The Tobacco Lords

Following the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland would quickly establish itself as a major player in the industrial world. The Union allowed the country access to the British Colonies and opened up a new wave of trade, the Atlantic trade. Glasgow would provide some of the greatest entrepreneurs of the century- the Tobacco Lords. Scotland first millionaires.


New Opportunities

The Acts of Union 1707 came just a decade after English explorers discovered tobacco in the North America colonies. Tobacco had been an unknown commodity at this point to Europe, but it was commonly used amongst the natives in the new world, and smoking quickly became popular across the European continent. Glasgow was actually receiving its first shipping of tobacco in the 1670s, but the trade barriers with England and the British empire, chiefly the Navigation Act (which stopped Scotland trading with the colonies), meant that little was made in Glasgow of this new commodity- except for personal use.

The Union would open up the Atlantic trade to Scotland though, and Glasgow was ready to pounce. At the end of the 17th Century Glasgow was largely an agricultural town, with an economy that was highly unstable. A small place at the time, around 20,000 in population, the trade of tobacco would be the making of the now bustling, major city. Initially Glasgow merchants were sent over to the colonies to organise the opening of plantations and the trade with plant owners. They would give the plant owners financial credit and loan them tools from the Scottish industries (largely iron and linen). These plantation owners would be credited against their future crop- effectively making these Glaswegians the majority owners of the plants.

The River Clyde would be the key to Glasgow’s success in the early battles in the Atlantic trade. With the Clyde directly facing the North Atlantic, it gave Glasgow immediate access to transatlantic shipping routes. It gave the city dominance, in reality. It was said than the journeys from Glasgow would be upto 3 weeks quicker than those from Bristol or London (the other major ports). However, the Clyde did not have significant depth and was very difficult to navigate for some of the bigger ships, so Greenock and Port Glasgow were established as further cargo bays- where the large trade ships would offload onto smaller ships and sail upstream into the city.

It was around the mid-17th century that a global trading system, that would be known as The Three Way Trade, began its profitable operations. The system would see ships sail from Britain to Africa, to the American colonies. The ships would pick up slaves from Africa, take them to the plantations in the colonies before picking up the supplies of sugar, and predominantly tobacco, and bringing them back to Britain for them to be shipped into the huge European market.

Incredible profits were made from this and Glasgow’s population began rapidly increasing as the new trade poured money into the new city, making it one of the wealthiest cities in the world- and a key player in the rapid industrialisation of the wider country (and the rest of Britain). The Glaswegians had great access to the European market, with the French Government awarding Glasgow what was effectively a free trade with France in 1748- allowing Glasgow unlimited access to French ports (probably due to the high demand for the tobacco). The mega riches pulled in from this trade allowed Scottish companies and banks (such as the Royal Bank and the Thistle Bank) the power to monopolise the new market, creating new methods of giving credit, and generally taking a huge grip on the national economy.

Not just trading tobacco around Europe, Glasgow was now in overdrive in exporting other kinds of goods to the colonies. Linen was initially the dominant product of the early exports, but as their grip of the Atlantic trade became stronger, mass amount of other manufacturing goods were shipped across (mainly iron and cotton).

Glasgow was now the unofficial capital of Scotland, and had the biggest manufacturing economy in the Empire, earning its title of the Second City of the Empire in the process.


The Tobacco War

Many say that the American War of Independence came about as a result of disputes over slaves, but the story of the tobacco lords gives a different perspective. Indebted American farmers would be forced to sell their crops at very cheap prices to the Glasgow merchants- who also were the ones holding their debts. This brought a great feeling of unfairness to the American traders, and one of these frustrated plantation farmers was none other than George Washington.

The future leader of the country had debts of several thousand (equivalent to hundreds of thousands today) and was one of the leaders in the early rebellion against the perceived oppression of the Virginia plant owners. This coinciding with the Stamp Act 1765(a new paper tax that was imposed on the colonies in the Americas), was what generally led to the American War of Independence. Famously looked back upon as beginning as a tea war- in reality, the revolution really had much of its roots in tobacco.

Whatever started the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775, it was the beginning of the end of the Tobacco Lords in the new world. The owners of the plantations in the colonies unsurprisingly refused to pay up their debts, and collecting the money became impossible for the Glasgow merchants. The losses were felt immediately as the tobacco ran dry, and the city struggled to maintain the trade. Soon the United States was born and the tobacco was sent directly from their states into Europe- cutting out the Glasgow middlemen. The golden age of tobacco was over.

