John Tait: Merchant of Kirkwall

John Tait was very much a man of his time and place. This is part of his story.

Born in 1791 to James, a shoemaker, and Ann (Eunson), he was to become a successful businessman and a respected member of Kirkwall society. On the 31st of May 1810 John Tait married Euphemia Garrioch.

Kirkwall was a bustling town at this time and trade was the name of the game. Despite rivalry with the equally successful Stromness in the West, trade was conducted through sailing vessels of many sizes. The first steamship, the ‘United Kingdom’ docked in Stromness in 1826.

By sheer hard work and canny business sense John Tait built up his business in Albert Street supplying other traders and people throughout the islands. His premises could supply a wide range of products from rope to hosiery, from shoe brushes to furnishings. He also invested by buying up parts of Kirkwall. He paid Robert Heddle of Melsetter £690 in 1831 for ‘ the tenements of land and houses and offices thereof high and low, back and fore, under and above with the gardens and whole parts’.

He bought land and buildings outwith the town: the farms and lands of Towerhill at Inganess.

John Tait, as a United Presbyterian, was also a devout man and an elder of the East Kirk.

He died on 5th February 1850. On his death, as his wife had predeceased him and there were no children, his accumulated wealth was put into a Trust according to his Will: Tait’s Trust. The Trustees reported that the capital, as at 26th March 1853 amounted to  £7078. 5s. 6d

£7000 would be divided into fourths according to his wishes.

  1. Benefit the relatives of the testator’s wife
  2. Benefit of the relatives of the truster
  3. For religious purposes
  4. For the purposes of education and support of the poor (Kirkwall and Holm)

For clarity it was stated that the term ‘relatives’ was for those who were alive at his death. They would get an annual payment.

The Importance of Education

Kirkwall Educational Trust Scheme  was established on 6th April 1889. It brought together bequests and other funds which had been donated: Baikie’s Trust, Balfour Mortification, Groundwater’s Trust, Stewart’s Bequest, Tait’s Trust, Urquhart Bequest and The Infant School Endowment.

The scheme amalgamated all of those with the exception of Tait’s Trust. The Trustees would continue to pay into the scheme their share.

Kirkwall Educational Trust Scheme could invest monies through various means, for example  buying shares in the UK  and Indian Railways.

Tait’s Trust paid out ‘not more’ than £85 yearly towards the fees of scholars including for books and stationery. Those scholars under 10 had an exam to sit. Those aged 10+ years had a  competitive exam. There would also be updates from teachers on the scholars’ academic achievements, behaviour and attendance.  Tait’s Trust covered Kirkwall, St Ola, St Andrews and Deerness.

  • £50 for a teacher at Tankerness School
  • Holm School £2 prizes
  • £3 – £10 bursaries
  • For the poor not on parochial relief – books and stationery.

It also provided £25 for a teacher at Egilsay School

Land and Buildings

Tait’s Trust also continued to buy lands ( at Glaitness) and manage its properties in Kirkwall.

In 1928 the Trustees put up for sale many of the properties owned by Tait’s Trust:

  1. Dwelling house Albert Street occupied by Mrs Nicolson rent £16
  2. Dwelling house Albert Street occupied by Robert Shearer rent £14.10s
  3. Dwelling house Albert Street occupied by George Milne and John Mowat rent £13.10s
  4. Shop Albert Street occupied by Mrs Flett rent £15
  5. Woodyard in Junction Road occupied by W.B. Peace and Son rent £25
  6. Parks at Glaitness occupied by Robert Sutherland, extent about 20 acres, rent £33.10s
  7. Piece of ground Glaitness Road occupied by Glaitness Laundry Company,Limited rent £1.10s

In 1928, seventy eight years after John Tait’s death, the Trustees of John Tait Development applied for planning permission. The shop occupied by Messrs J & J Smith, 47 Albert Street, where the Launderama now is, was being extensively renovated with new signage and mosaic tiling at the entrance door.

The ‘Relatives’

It is when we come to the dispersal of funds to the ‘relatives’ that it gets rather messy. The last relative, that’s the person who was still alive at the time of John Tait’s death in 1850, according to the Trustees, was Mrs Grace Chalmers who died in 1884. There were then claims made by other ‘relatives’ who had never known John Tait or been alive at his death for a portion of his money. They lived not only in Orkney but other parts of Scotland, also across the world, in the USA and New Zealand.

This is how it got complicated:

James Tait (John’s father) had two brothers and one sister.

His brothers were Joseph Tait, a shoemaker, and Andrew Tait, a  weaver. His sister Margaret Tait married Robert Mouat who was also a weaver.

Joseph Tait (b 1761) married twice

  1. Wife Barbara (m 22nd October 1785), children George (1786), David (1788) Mary (1795)
  2. Wife Ann (m 9th November 1798), children James (16th August 1799), Grace[Grizel] (m Chalmers) (22nd April 1803) Andrew (14th February 1808)

Anyone who has done any work looking into family trees knows how the branches can split up into many parts. The important point, to Tait’s Trust, was that the only one of all the relatives who fulfilled the stipulation in John Tait’s Will was Grace.

It became a long and tedious court case going on for years as claims by those who considered themselves ‘relatives’ argued for a portion of John Tait’s hard earned money.

It was reported in The Orkney Herald and Advertiser, Wed 30th June 1926, that court proceedings in Edinburgh were still ongoing about the inheritance.

‘The above mentioned John Tait died on 5th February 1850 predeceased by his wife and without children. His heir at law was George Tait, Inland Revenue Officer Port Glasgow and relatives alive at his death included Robert Mouat, John Mouat, Alexander Mouat, Ann Mouat and Margaret Hercus.  The attention of descendants and representatives of the heir-at-law and next of kin of the deceased is directed to this advertisement.’

In 1927 Edinburgh Court of Session stated:

“John Tait had set aside a portion of his inheritance to support poor relatives, £1750, by his trustees. The last payment was on April 1st 1924. The trustees reported that there was no longer any relative who had been alive at the time of John Tait. “

The wrangles over John Tait’s Will and who should benefit were nothing new.

“The Lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth. It’s about a Will, and the trusts under a Will – or it was, once. It’s about nothing but Costs now.”

Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1852

The Trustees put up a grave stone in St Magnus Cathedral Kirkyard for John Tait. It is quite an imposing one but tells us so little about his life, his devotion to his church and to the lasting legacy he left to benefit others through Tait’s Trust.

Portrait of John Tait, Elder and Benefactor of East Church, Kirkwall and founder of Tait’s Trust. Portrait in possession of Orkney Museum

Fiona Grahame

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