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James Gillespie, the snuff maker of Colinton

Updated: Oct 20, 2018

A few Edinburgh streets (Gillespie Crescent, Place, Road and Street) and ‘James Gillespie’s High School’ bear the name of a well-off and kindly figure known as the 'laird of Colinton' - James Gillespie (1726-97). He built Spylaw House in 1773 in the valley of Spylaw Park, off Spylaw Street in Colinton, and made his fortune as a snuff-maker.

In the Royal Mile the wall-plaque at No.231 High Street commemorates him and marks the site of his young brother's snuff shop at Geddes Close and North Foulis Close where he sold the produce from his brother’s snuff mill at Colinton – a tidy and very lucrative business patronised by most of the better-off wig-wearing, snuff-using inhabitants of Edinburgh.

James Gillespie was born on 28th April 1726 at Roslin where his parents brought him up in strict observance of the Solemn League and Covenant for Reformation (1643). As young men James and John left the countryside of Roslin to set up a tobacconist shop in Edinburgh. They were a pair of 'canny Scots' who, between them had a very profitable business arrangement. In 1759 they bought the snuff mills in Colinton and as James managed the manufacturing side of the business John looked after the retailing end in his shop in the High Street. They had cut out the 'middle-man'. They never married, lived frugally and worked conscientiously and most profitably.

James amassed a tidy fortune which enabled him to acquire the estate of Spylaw in 1768 and within five years he had purchased Bonaly and Fernielaw and still more money continued to flow into his coffers. In 1776 he lent £500 (about £76,000 today) on security of property in Leith and a few years later he advanced £1000 (about £152,000 today) on a bond over the Woodhall estate.

He travelled into Edinburgh occasionally to visit his brother and converse with customers. James lived alone except for his servants. To obtain news of events in town he paid social visits to his workers' cottages in Spylaw Street. He enjoyed dining with his servants, again to learn of local gossip and events in Edinburgh. He was a genial soul, self-effacing, not a deep thinker but he was good to his workers and often forgot (on purpose) to collect their rents especially where he found hardship.

The 'laird of Colinton' enhanced his riches not only from making snuff in his factory at Spylaw Park but also from his shrewd investments in the tobacco industry of America following the example of ‘Tobacco Lords’ of Glasgow before and during the War of Independence of 1812.

He permitted himself one rather ostentatious luxury - he bought a bright yellow coach and adorned it with a coat-of-arms. During one of his visits to his brother’s tobacco shop in the High Street he met by chance the highly popular and witty Lord Advocate Henry Erskine (1746-1817). Gillespie showing off his new carriage asked him if he would care to suggest a motto. Erskine, grinning, facetiously suggested:

Wha wad hae thocht it,

That noses could hae bocht it!

His brother died in 1795 and, for company, James befriended a young man who was helpful to him in his later years. He intended to make him his heir but during an argument the young man offended him and he altered his Will in 1796, bequeathing his estates plus £2000 to build a hospital 'for the maintenance of old men and women.' A further £2,700, totalling £12,000, was bequeathed in his name to found a school for children of the poor - James Gillespie's School - to be situated "within the City of Edinburgh or suburbs thereof for the education of 100 poor boys to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic." Another version of the story of his bequests is that of Lord Cockburn, known as “Cocky Cockburn” of Bonaly Tower, the judge and literary critic. In his Memorials of his Time he suggested that Gillespie disinherited his nearest relation “for the vanity of being remembered by a thing named after him.”

However, Gillespie was undoubtedly motivated by a strong sense of sympathy for the poor. In his Will he firstly, specified by name each of his servants to have ‘preference of admission to the said Hospital’; secondly, ‘poor persons of the name Gillespie, fifty-five years of age and upwards, whatever part of Scotland they may come from’; thirdly, the poor belonging to Edinburgh and its suburbs, aged fifty-five years or upwards’; fourthly, ‘failing of applications from poor belonging to Edinburgh and its suburbs, men and women belonging to Leith, Newhaven and other parts of the county of Midlothian’; and lastly, ‘failing applications from all these places, poor coming from any part of Scotland ... none are to be admitted into it who have an allowance from any other charity’.

The Governors of the hospital leased the lands of Bonaly to the Town Council for a water supply but in 1869 they dispensed with the hospital and gave pensions to 167 female and 42 male pensioners. The benefits to the school, opened in 1803 in Bruntsfield Place, were increased and by 1887 the enrolment was 1450 children. Today, the modern James Gillespie’s Primary School in Whitehouse Load accommodates 524 pupils and James Gillespie’s High School in Lauderdale Street has an enrolment of 1255 boys and girls.

James Gillespie died on 8th April 1797 and was buried beside his brother in Colinton Churchyard where a pedimented mausoleum stands over their graves. Inside the Church there is a mural monument to their memory. His tomb is inscribed:

Here rests the remains of


Who bequeathed the bulk of his fortune for the

endowment of an Hospital in the City of Edinburgh, for

the maintenance of aged men and women, and of

a free school for the education of poor

boys, both of which have proved

most useful public charities.


Gillespie did a lot of good locally with his financial legacy. It’s worth noting, as mentioned in last month’s article on Gibson-Craig (who was born the year that Gillespie died), that he was one of many Scots who became fantastically rich thanks for slave labourers in the West Indies. After the Act of Union in 1707 Scotland had direct involvement with the English colonies and by 1796 Scots, comprising 10% of UK population, owned nearly 30% of Jamaican estates. Tobacco coming into Leith and led to the development of snuff mills along the Water of Leith. This is what James Gillespie made his fortune from.



First published in Konect August 2017

Author: David Dick


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