John Aitchison (1769-1859)

In 1886 Janet Aitchison gifted a portrait of her father to Glasgow. Painted by Sir Daniel McNee, a renowned Scottish portrait painter who became president of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1876, it depicts John Aitchison as a confident, successful businessman. 

Figure 1. Macnee, Daniel; John Aitchison (1769-1859). © CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection.(

The painting was exhibited at The Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts exhibition of 1894 and lent by The Corporation of Glasgow.(1)

In 1868 the painting was exhibited in The Illustrated Catalogue of Exhibition of Portraits on Loan in The New Galleries of Art, Corporation Buildings, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow and lent by Walter Paterson who was a son of John’s sister Euphemia.(2)

John was a prominent merchant in Glasgow at a time when trade with America was particularly strong. However, with the decline of the tobacco industry after the American War of Independence, the British Empire looked for other opportunities, especially in the colonies. The sugar industry expanded and by 1790 the West Indies became Glasgow’s primary trading outpost.(3) Raw sugar had to be processed to make it saleable and it was these refining processes which John helped to develop. 

John was born in Glasgow on 2 September 1769 to Walter Aitchison and Isobel Henderson, who had married in 1768.(4) John was the first of seven children (5) and he lived in Glasgow for much of his life. On 14 August 1797 John married Margaret Robertson (6) whose father James was a merchant in Glasgow. Their first child Walter was born in 1798 and they went on to have a family of twelve over the following sixteen years.(7) 

In 1786 aged seventeen John entered The Ship Bank as an apprentice.(8) One of the earliest banks in Glasgow, it was founded by some of the wealthiest merchants in the city, particularly  those involved in the tobacco trade. In 1776 The Ship Bank became known as Moores, Carrick & Company, then in 1789 changed its name to Carrick, Brown & Company.(9) Robert Carrick was the leading partner at the time and lived above the bank. One of John’s duties, as the youngest apprentice, was to sleep in the premises at night, armed with a gun, bayonet, powder-horn and a bag of slugs and Mr Carrick would lock the door behind him to ensure security. Both Robert Carrick and John were fond of playing the violin, and they would often practise after work at Robert’s flat. Carrick was known as a bit of a miser and it is said that he left a fortune of £1 million pounds ‘…a grim old bachelor without leaving one plack or penny to any of the charitable institutions of the city….’ The two remained friends till Robert’s death in 1821.(10)

In 1796 John is recorded in the Trades House library as a Burgess and Guild Brethren of Glasgow. He is described as a merchant and serving apprentice with Messrs Moore, Carrick and Company at this time.(11) John left the Bank for the mercantile world, specialising in the processing of cane sugar which was being imported in large quantities from The West Indies. Greenock and Glasgow became major sugar refining centres and much of the machinery required was manufactured locally.

 In the early nineteenth century one of the sugar-refining processes enabled impurities to be extracted, by boiling the cane sugar to form a liquid. The liquid was transferred to a series of pans until the required density was achieved. However, if the temperature was too high the liquid would turn into uncrysallizable molasses (treacle). As with many other industries in Glasgow during the Industrial Revolution improvements and efficiencies were constantly being developed. Messrs D Cook of Glasgow developed a more efficient design for evaporating sugar. A Mr Cleland of Glasgow also developed a system of using steam to quicken the evaporating process. It was John Aitchison who developed this process further by controlling the flow of liquid along a specially designed copper apparatus. The boiling action caused the impurities to rise to the surface and form a crust, which could then be easily taken off when the liquid cooled, leaving purified sugar.(12) The process was later patented.(13)

One of the few surviving sugar refining buildings in Glasgow is at 40-50 Speirs Wharf on The Forth and Clyde canal just north of Glasgow city centre, now converted to flats.

