Glasgow Merchants’ Investment in Purple

The profits from Scottish-owned plantations in the West Indies that used enslaved men, women and children were returned to Scotland and invested in industries here rather than helping to develop their local Caribbean communities. One such area that profited was Glasgow’s burgeoning dye industry.

Dress in cream wool resist or discharged with purple, possibly cudbear, circa 1836– 38 (Glasgow Museums E.1938.92.n)

Many purple dyes were traditionally made using lichen dyes which were much cheaper than the famous Tyrian or murex purple extracted from molluscs. One of the main lichen dyes used in Scotland was orchil. In 1758 George Gordon and his nephew, Cuthbert, patented cudbear, a purple dye extracted from orchil using ammonia that could dye silk or wool without the use of a mordant to fix the colour. Production was initially undertaken in Leith, but the dye works was closed due to bankruptcy.

Robert Harvie, John Glassford of Dougalston (1715-1783), 1752 (Glasgow Museums PP.2016.38.1)

John Glassford, a wealthy Glasgow-based Virginia merchant, along with George Bogle, James Gordon and John Robertson, provided the financial backing for George Macintosh to found a cudbear dye works at Dunchattan, Dennistoun, Glasgow, in 1777. Macintosh, who was originally from Ross-shire, recruited Gaelic-speaking Highlanders as his factory workers in an effort to maintain the trades’ secrets.

British School (Scottish), George Macintosh, circa 1800–7 (Glasgow Museums 1903)

The Glasgow Cudbear Works continued production after Macintosh’s death in 1807 under the name George Macintosh & Co. Yet again financial investment came from Glasgow West India merchants, including Charles Stirling of Cadder, son of William Stirling of Keir and leading partner in Stirling, Gordon & Co. Research published by Dr Anthony Cooke reveals that Stirling left an interest of £17,916 in George Macintosh & Co. upon his death in 1830. The company continued production for a further 20 years before it closed in 1851.

Rebecca Quinton
Research Manager (Art)

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(c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

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