James Stirling of Glasgow

Born on 24 May 1805, Stirling was at first destined for the Bar, and studied at the universities of Gottingen and Glasgow with this in mind. Eyesight problems put paid to this career however and he returned home to enter the long-established family dyeing business.

He retired early, in 1849, and lived at Cordale, beside the River Leven, then at Rockend, Helensburgh. A passionate seaman, he owned a schooner, the Fiery Cross.

In 1865, as a Whig, he stood unsuccessfully for parliamentary seat of Dumbartonshire. He and his rival, Patrick Smollett, each polled 574 votes but the matter was decided in Smollett’s favour. Stirling died on 19 May 1883.

SCOTSMEN are said to think, and sometimes to speak, too much of their pedigree, but the fault, if fault it be, would be venial could we all do so with as good reason as James Stirling. His branch of the Stirlings claim – and there is ground for thinking, claim justly – that they represent the old line of Stirlings of Cadder, the undoubted chiefs of the name, or Stirlings of that ilk, owners of Cadder and other lands under William the Lion. If this be so, Mr. Stirling could show a male descent of seven hundred years, a feat that few untitled families in Europe can perform. But the point has been disputed, and the family need scarcely care to press it, for they can show an undisputed descent that is even rarer.

Their family is the oldest of our Glasgow notables. They have seen every stone in Glasgow laid except the High Kirk. They found this a little country town, and they have stayed to see it grown, by the help of them and others like them, a hundredfold. Through near three centuries, through eight generations from father to son, they have been merchants here of good standing and high social position. With such a pedigree, unequalled in or perhaps out of Scotland, and with a hereditary character for straightforwardness and honour, the Stirlings of Glasgow can afford to be content.

Robert Stirling of Lettyr, or Lettyr Stirling, fell in a feud in 1537. His son, John Stirling of Lettyr, would seem to have settled in Glasgow, for he married a Glasgow wife, Beatrix Elphinstone of Blythswood, sister of our famous Provost Sir George Elphinstone, and he had a son and a son-in-law notaries, and two sons merchants, in Glasgow, where there have been merchants of them ever since. Fourth in descent from him, through a line of merchants in Glasgow, were three brothers, John Stirling, provost of Glasgow in 1728; William Stirling, surgeon in Glasgow (father of Walter Stirling, the founder of Stirling’s Library, the first free public library in Scotland); and Walter Stirling of Shirva (father of Sir Walter Stirling of Faskine, a distinguished naval officer, whose grandson is the present Sir Walter George Stirling of Faskine, Bart.).

“Honest and kind Provost John,” being unluckily bailie during the Shawfield Riot in 1725, was one of those on whom the blind wrath of the Government fell. He and the other innocent magistrates were dragged under a guard of dragoons to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, and, being there released on bail, were met on their way home by two hundred of the citizens on horseback, and escorted into the town amid ringing of bells and general rejoicing. Provost John and his brother Shirva were of those who nursed the infant foreign trade of Glasgow. They are named by McUre as in “the great company that arose undertaking the trade to Virginia, Carriby Islands, Barbadoes, New England, St. Christopher’s, Montserrat, and other colonies in America” – an imposing list of markets out of proportion to the “great companies'” small ventures. On a different scale were the operations of the provost’s son.

William Stirling, merchant in Glasgow, the founder of William Stirling & Sons, “the celebrated William Stirling,” ranks with the four young Virginians among the founders of the mercantile greatness of Glasgow. The impulse that they gave to its foreign commerce, he, as much as any one, gave to its native industry. The printing of cloth has long been one of our staple trades, and William Stirling, if not our first printer, was the first to print on a large scale. He began in a small way by buying India cottons in London, and getting them printed there for the Glasgow market, and in the “Glasgow Journal” of 10th May, 1756, he advertises as on sale at his warehouse above the Cross “A neat parcel of printed cottons of the newest patterns, lately imported from London.” But he had not been long content to print merely at second hand, and years before this he had had a field of his own. About 1750 he had formed the firm of “William Stirling & Co.,” with works at Dalsholm, on the Kelvin, where he printed handkerchiefs, and afterwards garments and furniture. The purity of the Kelvin was all that could be desired, but as the business grew, labour at Dalsholm grew scarce and dear, and in 1770 Stirling lifted his graith and moved to the secluded valley of the Leven. There wages would be low, for work was scarce, and Loch Lomond would yield an unlimited supply, summer and winter, of water purer even than the Kelvin. The Stirlings had already found out the Leven. As far back as 1728 Stirling’s uncle, Surgeon William, and his co-partners in a bleaching concern, had acquired what McUre, with the inaccuracy that never fails him, calls “Dalwhern’s bleaching fields.” Immediately above this William Stirling, in co-partnery with his sons, under the new firm of “William Stirling & Sons,” feued Cordale for a print field from Campbell of Stonefield, and he and his successors have been printing away there ever since. Work is not scarce nowadays on the Leven, nor wages low, but Loch Lomond still filters the drainage of a wide and wet area, and along the “crystal flood” that Smollett sang, a great army of printers and dyers is now camped, of which the Stirlings led the van.

