FINLAY, Kirkman (1773-1842), of Castle Toward, Renfrew.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1812 - 1818
1818 - June 1820

Family and Education

b. Apr. 1773, 2nd s. of James Finlay (d.1790), merchant in Glasgow, by Abigail née Whirry. educ. Glasgow g.s. m. 7 or 8 Sept. 1795, Janet, da. of Robert Struthers, brewer, of Glasgow, 5s. 5da.

Offices Held

Lt. R. Glasgow vols. 1796, capt. 1797, 1803, maj. 1807.

Bailie, Provan 1801, Glasgow 1804, ld. provost 1812-14, 1818; rector, Glasow Univ. Nov. 1819-20.

Gov. Forth and Clyde navigation 1814; dir. (extraordinary) Bank of Scotland 1821-d.


Finlay’s father, a cadet of Finlay of the Moss near Killearn, was the founder of a flourishing mercantile establishment in Glasgow. Himself displaying considerable flair as an entrepreneur, which involved him in the purchase of three cotton mills, he became chairman of the Glasgow chamber of commerce. From 1807 he successfully challenged the continental system imposed by Buonaparte, exporting contraband goods to Europe via strategic depots.1 On 23 Mar. 1812 he led the Glasgow merchants in their call for free trade with India and China and was deputed to represent them with delegates from other outports in lobbying government. In May he was examined in the Lords as to the likely effects of repealing the orders in council: he believed that ‘the rescinding the orders in council would, upon the whole, be injurious ... in the present circumstances’.2 In this, the year he was chosen lord provost, he also became Member for the burghs. Glasgow, the returning burgh in the contest, declared unanimously for him, and Rutherglen, under Lord Archibald Hamilton’s influence, supported him. He secured the latter by declaring that he would enter Parliament unfettered. Despite his clashes with the Glasgow Whigs over the orders in council, they insisted on regarding him as, in some sense, their Member. The Treasury, on the other hand, were assured that he was ‘a determined friend’ and he appeared on their list of supporters after the election. His conduct was so independent as to place him ‘pretty often’ in opposition.3

The Whigs confidently described Finlay as ‘entirely ours on the grand Catholic question’4 and his vote was regularly given for Catholic relief, though he never spoke on the subject. His maiden speech, 20 May 1813, advocated the claims of the American loyalists, on whose behalf he had seen Pitt nearly 20 years before. Next day he voted against a clause in the Admiralty registrars bill. His main theme, however, was the claim of the outports to a share in oriental trade, which he put forward as a select committeeman in the debates on the East India Company’s trade monopoly in June and July 1813, during which he also voted against missionary activities in India. After presenting a Paisley petition against it, he objected to a ban on the import of American cotton during the war with the USA, 29 June 1813, because it would cause widespread unemployment. On 29 Nov. 1813 he voted against the renewal of the framework knitters bill. In December he complained several times of the advantages enjoyed by foreign merchants as compared with British ones under the existing East India Company trade regulations. He was himself a pioneer of the ensuing Glasgow trade with the Orient. He was less conspicuous in the session of 1814, though his opposition to the spirits bill, 24 June, reduced the House to ‘long continued bursts of laughter’ when he moved as an amendment ‘that the Speaker do leave the chair this day three months’. He also objected strongly to the proposed tax on raw cotton imports, which would make British cotton manufacture less competitive, 6 July. He upheld the Glasgow textile manufacturers’ objection to the preference shown their Irish counterparts in the matter of cotton and linen bleaching, 10 Feb. 1815, but failed to secure an inquiry.

The question of the Corn Laws caused some friction between Finlay and his constituents. He had opposed any alteration in the laws, 21 June 1813, and had seen no necessity for a corn importation restriction bill, 24 May 1814, but following select committee experience, and on the strength of observations in France the preceding summer, he spoke out for protection on 23 Feb. 1815, provided that the price fixed was not too high. He thought (1 Mar.) that 75s. or 76s. should be the limit. Although his vote was given against the bill, he was one of the Members assailed by the mob on the way to Parliament on 6 Mar. and next day his house in Glasgow was attacked. Subsequently he supported his constituents’ petition to the effect that 76s. should be the limit and that 80s. was excessive. On 24 Mar. he was formally pardoned by Glasgow council.5

Finlay had voted with opposition against maintaining the militia in peacetime, 28 Feb. 1815, and against the deportation of Spanish Liberal refugees from Gibraltar, 1 Mar. He voted for retrenchment of the civil list throughout that session and on 1 May for the reception of the London petition against the renewal of war. In debate he opposed the new taxes, 13 Mar., describing the chancellor as ‘the most formidable antagonist the manufacturing interest of the country had ever met with’; next day he vindicated a Glasgow cotton manufacturers’ petition for the repeal of the cotton duty, promising to move for a select committee on the state of cotton manufacture. He was a prominent opponent in March 1816 of the renewal of the property tax, on which he again presented Glasgow petitions, insisting against the chancellor that it was oppressive to manufacturers. Throughout that session he voted in the minorities for retrenchment, though he saw no reason to reduce the navy treasurer’s salary, 1 Apr., and voted in one civil list majority, 24 May. He voted for the resumption of cash payments by the Bank. Never dogmatic, he admitted that the time was not ripe for free trade in woollens, 29 Apr.

