Old Glasgow Club

Minutes of ordinary meeting of Club held at Adelaide’s, 209 Bath Street on Thursday 13th January 2011 at 7.30pm





Mr Gordon (President)


Mr Gordon welcomed all to the meeting.


There were apologies from Isabel Haddow, Eileen Campbell, George Campbell, Brian Henderson, Sharon Macys and May Reid.


The minutes of the last ordinary meeting held on Thursday 9th December were approved, proposed by Robert Pool and seconded by May Lister. There were no amendments or matters arising.

Presidents report

Mr Gordon apologised for missing the December meeting and expressed his regret at having missed Roddy McPherson’s talk on the Citizens Theatre.

Mr Gordon reminded everyone that the February meeting would be Members Night with this year’s theme “a night at the pictures”.

Secretary’s report

There was no Secretary’s report.


Mr Gordon introduced our speaker Mr Stuart Nisbet who would talk on Glasgow’s sugar lords.

Mr Nisbet was a structural engineer, specialising in Historical Architecture. He has completed a PhD and research fellowship specialising in 18th Century history and development especially in West of Scotland Colonial interests.

Mr Nisbet described his talk as a personal detective trail on a lesser known aspect of Glasgow history- the Sugar Lords.

The 17th and early 18th century in Glasgow’s history is fairly vague compared with the better documented Tobacco Lord’s reign. However, in a Slezer print of this period Glasgow is shown with trading boats and the Merchants Steeple prominently in the picture. By the 1800’s Glasgow was being called the Second City of the Empire, therefore there must have been a solid foundation for the mercantile centre to grow upon. Mr Nesbit suggests that this foundation came from colonial trade with sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Mr Nesbit then introduced us to two merchants pivotal to this trade – Colonel William McDowall and Major James Milliken. These gentlemen have been written about in glowing terms as having exemplary military careers in the Caribbean, marrying local heiresses, making their fortune and returning home to Glasgow to share their wealth with the city. Col. McDowall was described as “the most notable figure in Glasgow” upon his return. He bought the Castle Semple Estate in Lochwinnoch for £10,000 and rebuilt Shawfield Mansion in 1727 making it one of the first palatial houses built upon trade profit. He had the castle upon the Lochwinnoch estate demolished and rebuilt in a similar style to Shawfield Mansion. Sadly the house was demolished in the 1970s after falling into disrepair. Recently maps from the period have been discovered showing the grandeur of the finished estate. Major James Milliken owned the Milliken estate in Johnstone.

Col. McDowall (1678-1748) was the 5th son of a landed family from the Garthland estate in Galloway. Since he was unlikely to achieve a significant inheritance he used his father’s connections to secure an apprenticeship in the Caribbean. Glasgow and the Clyde ports had been trading with the volcanic Leeward Islands of St Kitts and Nevis since the 1640’s and there were 4 sugar houses in Glasgow at the time William McDowall set sail for the Caribbean.

The romanticised story is that McDowall served in the army on Nevis, fighting against the French. Mr Nesbit has discovered over 200 letters from Colonel McDowall in the National Library in Edinburgh which describe a tough and ambitious man and provided a great source of material for research.

In reality he was apprenticed for 10 years to Colonel Daniel Smith on a sugar plantation on Nevis as an overseer. Overseers were described as “poor Scotch lads who by their assiduity and industry frequently became masters of the plantation”. He served in the island militia but was never involved with the British Army. He quickly worked through the plantation system and eventually managed one of the largest plantations on the island. Sugar exports from the Leeward Islands at this time exceeded the total combined trade of all the mainland colonies of America. In 1706 the French were defeated on St Kitts and the French owned plantations were divided up between the Scottish plantation managers. By 1707 McDowall owned his own plantation on St Kitts and purchased 12 enslaved Africans. Another plantation owner was McDowell’s good friend and future business partner, James Milliken from Renfrewshire.

McDowall then took over the 800 acre Canada Hills plantation which was then to be his family’s core plantation for the next century. The plantation comprised 1 colonial house, 2 mills, a boiling house, a still house and later a windmill. Mr Nesbit showed some recent pictures he had taken on the island where the archaeology of the site was still visible. Mr Nesbit remarked that St Kitts obviously had a long link with Glasgow as he noticed that a plaque on a clock tower came from Glasgow’s Sun foundry.

Col. McDowell then married a local plantation owner’s daughter and heiress, Mary Tovey, from Bristol. His friend James Milliken had married her widowed step-mother. McDowall and Milliken then became business partners branching out into the shipping business. By this time other members of the McDowall family had arrived in the islands and were expanding the business to other Caribbean islands. Notably McDowalls’ cousin Alexander Houston was recruited as a shipping agent and later became a business partner in the South Sugar House, eventually establishing his own successful merchant house.