William Stirling died in 1777. He was just sixty, and had been but seven years on the Leven. But he had lived long enough to leave to his successors a fine fortune and a fine business. He had five fingers that seldom failed to grasp success, ingenuity, good sense, energy, patience, and thrift. By his wife, a daughter of sturdy old Provost Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier (with Elizabeth, mother of Sir William Hamilton and of “Cyril Thornton,” and Agnes, mother of Andrew and Dugald John Bannatyne), he had three sons, Andrew Stirling of Drumpellier, John Stirling of Tullichewan, and James Stirling of Stair.

These were the “sons” of William Stirling & Sons, and they pushed the business with hereditary spirit. In the course of time they felt a want of elbow-room at Cordale, and they acquired Dalquhurn from the representatives of Surgeon William’s old copartnery. This was in 1791, and the firm has used both places ever since. But their own business was not enough for the energies of the brothers. The Monkland Canal had been begun about the same time as Cordale, but its promoters had not so well as William Stirling counted the cost. They were unable to finish the work, and the American War and the havoc it wrought in Glasgow made it hopeless to raise more capital. Finally, in 1782, the concern was brought to the hammer, and the Stirlings, who were already shareholders, bought it. They pushed their new undertaking with the family energy. They got a fresh Act of Parliament, they finished the part that was lying half made, and they extended the Canal east to the Calder and (in conjunction with the great Canal Company) west to Port Dundas. Canals are of small account nowadays. Many of us never heard of the Monkland Canal, nor even of its famous incline at Blackhill. But in those pre-railroad pre-Macadam days the opening of the Monkland Canal was like the discovery of the great Monkland mineral field. The connection of the Stirlings with this important work is still dimly recalled by “Stirling Road,” which they formed as an approach to the canal basin beside the Martyr’s Stone at the Townhead.

John Stirling, the second son, who died in 1811, carried on the Glasgow family. His eldest son William, born 1780, died 1847, married Margaret Hamilton, daughter of James Ritchie of Craigton and Busbie, one of “the four young men” who were said to have made the fortunes of Glasgow. By her he had sixteen children, five of whom – William, Charles, Richard, Hamilton (Mrs. Alston), and Charlotte Lilias – survive. The eldest of the family, John, a gallant young officer, was killed in action in India. James, the second son, was born on 24th May, 1805, and died on 19th May, 1883. His first intention was to go to the Bar, and with that view he studied at the University of Gottingen for two years, and in the University of Glasgow, but his eyes failed to stand the strain, and he entered the family business. He was a man of moderate views, and in 1849, having made money enough for his wants, he retired. For years he lived at his old ancestral house of Cordale, beside the rushing Leven. Latterly he resided at Rockend, Helensburgh, drawn there, probably, by its convenience for yachting, for he was passionately fond of the sea, and the memories are still green of his schooner, the “Fiery Cross,” and of Jamieson, his skipper. Few men were so much loved by those who had the honour and privilege of knowing him, as James Stirling, and few men better deserved that love, for in his dealings with every one there was a kindly courtesy and consideration all the more valued on account of their rarity nowadays. He had truly the “grand manner” which, we are told, is fast becoming as extinct as the dodo; and with him this grand manner sprang from the heart as well as the head. He was as incapable of a deliberate rudeness or of hurting the feelings of another as of an act of meanness, and bore, if ever man did, without reproach the grand old name of gentleman.

He was a very able man. He had read much and knew books well, and he had travelled far and knew men possibly still better. His charming “Letters from the Slave States,” and a pamphlet or two on the currency, are, alas! all we have from his pen, but those who have enjoyed his conversation can tell how cultured and powerful his mind was. Like his father before him, James Stirling was all his life a staunch Whig. With some other people, he may have thought that of late years the pace was becoming somewhat furious and that the reins were perhaps not in the safest hands, but he never wavered in his allegiance to his party. In 1865 he fought a great fight with Mr. Patrick Boyle Smollett for Dumbartonshire, which resulted in their each polling 574 votes. The matter was ultimately settled by a vote for Mr. Stirling being withdrawn and Mr. Smollett being returned.

