Gillespie, James (DNB00)

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GILLESPIE, JAMES (1726–1797), founder of a hospital at Edinburgh, was probably born at Roslin in 1726. He had one sister and a younger brother John, who was afterwards his partner in business. His parents belonged to the denomination of reformed presbyterians, or Cameronians, who maintained the perpetual obligation of the solemn league and covenant. At an early age James, with his brother John, was in business as a tobacconist in Edinburgh. They were steady young men, and in 1759 purchased a snuff mill, with land attached, in the parish of Colinton, three miles west from Edinburgh. By additional instalments in 1766 and 1768 he acquired the whole estate of Spylaw, and in 1773 added the adjoining lands of Bonaly and Fernielaw. No more land was purchased, but money accumulated. He lent 500l. in 1776 on security of house property at Leith, and in 1782, under the designation ‘James Gillespie of Spylaw,’ advanced 1,000l. on a bond over the estate of Woodhall in his own neighbourhood.

The business in Edinburgh was managed by his younger brother in a shop now (1889) marked 231 High Street, a little way east from the cross. It is still designated ‘The Gillespie Tobacco Shop.’ James, ‘the laird,’ as he was called, resided at Spylaw, superintending the manufacture of snuff. A kind of snuff known as ‘Gillespie’ is still generally sold by tobacconists. He was an exceptionally unassuming man, living in a patriarchal style among his small tenants, to whom he was always forbearing. A carriage was bought, but of the plainest description, and was scarcely ever used except during the last year of his life.

James Gillespie survived his brother two years, and carried on the business till his death at Spylaw on 8 April 1797, in his seventy-first year. He was buried in the churchyard at Colinton, in the same vault with his brother John. Neither of them was married.

Lord Cockburn, in his ‘Memorials,’ calls Gillespie ‘a snuff-seller who brought up an excellent young man as his heir, and then left death to disclose that, for the vanity of being remembered by a thing called after himself, he had all the while had a deed executed by which this, his nearest, relative was disinherited.’ Gillespie's will, however, was executed in 1796, only a year before his death, and after he had been offended by the youth whom he had conditionally promised to ‘make a man.’ By his will Gillespie bequeathed his estates, together with 12,000l. sterling (exclusive of 2,700l. to found a school), to build a hospital for the maintenance of old men and women. On 19 April 1801 the governors were incorporated by royal charter. They consist of the master, treasurer, and twelve assistants of the Merchant Company of Edinburgh, five members elected by the town council of Edinburgh, and two of the city ministers. By a provisional order obtained in virtue of the Endowed Institutions (Scotland) Act, 1869, which came into operation 24 July 1870, the governors were empowered to make certain alterations. They have dispensed with the hospital, and now give the pensioners a fixed yearly allowance, while the benefits of the school have been greatly extended. In July 1887 there were 167 female and 42 male pensioners, who received either 10l. or 25l. each yearly, and in November of the same year there were 1,450 children enrolled in the school.

In the hall of the Merchant Company is a bust of James Gillespie, and a portrait of him painted by Sir James Foulis of Woodhall; and in Kaye's ‘Edinburgh Portraits’ are heads of both brothers, in which the faces are exhibited with some exaggeration, especially of one prominent feature. In the same publication is a genial biographical sketch.

[Information obtained from the secretary of the Edinburgh Merchant Company; Register of Sasines in General Register House, Edinburgh; Old Statistical Account of Colinton Parish, published in 1796; New Statistical Account, 1839; Kaye's Edinburgh Portraits, vol. ii; Somerville's Life and Times, p. 335; Cockburn's Memorials of his own Time, p. 173.]

J. T.