Undeterred from the war in North America, the merchants would turn their full focus to the West Indies- also part of the British Empire. Thought this time it would be sugar and cotton, rather than tobacco, that would be the forefront of their interests.

“A powerful engine for this mercantile profiting was the giving of good prices and credit to the planter till they got him more immersed in debt than he could pay without selling lands or slaves. They then reduced the prices given for his tobacco so that they never permitted him to clear off his debt.”

Thomas Jefferson

It Wisnae Us

The Tobacco Lords were no average traders, they were the city royalty- and they lived like it. They were known for their flamboyant and flashy clothing as much as they were for their luxury mansions and expensively assembled churches. Silver wigs and walking canes were a famous stereotype of the Tobacco chiefs. The area in the city centre now known as Merchant City was where these businessmen would play. As for the churches, St. Andrew’s Parish Church was the most famous built by the lords, and is now used as centre for the Scottish culture and arts. It is considered one of the finest examples of classical church architecture in the country.

So why are they not as recognised in the city as they should be?. Many Glaswegians don’t even know who they are. Today, with the Tobacco Lords there is an inkling of shamefulness about any glorification of them, given their heavy involvement and association with the slave trade. These are men that benefited primarily from other peoples misery. There is no way they could make such ridiculous amounts of money just from the tobacco trade. In reality, about 70% of their wealth came from the system of abuse and slavery, rather than the commodity.

At one point British ships, many of them Scottish, were transporting half a million slaves across the Atlantic over 5 years. The 2009 book “It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery” by Stephen Mullen is another example about the modern day tendency of denial, rather than glorify, of the tobacco lords and their activities. The Glasgow University lecturer studied a specific period, between the early 1770s through to the various acts of abolishment in the early 19th century.

All around the city, the Tobacco Lords secret past is present. Merchant City. Jamaica Street- named after the biggest slavery plantation in the Caribbeans. St Andrews church was funded by the profits gained from slavery, while the Gallery of Modern Art (formally the Cunninghame mansion) was created by a man who once had several thousand slaves on his books. The merchant city too was built by slaves. But make no mistake, when all these streets and buildings began honouring the merchants, they were famous and glorified- prime examples for your children to draw inspiration from.

However, following the abolishing of slavery, and the proud role Glasgow played in it, the city was left attempting to hide its founding fathers behind the names of its most famous streets.

(photo courtesy of abdn.ac.uk)


The controversial Glassford Family Portrait (Image courtesy of nms.ac.uk)

The painting of John Glassford and his family (above) speaks a million words about the change in attitude facing the Tobacco Lords. At the time the portrait was painted by Archibald McLaughlin in 1767, having a slave was almost like a trophy, and it seems that the Glassford family at the time were thus keen to have a slave in their portrait. However, times change quick- and soon it was painted over as the city tried desperately to rid itself of its slave shame. It can still be seen today on closer inspection though, and serves as a reminder of the cities secret founders, secrets. The mysterious boy is just behind Glassfords head, by the way. The picture on the left has used some modern technology to fully expose the cover up.

(photos courtesy of BlackHistory)


The Lords

The events of this time bring shame to the city and the country but it has to be put into perspective. So its worth pointing out that most western cities gained great riches from the use of the slave system at the time. Belgium were by far the worst of these abusers- they committed unthinkable atrocities across the Congo Free State (who Belgium had as a colony for more than 50 years). They wiped out entire villages for their own Kings amusement.

Scotland were notably at the forefront of the later Abolitionist movement in the British Empire- the English were the driving force behind the changes on the political landscape, but Scotland were the brains behind it all. The Scottish enlightenment was lighting up at this point. Clearly the viewpoint that this particular piece of history brings to the city is a distorted one.

As for the Tobacco Lords, and despite all the modern shame placed upon the events, they say People Make Glasgow– and these merchants are the people that truly made Glasgow. Some of the Founding Fathers of Glasgow in truth. The place was nothing more than a small town prior to their exploits, which transformed Glasgow into a global commercial and industrial powerhouse.