Finlay attributed commercial distress to low wages due to post-war competition for employment, 13 Mar. 1817. He thought the seditious meetings bill necessary, 14 Mar., and pointed out that there was evidence of malcontent plotting in Glasgow. He had himself employed Alexander Richmond as a spy on the conspirators and notified the Home secretary in February, expressing the belief that the plot was ineffective and likely to fail because of a revival of trade.6 On 21 Mar. and 7 May he criticized allegations of unjust treatment of Glasgow radicals in detention, but he subsequently became disillusioned and on 5 June voted against the secret committee on sedition and on 11 June against the suspension of habeas corpus. His indignation was reserved for the lord advocate Maconochie who, he somewhat sweepingly complained, could not even draw up an indictment correctly, 20 June. A motion of his for the repeal of the linen transit duties was obstructed by Irish opposition, 22 May 1817.

Owing his seat to Lord Archibald Hamilton, Finlay supported the latter’s motion critical of the treatment of state prisoners in Scotland, 10 Feb. 1818, but described the petitions against it presented by Hamilton as misleading and untrue, 19 Feb., 3, 10 Mar., and voted against the opposition attacks on government informers, 11 Feb., 5 Mar. He saw ‘no occasion’ for Sir Robert Peel’s cotton factories bill, designed to prevent the abuse of child labour, 19, 23 Feb., and feared that ‘a mistaken notion of humanity’ might lead the House ‘to injure those whom they wished to serve’, 23 Apr., further pointing out that, if the bill passed, ‘this country could no longer enjoy her present superiority in manufactures in the foreign markets’, 27 Apr. It was out of preference for laissez faire, too, that he opposed such measures as the steamboats bill, 5 May. On 19 May he called for the resumption of payments in specie by the Bank. He found the lord advocate’s bill to regulate Scottish burgh accounts totally inadequate, 10 Apr., 5 May, and voted in the minority on Admiralty salaries, 16 Mar., in the majority against the Duke of Clarence’s marriage grant, 15 Apr., and in the minorities against the miscellaneous estimates and aliens bill, 22 May. On 3 June he was in the majority against Brougham’s motion to promote the education of the poor.

Although Finlay renewed his candidature for Glasgow Burghs in February 1818, he anticipated defeat and did not pursue a petition he threatened when ousted by a casting vote. There was a false rumour of his intervening in Selkirk Burghs, but he had secured his return for Malmesbury instead. His conduct remained independent. On 2 Feb. 1819 he stayed in with ministers on Tierney’s motion.7 On the other hand he was in the minorities for placing Brougham on the Bank committee, 8 Feb., against the Windsor establishment and royal household bill, 25 Feb., 19 Mar., and for criminal law reform, 2 Mar. On 1 Apr. he ridiculed the lord advocate’s attempt to obstruct the reform of the burgh of Aberdeen and on 6 May supported a select committee on Scottish burgh reform, to which he was named next day. He voted with ministers against Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May, but with opposition against the foreign enlistment bill, 10 June, and for an inquiry into charity abuses, 23 June.

In the autumn of 1819 Finlay became an alarmist, advocating the creation of a national guard. Lord Melville was informed by Sir John Marjoribanks, 1 Sept.:

You will be pleased to hear that Finlay (who was equivocal in politics) most fully read his recantation in a conversation I had with him. He said he was not ashamed to confess that he had changed radically and if he had the choice to new model the House of Commons he would not alter it in any degree—you will see him steadily supporting government in the next session.8

This seems to have been the case. On 16 Dec. he denied that government had turned a deaf ear to Scottish distress and on 24 Dec. argued that ministers were doing their best in the face of commercial distress, in a speech which exhibited his views on the subject of free trade. He rejected a simplistic view that free trade was a panacea for commercial ills, thinking it very difficult to realize; and, taking issue with David Ricardo, blamed over-speculation, over-importation and over-manufacture for the prevailing distress, which must in any case be seen in the context of a universal trade recession. That, on the whole, his preference was for free trade was to be indicated in a speech of 16 May 1820. Finlay declined standing for Glasgow Burghs in 1820, went out of Parliament soon afterwards and was an unsuccessful candidate for Glasgow in 1830. He died 4 Mar. 1842.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


T. M. Devine, ‘Kirkman Finlay: a study of entrepreneurship and politics’ (Strathclyde Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1972).

  • 1. G. Eyre Todd, Glasgow, iii. 434; J. O. Mitchell, Old Glasgow Essays, 26.
  • 2. Edinburgh Advertiser, 27, 31 Mar., 22 May 1812; Recs. Burgh of Glasgow, x. 131.
  • 3. Edinburgh Advertiser, 13, 16 Oct.; Brougham mss 34961; T.64/261, Rose to Arbuthnot, 8 Nov. 1812; SRO GD51/5/364/23, Drummond to Melville, 1 Mar. 1816.
  • 4. Brougham mss 34961; Mackintosh Mems. ii. 263.
  • 5. Recs. Burgh of Glasgow, x. 290.
  • 6. W. M. Roach, ‘Alexander Richmond ...’, Scottish Hist. Rev. (1972), 9.
  • 7. SRO GD224/580, Eliott Lockhart to Buccleuch, 17 Mar. 1818; Grey mss, Lambton to Grey, 3 Feb. 1819.
  • 8. SRO GD51/5/97.