vacant pending redevelopment. Virginia Street is at the heart of the estates of the former tobacco lords. Laid out in 1753, the street was originally terminated by the Virginia Mansions at its north end. 

Virginia Street

The Corinthian, 191 Ingram Street

Built by David Hamilton in 1842 on the site of The Virginia Mansion, and remodelled in 1876 by James Burnett, Corinthian is one of Glasgow’s most stunning buildings, both internally and externally. This beautiful Merchant City building originally housed the Glasgow Ship Bank, which merged, with Glasgow Union Bank to create the Union Bank of Scotland and its head office was situated in the building for 73 years. Over this period many of its wonderful sculptures and features were added to the building by highly acclaimed architects and artists such as James Salmon, John Thomas and James Ballantine.

The Corinthian is ‘Grade A’ listed and boasts some magnificent features including an Italian Roman Doric pilastrade, modillion cornice, balustraded die parapet, free standing classical figures and James Salmon’s spectacular Telling Room which now houses a bar with a 26 foot glass dome which is generally regarded as one of the UK’s finest Victorian interiors.

In 1929 the building was converted into the City’s High Court and many of the building’s finest features were hidden from the public’s eye behind false walls and ceilings. The launch of the Corinthian in its present form heralded the first time that the building has been seen in its full glory for over 40 years.

Corinthian, Ingram Street

Interior of Corinthian

Candleriggs Warehouses

Much altered examples of warehouses from c1790 survives at 1-15 and 4-69 Candleriggs.


Tobacco Merchant’s House, Miller Street

Fuelled by the tobacco trade, its merchant lairds built villas along Argyle Street’s issue in to the countryside from the termination of Trongate. These extended north into streets such as Miller Street, where both architectural and residential regulations protected amenity. Today a single villa from the 1770s survives.

 Tobacco Merchant's House


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