There are no Stirlings now in William Stirling & Sons, but any notice of a member of that firm would be incomplete without some mention of the trade which owes so much to them and to which they owe so much. About the year 1780 Mr. James Monteith of Anderston (father of Henry Monteith) warped the first web of pure cotton ever spun in Scotland, and very soon after the spinning-frame and power-loom coming into general use, it became of importance that the printing and dyeing trades should keep pace with the production of cloth. In 1783 the first Turkey-red work in Great Britain was started at Barrowfield by the ubiquitous David Dale and George Macintosh, to whom, and to his son Charles, Glasgow owes a debt of gratitude that has never been fully recognized. Mons. Papillon, a Frenchman, who was brought from Rouen to teach them the art, quarrelled with and left them in a very short time. In 1805 the Barrowfield works were sold to Henry Monteith, whose successors to this day carry on the same business at Blantyre under the firm of Henry Monteith & Co., which is by far the oldest of all our Turkey-red houses. The only other firms that now carry on the business in the neighbourhood of Glasgow are Messrs. Neil Matheson & Reid, of the Eastfield Dyeworks, Rutherglen; T. P. Miller & Co., of Cambuslang; David Millar & Co., of the Clydeselale Dye Works, Rutherglen; and J. & W. Campbell, of Pollokshaws. The process is long and costly, and there never were many firms in the trade; but among those who were Turkey-red dyers, but have given it up, were the Dalmarnock Turkey-Red Company at Rutherglen Bridge, the chief partner of which was George Brown of Capelrig; Miller & Higginbotham, who at their works which were at Cathcart went under the firm of Peter McCallum & Co.; Muir Brown & Co., at the Strathclyde works; Fleming Watson & Nairn, at Springfield; William Miller & Sons, at Dalmarnock; and Macdonald & Co., at Barrhead. In England, Messrs. F. Steiner & Co., of Accrington, carry on a large Turkey-red business, but excepting them and the existing firms above mentioned the whole of the Turkey-red dyeing in Great Britain has centred in the Vale of Leven, where it is carried on by three Glasgow houses – the leviathans of the trade – Messrs. William Stirling & Sons, John Orr Ewing & Co., and Archibald Orr Ewing & Co. These three firms employ among them seven thousand hands, pay £255,000 a year in wages, and can turn out annually five and a half million pieces of cloth, and nearly twenty million pounds of yarn. As has been said, this strath has for more than a hundred years had a great printing trade, and before that it had a bleaching trade. Labour was easily and cheaply got from the surrounding Highlands, and the purity and softness of the water of the Leven made it peculiarly suitable for manufacturing purposes. The pioneers of this industry on the Leven were Messrs. Turnbull & Co., of the Croftingea works, who began to dye Turkey-red in 1827. They were followed in the year 1828 by William Stirling & Sons, at Dalquhurn, who have ever since been a leading house in the trade.

The next oldest of the three firms on the Leven is John Orr Ewing & Co. Mr. John Orr Ewing, a man of great force of character and a most able merchant, began business in the Croftingea works in 1835, and subsequently acquired the Levenfield works which had belonged to John Todd & Co. Archibald Orr Ewing & Co., of Levenbank, Milton, and Dillichip works, is the youngest of the Turkey-red houses. The founder, Mr. Archibald Orr Ewing of Ballikinrain, M.P. for Dumbartonshire, commenced business in 1845 in the Levenbank works. These works had been built as a printwork so far back as 1784 by Messrs. Watson & Arthur, and had long been worked by John Stewart & Co. In 1850 the Milton works were bought from John Todd of Levenfield, at one time of Todd & Shortridge, a well-known firm in its day. These also were old-established works, having been built in 1772. In 1866 Archibald Orr Ewing bought the Dillichip works from the trustees of Mr. Robert Arthur.

If we except the Messrs. Steiner we may say that practically the Turkey-red trade of Great Britain is an exclusively Glasgow industry, and from the Vale of Leven comes three fourths of the Turkey-red cloth and yarn dyed in the kingdom. Our dyers have formidable competitors, but they may be trusted to keep the great trade which their brains and pluck have won.

“The Memoirs and Potraits of 100 Glasgow Men” – Originally Published in 1886 by James MacLehose