Once Colonel McDowall and Major Milliken had secured their family fortunes they returned to Britain, relying heavily on their military “history” to climb into society. The Milliken estates in St Kitts (Monkey Hill) lasted for two generations before being sold to another Renfrewshire family, the Napier’s. Sugar production continued on the site until 2006.

Colonel McDowall returned to Britain in 1724 and decided that “sugar will sell as well at Glasgow as in any other part of Britain”. He bought shares in Glasgow’s South Sugar House and diverted the route of some sugar ships from London to the Clyde. He retired to his Castle Semple estate where evidence suggests his Scottish tenants were less easy to control than the slaves on his Caribbean plantations. He was still involved in the shipping of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, for example the ship “The Fair Parnelia” carried 273 slaves from the Gold Coast in 1727. His wife Mary Tovey succumbed to smallpox and is buried in Glasgow Cathedral. He died in October 1748 aged 71. His family rose to the highest positions of society as provosts, MP’s, sheriffs, and rectors of Glasgow University. On his death there were accolades applauding his noble pedigree, fine character, gallant, romantic, virtuous, talented and praise-worthy nature, stating he was amongst the elite of 18th Century Scotland.

Evidence from the archives and his letters however shed a different light on the two most prominent Glasgow merchants of the 18th Century. Colonel McDowall was considered a most frugal planter, providing the minimum of food and shelter and expecting the maximum effort. There were no nursing or medical facilities for the sick or dying. The intensity of the sugar planting left little room for food cultivation therefore the slaves were dependent upon the overseer for food which was in meagre supply and dependent upon the shipping trade. Ironically their main food was imported salted herring from the Clyde. If the trade ship did not complete the hazardous voyage there was no food and many slaves died of starvation, however others could be cheaply bought (evidence of 10 negro boys bought for £23 each) such was the disposable nature of the trade. Slave insurrection was harshly dealt with, usually involving hanging or burning. Reported evidence of a gangmaster absconding was swiftly dealt with by “the ruthless Scottish militia officer, Major James Milliken”. Many of William McDowall’s slaves were given traditionally Scottish names e.g. Agnes, Kilbarchan, Flora. The conditions on the plantations have been likened to a concentration camp.

Whilst Col McDowall and Major Milliken did not directly trade in slaves they were involved in the purchase, use and abuse of enslaved Africans on their plantations. This is further evidence in the controversial subject of Glasgow’s profitable involvement in the trade of African slaves.

Mr Nisbet then took questions from the floor.

Q. In the Glassford family portrait in the Peoples Palace there is evidence of a slave in the picture which has been later removed. Were there any slaves brought over by McDowall or Miliken?

A. Yes, the import of slaves happened although it was more common during the tobacco lord era. There is evidence that McDowall transported at least 12 to Glasgow. Many tried to escape.

Q. When did sugar trading start?

A. Sugar has been traded since the middle ages. Traditionally it was sourced from Tunisia or Cyprus for European consumption. Frost was a major production factor and whole harvests could be easily destroyed in cold weather. Later production moved to Madeira and the Canary Islands. There is evidence of a correlation between this move and an increase in slavery on these islands.

Q. Was sugar the white granulated type we know today?

A. The plantations on St Kitts provided a first stage of refining sugar, which once complete was transported on the sugar ships to London or Glasgow for further refining. McDowall made Glasgow refined sugar of a London quality for use in candies. Lesser quality sugar was used for fermentation or making molasses for rum.

Q. What was Tate & Lyle before its current arrangement?

A. The Tate & Lyle refinery in Port Glasgow was formed in 1880’s and is a conglomerate of many smaller refineries. Sadly it no longer refines sugar.


Vote of Thanks

Mrs Forrest thanked Mr Nisbet for bringing alive two real Glasgow characters and likened them to typical Glasgow “chancers”. Mrs Forrest commended Mr Nisbets dedication to his subject – all the travelling to St Kitts and Nevis for research purposes must have been hard work! Mrs Forrest remarked that the historian/archivist in her envied the thrill of finding the new letters and material in the National Library.



Next Directors Meeting- Straight after this meeting

Next Ordinary Meeting – February 10th 2011, Members Night

Mr Gordon wished all a safe journey home.


P Cairns, Recording Secretary.



The next directors’ meeting would be on 3 November and the next ordinary meeting on 11 November.



Mr Gordon wished all a safe journey home.


JN Gibson, Recording Secretary