Andrew Cochrane, who was Provost of Glasgow, was once asked to what cause he attributed the sudden rise of Glasgow in his time. He said it was "all owing to four young men of talent and spirit, who started at one time in business, and whose success gave example to the rest. The four had not 10,000 pounds among them when they began." The four young men were William Cuninghame of Lainshaw, Alexander Speirs of Elderslie, John Glassford of Dougalston, and James Ritchie of Busbie. These were the chief of the famous "Tobacco Lords", who carried on the main trade of Glasgow between 1740 and 1776, and they bought the estates associated with their names out of its proceeds.
But the great oversea trade with the American Colonies had begun long before that time. No sooner had the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 thrown the English colonies open to Scottish trade than, as has already been shown, the merchants of Glasgow seized the opportunity. Their first plan was to charter English ships, load them with manufactures, and send them out to Maryland, Carolina, and Virginia. There the manufactures were exchanged for tobacco, and when this was brought home it was sold at a handsome profit.
Mostly, the voyages proved highly successful, and out of the double profits made on the goods sent out and the tobacco brought home, the Glasgow merchants bought the ships for their own trade, and began to make fortunes quickly. Formerly a large part of the tobacco trade came to Whitehaven on the Solway, from which place Glasgow had been accustomed to hire many of the vessels required; but very soon after the Union the merchants of Whitehaven complained that they were almost entirely stripped of their tobacco trade, and they complained to Government that the merchants of Glasgow had carried off their traffic by unfair means. Again and again commissioners were sent north to make enquiry, and several attempts were made to obstruct the Glasgow trade. But the commissioners could find nothing wrong, and declared that the accusations were made only out of envy.
In 1735 the Glasgow merchants finally beat off the obstructions set up at the instance of the English ports, and from that time they throve amazingly. The number of ships, brigantines, and sloops belonging to the city had risen to sixty-seven, and the trade went up by leaps and bounds till, in the year 1772, out of 90,000 hogsheads imported altogether into Britain, Glasgow alone imported 49,000. The merchants here had not only the chief share of the export trade to the Continent, but they even could undersell the English merchants at home in their own cities.
Much of this was the work of the famous "four young men" spoken of by Provost Cochrane. Of these young men, John Glassford is said to have had twenty-five ships and cargoes, all his own property, on the seas at one time. In Smollett's novel, "Humphry Clinker," he is described as "one of the greatest merchants in Europe."
Alexander Speirs was the biggest of the tobacco importers. He brought in a seventh of the whole tobacco imports of the Clyde, and a twelfth of those of all Europe.
Of William Cuninghame a story is told which gives a good idea of the business ability of these old tobacco traders. Before the outbreak of the American War of Independence the price of tobacco was threepence per pound. Mr. Cuninghame's firm held a huge stock, and when the price rose to sixpence on account of the scarcity the partners thought it time to sell, and secure a profit. Cuninghame thought they should keep the tobacco till the price went higher, but they would not hear of it. He then asked each partner if he agreed to sell, and when they had all said yes, he told them he would himself buy the whole stock. This he did, and he kept it till the price rose to 3 shillings 9 pence [equal to 45 pence--a 650% increase], when he sold out, and realized a great fortune.
These were the most famous of the Glasgow Tobacco Lords. Those personages were for long the sight of the city, as they strutted on the Plainstanes of the Trongate, in their scarlet cloaks, powdered wigs, cocked hats, silken hose, and buckled shoes. They looked down on all others with supreme contempt, and any mere shopkeeper or tradesman who wished to speak with one of them had to stand humbly aside on the causeway, and wait till he could catch the great man's eye. It is said to have been they whom Robert Burns has held up to ridicule in his well-known line, "Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord."
As a consequence of all this prosperous trade the population of Glasgow had risen rapidly. In 1708 it was only 12,766; in 1740 it was 17,043; and in 1760 it had gone up to 42,832.
But the crash came in 1775. The American Colonies had declared their independence and re- pudiated their debt. The whole tobacco trade fell to pieces like a house of cards. At that time Glasgow was importing 57,143 hogsheads of tobacco a year, and the American planters were in debt to the Glasgow merchants to the amount of a million sterling. Many of the Tobacco Lords were ruined, and many others lost the greater part of what they had made.
Taken from: George Eyre-Todd. "The Story of Glasgow From the Earliest Times to the Present Day" (Glasgow: Blackie, 1911).