It is not thought that the individuals noted as a Tobacco Lord were referenced to as such during the times. Many merchants were successful in the tobacco trade, but these particular merchants (the ones known as the Tobacco Lords today) also served as Lord Provost of Glasgow (some multiple times) at some point in their lives-and there contributions are clearly far more notable than the rest. So there isn’t really a list of the Tobacco Lords, it could extent to a number of people, though the ones noted below were the most prominent. James Dunlop, Andrew Caskie, George Wardrop, and James Corbet would be a few others worth mentioning aswell.

Andrew Buchanan. Born into a wealthy Glasgow family in 1690, he was the son of Covenanter (George Buchanan) and a merchant trader (Mary Buchanan). He was one of the first of the Glasgow merchants to establish a tobacco pant in Virginia. He went on to hold dozens of profitable estates in Virginia. Through his wealth he gained a considerable portfolio of properties around the Glasgow area, and was named Lord Provost of Glasgow in 1740. He was a very important figure in the establishment of the Ship Bank- which was the nations first provisional banking companies to be founded in Glasgow. He died in 1759 and is buried in Ramshorn Cemetery. Buchanan Street in the city centre is named after him.


John Glassford. The paisley born merchant would be regarded as the greatest of his time by many- the Prince of the Glasgow merchants they say. Born in 1715, The Andrew Carnegie of the Tobacco Lords, he held a vast empire which included an extensive collection of ships, shops and farms. He made huge mistakes however, and was ruined by the American war of Independence, dying in 1783 with debts of more than £100,000. Glassford street was named after him. He was very very successful though, and the lack of icon of this powerful businessman goes back to the previous points about the shame. Alongside Buchanan (and a few other famous merchants), he is buried in Ramshorn Cemetery.


Andrew Cochrane. From Ayr (1693), he moved to Glasgow in 1722 and along with his brother John Murdoch he would establish Cochrane, Murdoch & Co– a very successful Virginia-based Tobacco company. He is more remembered for saving the other Tobacco lords, and everyone else, in the city from insolvency. This was following his (2nd) spell as Lord Provost of Glasgow in 1745- where he had to negotiate tariffs with Bonny Prince Charles and his Jacobites, who were passing through after retreating from the south. The Prince and his Jacobites stayed for 10 days- and it cost the city £14,000 in total to host them. This led the city to be indebted and on the verge of bankruptcy. However, Cochrane went to London and successfully negotiated a compensation fee to the city of around £10,000 (it was UK government troops that the Jacobites were retreating from fighting). Subsequently, Cochrane Street was named after the Tobacco Lord and city saviour, while their is a memorial to him in Glasgow Cathedral.


Archibald Ingram. Born in Glasgow in 1699, he would have a significant advantage over the other wannabe tobacco lords- he is the brother in law of John Glassford. With Glassford, he would establish the Ingram & Glassford trading company, which became one of the largest in the world. Unlike his brother in law with his property investments, Ingram would become heavily involved in the Calico Printing Company (a textile company) and he was later recognised as the father of the calico printing industry in the country. He died in 1770 and thus escaped the financial ruin that the American Revolution would bring. Ingram Street is named in his honour.


Alexander Speirs. He was from Glasgow originally and was born around 1714 in the city. His father, also named Alexander, was a merchant from Edinburgh and purchased a plantation farm in Virginia, subsequently moving the family over to North America. Creating his own company, Alexander Speirs & Co, he would return to the city of his birth in his 20s and become a major figure in the tobacco trade. One of the richest of the lords, he was involved in reformist movements of the time, and supporter the Jacobite. He held high positions at times, including the Treasurer of Glasgow, aswell as being a principle founder of the Glasgow Arms Bank. Speirs died at the mansion he had built at Elderslie in 1781.


William Cunninghame. Born in Kilmarnock in 1715, he initially moved to Glasgow in 1745 when he began working for the tobacco firm Cochrane, Murdoch & Company. Later he started his own company, William Cunninghame & Company, which would go on to be in the top 3 largest importers. He gained most of his wealth by purchasing cheap tobacco at the start of the American War of Independence, and then selling them at inflated prices later on in the war. Cunninghame built a neo-classical architectural masterpiece, at the cost of £10,000, in the city centre- which still stands today, and homes the Gallery of Modern Art.



It is a truth universally acknowledged that the tobacco plant will be responsible for a substantial improvement in the health of a nation.

The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer (Play)