Sir John Muir of Deanston 1828-1903

In 1888 John Muir donated to Glasgow ‘Two Strings to Her Bow’, painted by John Pettie in 1887 and which currently is on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. 1888 was the year of the Glasgow International Exhibition which emulated the great Exhibition of 1851 in London to promote industry, art and commerce (1) in the context of the British Empire. The £46,000 profits of the exhibition contributed to the funding of the present building which opened in 1901. Muir purchased the painting from the lucky winner of a raffle for the Exhibition Art Union, and presented it to highlight ‘…its most prominent deficiency in the department of ‘modern art’’ (2)

The painting ‘Two Strings to her Bow’ is typical of John Pettie’s style, depicting a beautiful young lady between two competing suitors. This painting has become a popular image in the advertising world for example being presented as the front cover of Georgette Heyer’s novel False Colours, a cigarette pack for soldiers during World War 11, and even on the label of a Polish lemon flavoured vodka.

Pettie, John, 1839-1893; Two Strings to Her Bow
Pettie, John; Two Strings to Her Bow. © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
Henderson, Joseph, 1832-1908; Sir John Muir (1828-1903), Lord Provost of Glasgow (1889-1892)
Sir John Muir, Lord Provost of Glasgow (1889-1892) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

John was born on 26th December 1828 in Hutchesontown, Glasgow to James Muir (3), senior partner of Glasgow merchants Webster Steel & Company which had branches in Chile, South Africa and London (4). His mother was Elizabeth Brown (5), a descendent of James Finlay who founded the textile business of James Finlay and Company in Glasgow. He was educated at Glasgow High School and Glasgow University. In 1849 he joined James Finlay & Company, which had expanded to include mills at Catrine in Ayrshire in 1801, and Deanston in Stirlingshire in 1808 (the latter is now a whisky distillery). The original James Finlay founded the business in 1750 and in 1792 his son Kirkman Finlay took over as senior managing partner, the core activity being textile manufacture but later their trading activities became more important. The firm purchased competitors Wilson, Kay and Company and in 1854 opened premises in West Nile Street, Glasgow (6).

In 1860 John married Margaret Kay (7), eldest daughter of Alexander Kay, then a senior partner of Finlays, and raised four sons and six daughters, all of whom were born at their townhouse at 6 Park Gardens, Glasgow.
In 1861 John was appointed as a junior partner of James Finlay & Company, along with his cousin Hugh Brown Muir and Robert Barclay, a partner in Robert Barclay & Sons, Manchester. The business had become stagnant under the management of the Finlay family and John was brought in to revitalise it. The American Civil War, which had started in that year, affected cotton supplies and Hugh Muir visited India in search of alternative quality sources, resulting in offices being opened in Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata). There were close links with Samuel Smith MP, a leading cotton broker in Liverpool and also related to the Finlay family (8).

Over the following years the two cousins increased their personal shareholding and broadened the scope of the mainly cotton based business to include insurance, shipbuilding and tea. However, tensions built up between John and Hugh and things came to a head after Hugh had dismissed a senior employee for playing chess on the sabbath (John was a member of the Free Church of Scotland). Hugh departed from the company in 1873 to form a successful business in London, and John eventually took sole control by 1883. In that year Archibald Buchan, the last of the old Finlay family, tried but failed to obtain a legal injunction to prevent Muir trading under the name of James Finlay and Company (9).

Around the time when Hugh left the business John was increasingly interested in the growing market for tea, and purchased estates in Darjeeling, Assam and Travancore in India, under the name Finlay, Muir & Company. Trade was aided by the shipbuilding connection and Muir invested in the Clan Line in Glasgow. Thomas Cayzer had been introduced to Alexander Stephen of Linthouse, a shipbuilder, and John Muir as financier. The three men, although they never learned to trust each other, entered an agreement to build two ships which became the nucleus of the Clan Line, cargo carriers with some passenger capacity. The ships were based in Calcutta (Kolkata) but Muir forced a move to Chittagong  by offering huge cargoes of tea and jute (10). Contemporary opinion held that Muir was ‘the greatest bully in the trade, and the worst tempered man in Scotland’. He encouraged remaining partners in James Finlay and Company to retire in order to take overall control, earning himself in Glasgow business circles the nickname ‘cuckoo’ (11).

