FINLAY, Kirkman (1773-1842), of Queen Street, Glasgow and Castle Toward, Argyll

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1812 - 1818
1818 - 20 June 1820

Family and Education

b. Apr. 1773, 2nd s. of James Finlay (d. 1790), merchant, of Glasgow and w. Abigail née Whirry of Whitehaven, Cumb. educ. Glasgow g.s. m. 7 Sept. 1795, Janet, da. of Robert Struthers, brewer, of Glasgow, 6s. (2 d.v.p.) 5da. (3 d.v.p.). d. 4 Mar. 1842.

Offices Held

Bailie, Provan 1801, Glasgow 1804; ld. provost, Glasgow 1812-14, 1818, pres. chamber of commerce 1812, 1816-17, 1823-4, 1829-30; rect. Glasgow Univ. 1819-20.

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

Gov. Forth and Clyde Navigation 1814; dir. Glasgow Fire Insurance Co. 1803-11; dir. (extraordinary) Bank of Scotland 1821-d.


In 1795, when he was 21 and already embarked on his spectacularly successful entrepreneurial career, Finlay reproached himself in his diary for the ‘petulancy of my temper’:

The too great indulgence I received from my mother, and my early introduction to the world, where my abilities have been treated with more regard than they deserve, have given me a self sufficiency, a contempt for the opinions, conduct and amusements of others which I have long in vain endeavoured to correct. I believe, however, that I have got on the road to amendment, and I hope that upon every new inspection of my mind I shall find my respect for others increase. In companies and public assemblies my great ambition to shine and to appear a man of parts very frequently betrays me into many inconsistencies, and into an unpardonable loquacity. This fault I have formed many resolutions to amend [but] notwithstanding all my determination I find that my natural propensity is too great, and being flattered by the applause of the giddy, I very probably obtain a praise for spirit at the expense of sense.

In 1832 he let his fourth surviving son Alexander Struthers Finlay (1806-86), who was about to take his place in the Bombay trading house of Ritchie, Stewart and Company established by Finlay 16 years previously, into the secret of his success in commerce:

I early saw the necessity for the most close attention to business ... I was as fair as I could be, also anxious to oblige and serve others, and in this way I was fortunate in obtaining the reputation of steadiness and attention at an age when these qualities are not always to be found ... There is nothing advances a mercantile man so much as character, and this is to be obtained not only by the greatest attention, industry and regularity of conduct, information and intelligence in business, but also by that friendly and obliging disposition of mind and behaviour which wins the good opinion and interest of all by whom you are surrounded.1

Finlay, a disciple of Adam Smith, was one of the pioneers of the expansion and diversification of Glasgow commerce after the collapse of the tobacco trade with America. From the 1790s he built up an extensive (and during the French wars illegal) network of trade in cotton goods to Europe and later to the Americas and the East, the latter after leading the Glasgow merchants’ campaign against the East India Company’s monopoly in 1812. His acquisition of cotton mills at Catrine, Ayrshire, Balfron, Stirlingshire and Deanston, Perthshire between 1792 and 1808 made him the leading manufacturer in Scotland. The Glasgow trading house of James Finlay and Company founded by his father developed branches in Heligoland, Dusseldorf, Gibraltar, London (Finlay, Hodgson and Company of 8 St. Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate) and Liverpool, as well as Bombay. Finlay, a leading figure in the commercial and political life of Glasgow, and the independent and outspoken Member for its district of burghs in the 1818 Parliament, bought land at Achenwillan, Argyllshire, on the peninsula between the Firth of Clyde and Loch Fyne, for £14,050. He improved and added to the estate and, in what he later came to regret as an act of ‘extravagant’ folly inspired by ‘pride and vanity’, built the imposing residence of Castle Toward overlooking Rothesay Bay.2