Figure 2. 40-50 Speirs Wharf, Glasgow, photo by author

In 1833, Margaret died. In a letter dated 26 July 1833 to his son Robert, who had sailed from Rothesay to Madeira, John describes Margaret’s failing health and the good care she received from their doctor. News of the death was communicated to the Captain of the ship Brig Staffa just before leaving Rothesay and the news was broken to Robert when at sea. Robert became a merchant in Burma until his death in 1838. The funeral was attended by some prominent merchants including John Buchanan of Woodlands and James Buchanan of Dowanhill. Mention is made of Robert’s brother John who applied to a Captain Johnston in London for work, presumably, like Robert, at sea. John senior also makes reference to ‘making every exertion so to get your brother into the service of The East India Company’. It is not clear which brother he refers to. John also refers to his business dealings in the sugar industry , ‘We have not done much as yet in the wee Sugar House …we expect liberty soon to refine all sorts of Foreign Sugars…struggle to get using E India sugars, it will be good bye and bye’.(14)

In 1837-38 John’s business address is recorded as Adam’s Court Lane, Argyll Street, and he is described as a merchant and patentee for machines for sugar refining.(15) In 1838 his business address is recorded as 14 St Enoch Square, Glasgow (replaced in 1875 by Teachers whisky offices). He lived at 52 Renfield Street, Glasgow at this time (the building was replaced by The Odeon Cinema in the nineteen thirties).(16) From 1845 to 1852 he was living at 105 Kensington Place, Sauchiehall Street.(17) By 1855 he had moved to 15 Claremont Street, just off Sauchiehall Street,(18) west of Charing Cross, where he resided till his death in 1859.(19)

Figure 3. 15 Claremont Street, Glasgow photo by author

He was buried at Ramshorn Church in Glasgow,(20) where many notable Glasgow merchants were laid to rest including Robert Carrick (21) who maintained a friendship with John throughout his life. John’s son James and daughters Euphemia and Isabella Henderson are also laid to rest there.(22) 

According to the 1861 census Mary Newbigging Aitchison, John’s daughter, was living at 9 Sandyford Place, Glasgow, just across the road from John’s final home.(23) She and Janet never married and they probably lived with John to his final days.(24) The head of the household at 9 Sandyford Place was Margaret, her sister. Also noted as being present was George Bogue Carr, studying In Glasgow to be a minister of The United Free Church.(25) He was from Berwick-upon-Tweed and after a period as minister in Tranent, then Dalmeny Street Church in Edinburgh he emigrated to the USA, becoming Professor of Religious Rhetoric and English at Lincoln University. George was John Aitchison’s grandson whose mother was Jane Robertson Aitchison, John’s second daughter.(26) The Carr family and the Aitchison family were closely associated through marriage at this time.(27)






4) From the notebook of Walter Aitchieson, by permission of Andy Laing, descendent of John Aitchison

5) Family Tree (Family of Carr from Berwick-Upon-Tweed), by permission of Andy Laing, descendent of John Aitchison

6) Marriages, Robertson Margaret (Old Parish Registers Marriages 644/1 270 236 Glasgow) page 236

7) Family Tree (Family of Carr from Berwick-Upon-Tweed), by permission of Andy Laing, descendent of John Aitchison

8)  Glasgow Herald 22/08/1859 p 5  www,


10) Glasgow Herald 22 Aug 1859, Obituaries, The Late Mr John Aitchison, p.5

11), p.203

12) Harvey Robert, (Creative Commons Zerov1.0 Universal)


14) Letter from John Aitchison to his son Robert dated 6th July 1833, by permission of Andy Laing, descendent of John Aitchison

15) Post Office Directories, p.24

16) Post Office Directories, p.24

17) Post Office Directories,, p.27

18) Post Office Directories, p.39

19) Deaths,Aitchison, John (Statutory Registers Deaths 644/8 666),

20) Deaths,Aitchison, John (Statutory Registers Deaths 644/8 666),


22) Glasgow & West of Scotland Family History Society

23) Census, 1861 (Census 644/8 66/ 19),

24) Census 1851 (Census 622/ 109/ 15)

25) Census, 1861 (Census 644/8 66/ 19),

26) Family history provided by Andy Laing, descendent of John Aitchison

27) Family Tree (Family of Carr from Berwick-Upon-Tweed), by permission of Andy Laing, descendent of John Aitchison

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