 In 1873 John moved into the infant tea industry in India and Ceylon, buying up quality plantations, and keeping close supervision through the Calcutta office which included weekly reports, a management pattern that was later adopted throughout the industry. Two of John’s sons were involved in the Indian enterprise but John was not good at delegating. In 1898 he wrote to them ‘My advice to you both is to fall in cordially with my views and policy, even when you do not quite understand them’(12). At that time the UK tea business was channelled through London, but Muir set up various businesses to bypass London to reach new outlets in America, Canada and Russia. He invested heavily in capital developments including railway and hydro-electric schemes and telephone systems. However he was seen as a harsh employer, both to his Indian labour force and his British, mainly Scottish planters and ‘jute-wallahs’. A planter received a larger allowance for his essential horse than for a wife (13). By the 1890s Muir was the world’s major stakeholder in the growing and marketing of tea, employing some 70,000 workers on the Indian subcontinent (14).
John and Margaret had moved in 1873 to Deanston House which had been owned by John Finlay, the last of Kirkman Finlay’s sons, the house being rebuilt. In 1883 an extension was added by Glasgow architect J J Burnett in the Italianate style (15). Margaret took a great interest in the welfare of the mill workers and was a popular local figure. A memorial clock tower was erected in the village after her death in 1929 (16).

Muir Deanston House
Deanston House (as a hotel, probably 1950’s) -from a postcard in authors possession

With his Indian empire secured John turned to civic affairs. He was elected a baillie of Glasgow town council in 1886 and as Lord provost in 1889-92, and received a baronetcy in 1893. He became a Liberal-Unionist in 1886 and was active in Glasgow and Perthshire, a JP in Lanarkshire as well as Deputy Lieutenant of the counties of Ayrshire and Lanark. During his term as Lord Provost he presided over the extension of Glasgow City boundaries, adding 10,000 to the population, extended electricity and gas works, and oversaw the building of St Andrew’s Halls. The 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition provided a focus for philanthropic work when he donated £15,000 and was Convenor of the Indian and Ceylon section. He was also appointed chairman of the association entrusted with the duty of erecting the building (17).

Sir John Muir suffered two strokes, one in 1901 in Glasgow and another at Deanston House where he died on 6th August 1903 (18). He left an estate of £862,802 but with much of his wealth invested as capital in James Finlay and Company and various offshoots, it is thought that his true worth was considerably greater (19). The Finlay business continues today, its core business continuing in growing and processing tea products in India and Africa, with its headquarters moving from Glasgow to London a few years ago.
Alexander Kay Muir (1868-1951), John’s eldest son became second baronet, and continued to manage James Finlay and Company after his fathers death, modernising and converting the haphazard collection of companies into a private company, owned by members of the extended Muir family. Just before he retired in 1926 he sent planters from Southern India and Ceylon to open the first large scale tea plantations in Kenya, and the name continues there producing tea products. He lived at his Blair Drummond estate with his second wife, Nadejda Constanza Irenea Garilla Euphrosyne, eldest daughter of Dmitry Stancioff, former premier of Bulgaria, which appears to have been a very happy marriage and they enjoyed the regular company of King Boris of Bulgaria. Sir Alexander Kay died in 1951 and his wife in 1957, and the baronetcy devolved on his nephew John Harling Muir, the son of his late brother James Finlay Muir (20).

Lavery, John, 1856-1941; John Muir of Deanston (1828-1903), 1st Bt, Lord Provost of Glasgow (1889-1892)
John Muir of Deanston by John Lavery © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection


Lavery, John, 1856-1941; State Visit of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition, 1888
State Visit of her Majesty, Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition 1888 ©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Glasgow Museums also hold a sketch portrait of John Muir, often referred to as John Muir of Deanston . The sketch was painted by John Lavery, a leading ‘Glasgow Boy’ artist, as one of many individual portraits incorporated into his ‘State Visit of Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition 1888’. Muir became Lord provost the following year in succession to Sir John King who is portrayed in the purple robes.


(1) Perilla Kinchin and Juliet Kinchin, Glasgow’s great Exhibitions, ISBN 0-9513124-0-5

(2) Glasgow City Council Minutes, Mitchell Library

(3) births, 644/02 0040 0187 Gorbals,

(4) Webster Steel & Co, piece goods manufacturers,

(5) births, 644/02 0040 0187 Gorbals,

(6) Oxford Dictionary of national Biography,

(7) marriages, 646/02 0083,

(8) Ancestors of David Robarts-Sir John Muir,

(9) Oxford Dictionary of national Biography,

(10) Oxford Dictionary of national Biography,

(11) Ancestors of David Robarts-Sir John Muir,

(12) Ancestors of David Robarts-Sir John Muir,

(13) Oxford Dictionary of national Biography,

(14) Gowans and Gray, The Lord provosts of Glasgow 1833-1902, Mitchell library

(15) John J Burnett, architect,


(17) Ancestors of David Robarts-Sir John Muir,

(18) death, 362/00 0034,

(19) Ancestors of David Robarts-Sir John Muir,

(20) Oxford Dictionary of national Biography,


One thought on “Sir John Muir of Deanston 1828-1903

  1. Any portraits of Alexander Kay Muir? Any details about his life? I am writing an article about something special he owned. It would be nice to include more about the man.


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