In the 1818 Parliament Finlay had sat for Malmesbury as the nominee of the Whig 4th earl of Rosebery, who had bought the return from the boroughmonger Joseph Pitt*. At the 1820 general election he ‘reluctantly’ declined to stand for Glasgow Burghs, where the ministerialist Archibald Campbell* of Blythswood seemed impregnable.3 He turned down a suggestion from the lord advocate, Sir William Rae*, who told Lord Melville, the Liverpool ministry’s Scottish manager that he ‘would go with us on all great questions’, that he might try Stirling Burghs. There was support for him also in Haddington Burghs, but in the event he came in again for Malmesbury.4 He had turned alarmist in the wake of Peterloo, and at the Glasgow meeting of merchants and manufacturers, 11 Apr. 1820, he moved their resolution not to employ any person implicated in the recently thwarted radical insurrection and called for a union of ‘firmness, prudence, assiduity and discretion’ among employers to help ‘eradicate the poison which had been so widely and deeply infused’.5 In the House, 28 Apr., speaking from the government side, he confirmed the difficulties of ‘the distressed population’ of the Glasgow area and urged ministers to give financial aid ‘unconditionally’. On 4 May he secured a return of information on Scottish spirit distillation, 1798-1818.6 He was named to the select committee on the Scottish royal burghs that day. He divided against government on the civil list, 5, 8 May. On the 16th he presented and endorsed the petition of Glasgow chamber of commerce for ‘the establishment of a free trade, and the removal of all restrictions upon commercial imports and exports’ regardless of foreign reciprocity. Having recanted the support for protective corn laws which had landed him in trouble with the Glasgow mob in 1816, he argued that ‘if it should be found that the history of our commercial policy was a tissue of mistakes and false notions ... that policy should be given up, and a permanent system of commercial regulations established in its stead’. He advocated also revision of the revenue and bankruptcy laws, inquiry into extents in aid and repeal of the usury laws. On 16 June 1820 he presented a petition from Grangemouth merchants involved in the timber trade for relaxation of the prohibitive duties on Baltic produce and applauded the government’s advance of £500,000 to deal with hardship caused by Irish bank failures. He brought up the report of the committee on the Forth and Clyde Navigation bill.7 Four days later he vacated his seat. In 1826 he told Hudson Gurney* that he ‘might have done wrong in quitting Malmesbury, but [had] recovered health by it’.8

Finlay corresponded voluminously on commercial matters with the Liverpool merchant and ship owner John Gladstone*, Member for New Woodstock in the 1820 Parliament, using him as a conduit to transmit his views to Canning, foreign secretary from September 1822, and his acolyte Huskisson, president of the board of trade from February 1823, when he replaced Canning as Member for Liverpool.9 Huskisson valued his opinions as a friend of the liberalization of trade, consulted him on such matters and in the House, 25 Mar. 1825, when he proposed further tariff reforms, quoted a letter of 18 Feb. from Finlay, who ‘unites to great practical knowledge a vigorous understanding’, in favour of the ‘sound principles of free commercial intercourse’.10 After ‘philosophising and world despising’ at Castle Toward in early 1826 Finlay, who to Gladstone deplored the ‘noise and nonsense’ of Tory attacks on ministers’ progressive commercial policy, gave evidence to the Commons select committee on Scottish and Irish small bank notes, 22 Mar., when he commended the current arrangement of ‘a solid paper currency, convertible into gold’. A ‘most interesting conversation’ with Huskisson confirmed his admiration for the minister’s ‘fine ... system of mercantile policy’.11 While he had no thoughts of coming in ‘again for Glasgow [Burghs]’ he evidently hankered after a return to the Commons and got Gladstone to sound Huskisson, who knew of a possible opening at the impending general election, provided Finlay favoured Catholic relief (which he did), but correctly guessed that it was probably too late to clinch a deal.12 At the 1830 general election Finlay offered for Glasgow Burghs, ‘from a persuasion’, as he told Glasgow council, ‘that I could better serve the great India and China questions in than out of the House’, though Gladstone’s son Thomas thought he ‘runs considerable risk of injuring his health by going into Parliament’, as he had been unwell recently.13 He was sure of the backing of Dumbarton and Rutherglen, while the sitting Member Campbell of Blythswood could count on that of Renfrew. The election turned on the vote of Glasgow, the returning borough, where, after the council had divided 16-16, Provost Alexander Garden gave his casting vote for Campbell. As Glasgow’s delegate he duly voted to the same effect at the election and returned Campbell with his casting vote. After the formalities Finlay, who at the Lanarkshire election had supported the unsuccessful Whig candidate Sir John Maxwell* as a man who would be ‘unshackled by government’ and so ‘free’ to promote open trade, said he would petition on the ground that Garden’s decisive vote had been illegal. Anticipating success, he declared:

Although watchful as a guardian of the public purse and of the liberties of the people ought to be, I can never allow myself to be considered as opposed to His Majesty’s government, but quite otherwise ... I ... can never desire to place implicit confidence in any ministry, much less to become one of those blind adherents by whom ruinous measures are sanctioned and supported, and the grossest of all absurdities declared and voted.

He added that the duke of Wellington was the only member of the cabinet in whom he had confidence; that he would back Hume’s campaign for economy and retrenchment and support ‘slow and gradual’ parliamentary reform, through the enfranchisement of large towns; that he now believed that the corn laws should be repealed, and that he favoured a cautious approach to the abolition of West Indian slavery and a complete end to the East India Company’s trade monopoly.14 Tom Gladstone regarded talk of his succeeding the dead Huskisson as Member for Liverpool in September 1830 as nonsense.15 His petition was presented on 3 Nov. and the committee appointed on 2 Dec. 1830, when he was present to observe proceedings. He remained ‘very sanguine of success’, but was ostensibly ‘unruffled’ when the decision was given in favour of Campbell. Tom Gladstone reported that he ‘feels confident of success on another occasion’, but commented that ‘whether he would be wise or not in availing himself of it is a question’.16 Finlay tried again at the 1831 general election. At a meeting of the Glasgow Merchants’ House, 4 May, claiming to be ‘worn out and exhausted by the fatigues of a contested election’, he praised the Grey ministry’s reform scheme as ‘statesmanlike, noble and extensive’ and spoke of ‘the advantage of reform in point of morality’. Backed only by Glasgow, he was beaten by the popular reform candidate Joseph Dixon.17 The deaths of his fourth son Robert in Ceylon in 1830 and of his daughters Hannah and Caroline the following year hit him hard and increased his vulnerability to despondency and remorseful introspection. Lamenting his ‘wild and inconsiderate outlay’ on Castle Toward, he asked God’s forgiveness for ‘my rashness and folly, my neglectfulness and extravagance, my pride and vanity [which] rise up constantly before my eyes, and make every moment of my life a time of torment and misery’.18 Tom Gladstone thought in June 1831 that he ‘appears to stand well for Glasgow in the reformed Parliament’, but he did not make any further serious bids for the seat, though he was noted as a possible Conservative contender in 1834. In 1837 he told his son that ‘we have all been disappointed by the failure of our attempts to replace the Radical Member by a Conservative ... but the destructives have been too many for us on this occasion’.19 He took a close interest in the early political career of the rising Conservative star William Ewart Gladstone†, whom he encouraged to master the question of children’s factory hours in order to ‘infuse a little common sense into the shallow and thick-headed ones by whom you are surrounded’.20 In a Letter to Lord Ashley on the Cotton Factory System (1833) he argued that the existing regulations, properly enforced, would give adequate protection to children and asserted that the ‘visionary and impractical’ ten hours campaign, got up by itinerant ‘demagogues’ and sustained by well meaning but misguided men such as Thomas Sadler* and Richard Oastler, would, if successful, ‘paralyse and ultimately strangle’ the cotton trade (pp. 3, 4, 19). He gave evidence to the Commons select committee on manufactures, commerce and shipping, 16 May 1833.21 In 1840 he had to borrow £50,000 from the Royal Bank to save his rural mill communities from ruin.22 Only four months before his death at Castle Toward in March 1842 he was consulted by William Gladstone, vice-president of the board of trade in Peel’s second ministry, on the Scottish corn averages and the extent of distress.23 He was buried in Glasgow Cathedral. His nephew George Finlay, the historian of Greece, recalled him as ‘a man of cheerful disposition’, whose ‘talents were considerable’ and ‘judgements sound’; while the lawyer Sir Archie Alison, who met him in the early 1830s, reckoned him to be ‘the most remarkable’ of the Glasgow cotton traders, ‘a man highly respected for his extensive mercantile information’.24 By his will of 10 Jan. 1840 he left his wife an annuity of £1,000 and divided the residue of his estate among his six surviving children.25 His business was carried on by his sons James, John, Thomas and Alexander, with James and Archibald Buchanan; but Thomas and James died in 1846 and 1847 respectively and Alexander, who came into possession of Castle Toward and was Liberal Member for Argyllshire, 1857-65, retired from trade in 1848. After the death of John in 1873 no Finlay was directly involved in the concern, which became a public limited company in 1909.26

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. James Finlay and Company (Glasgow, 1951), 27-28.
  • 2. Ibid. 5-15, 26-31, 127-8; Glasgow ed. T.M. Devine and G. Jackson, i. 201-2, 204, 224-5; PP (1833), vi. 35; Oxford DNB; HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 746-7.
  • 3. Glasgow Recs. x. 539-40.
  • 4. NLS mss 11, ff. 14, 17, 24.
  • 5. P. Berresford Ellis and S. Mac A’Ghobhainn, Scottish Insurrection of 1820 (1989), 206, 208; Glasgow Herald, 14 Apr. 1820.
  • 6. The Times, 5 May 1820.
  • 7. Ibid. 17 June 1820.
  • 8. Gurney diary, 22 Mar. [1826].
  • 9. Add. 38746, ff. 76, 79, 87, 90, 94, 96, 111, 113.
  • 10. Add. 38746, f. 134.
  • 11. Add. 38747, ff. 213, 215; St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 276, Huskisson to J. Gladstone, 25 Mar. 1826; R. Saville, Bank of Scotland, 296-7; PP (1826), iii. 57-71.
  • 12. Gurney diary, 22Mar. [1826]; Add. 38748, f. 38.
  • 13. Glasgow Recs. xi. 382-3; Glynne-Gladstone mss 195, T. to J. Gladstone, 6, 8 July; Glasgow Herald, 2 July 1830.
  • 14. Authentic Account of Glasgow Election (1830), 3-18; Glasgow, i. 262; Glasgow Herald, 6, 13, 27 Aug. 1830; Add. 38758, f. 226.
  • 15. Glynne-Gladstone mss 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 17 Sept. 1830.
  • 16. CJ, lxxxvi. 19, 139-40, 146; Glynne-Gladstone mss 196, T. to J. Gladstone, 2-8 Dec. 1830.
  • 17. Glasgow Herald, 29 Apr., 6, 9, 13, 27 May 1831.
  • 18. Finlay and Company, 127-8.
  • 19. Glynne-Gladstone mss 198, T. to J. Gladstone, 1 June 1831; Scottish Electoral Politics, 226; Finlay and Company, 193.
  • 20. Add. 44353, ff. 28, 167, 172, 176, 178.
  • 21. PP (1833), vi. 35-45.
  • 22. Glasgow ed. W. Fraser and I. Maver, ii. 104-5.
  • 23. Add. 44358, ff. 203, 209; Glasgow Herald, 7 Mar. 1842.
  • 24. Finlay and Company, 30; Sir A. Alison, Life and Writings, i. 344-5.
  • 25. PROB 11/1960/249; IR26/1608/378.
  • 26. Finlay and Company, pp. vi, 31, 33-37.