George and James McBeath: Merchants of Kirkwall

This is the story of how one son built upon his father’s pioneering business to make a great success in his own right.

George McBeath [or MacBeath] (1800 -1847) was a Kirkwall merchant who at the start of the 19thC took the opportunities presented by the booming industry in strawplait. This industry employed thousands of women across Orkney processing, plaiting and making bonnets from straw which was firstly harvested in Orkney but as the boom continued, increasingly imported.

In 1828 George married Isabella Mainland.

The tentacles of the strawplaiting industry reached into other sectors such as shipping, making fortunes for the few who could reap the possibilities it presented.

In 1839 George McBeath was involved in a long running dispute over the schooner, Eclipse. The Eclipse was originally purchase by four with equal shares in the ship. George McBeath bought out his partners with the exception of Patrick Gorie.

The case for McBeath was that he owned the majority of the shares in the Eclipse and he wanted access to the books and accounts of the vessel.

Defending the action was Patrick Gorie and Andrew Louttit, shipping agents and merchants of Kirkwall, Andrew Louttit had been appointed the ship’s husband by all the original shareholders. He had possession of the books, papers and accounts of the vessel. McBeath, as the largest shareholder, wanted rid of Louttit and possession of the books.

Gorie and Louttit refused to hand over the books. In addition to this George McBeath wanted payment from Gorie of £5 sterling.

The case went on for some time with Patrick Gorie throwing doubt on McBeath’s competence at managing the vessel. George McBeath replied to this that the ship’s husband is not in day to day management – that is the job of the ship’s master. He reaffirmed his claim in being the majority shareholder, questioning why should he pay for the services of Louttit when he could do that job himself. George Mcbeath won the case.

This was the kind of tough negotiating that went on over shipping, which was vital for Orkney’s imports and exports.

George McBeath was also Treasurer of the Benevolent Society of Orkney. The Benevolent Society of Orkney loaned money with interest and when the debt was not repaid it would claim the lands and rentals due. James Stewart had borrowed £1,200 sterling plus interest from the Society and put up as collateral his lands in Rousay, Rosiebank and St Ola.

In 1838 money which had been borrowed from the Society by James Stewart had not been repaid and to recover the debt on his death a list of tenants ( on land once owned by Stewart) on Rousay were served with notices for rent arrears

  1. William Seatter tenant Saviskaill
  2. Magnus Clouston tenant Tou
  3. James Inkster tenant Lerquoy
  4. George Inkster tenant Deith
  5. John Mouat tenant Breckan
  6. William Inksetter tenant Stennesgorn
  7. William Hercus tenant Lingrow
  8. Alexander Marwick tenant Lewishouse
  9. James Flaws tenant Hammersfield
  10. William Louttit tenant Netter Breckan
  11. Hugh Craigie tenant Seaterquoy
  12. Isobel Craigie tenant Ploverhall
  13. Barbara Craigie tenant Slackback
  14. Peter Lennard tenant Kirkgate
  15. John Craigie tenant Galieshaws
  16. Elizabeth Craigie tenant Mid Lingrow
  17. George Marwick tenant Tealquoy
  18. William Gibson tenant Quoys
  19. James Peason tenant Houlterburn
  20. George Downie tenant Blackhammer
  21. Christian Mouat tenant Upper Blackhammer
  22. Isobel Inksetter tenant in Grain

On his death on 30th March 1847 , an inventory of George McBeath’s shop and household goods was as follows:

Shop goods and furniture total £25 2/- 11 ½ d

Household Furniture:

  • Dining Room £54 9/- 5 ½ d
  • Parlour £21 1/- 6d
  • Small room off parlour £6 17/-
  • Bedroom off dining room £5 18/-
  • Second bedroom £4 13/- 3d
  • Front bedroom £8 17/- 6d
  • Back high bedroom £5 7/- 6d
  • Small closet bedroom £1 1/-
  • Kitchen £5 7/- 4d (includes servants bedding 10/- 6d)
  • Wash House £2 18/- 6d
  • Store £9 15 /- (includes 5lbs tea = £1 10/-)
  • Cart shed £30 4/- 3d

TOTAL= £166 10/- 3 ½ d

In memory of GEORGE MCBEATH who died 30th March 1847 aged 47 years. Also of his children ANN who died 23rd October 1840 aged 8 years, MARY ANN who died 26th April 1841 aged 11 days, SAMUEL who died 11th June 1844 aged 7 months, WILLIAM who died 26th September 1844 aged 14 years, JOHN who died 13th June 1866 aged 27 years. Also ISABELLA MAINLAND MCBEATH his widow who died 5th November 1893 aged 91 years. [Flat stone in front – Illegible] St Magnus Cathedral Graveyard, Kirkwall: H/6/31

George McBeath was only 47 years of age when he died but he had built up a very strong business which his son, James built upon.

James Mainland McBeath (1829 – 1902) also started out in the strawplaiting industry continuing the trade as his father had done. But this industry was to die out in the second half of the century. In 1866 James married Mary Robertson.

The McBeath’s shop was at 10 Albert Street now occupied by Ortak. James sold the ironmongery business to William Bews jnr, who was also continuing in trade as his father had done, in 1885. Bews paid £382 for the existing stock. 

10 Albert Street

James McBeath, ironmonger and trader in iron was also involved in shipping. For example he had a share in the sailing ship Paragon in 1879. The vessel had joint owners Samuel Reid, merchant, John Cursiter, merchant, James Mainland McBeath, merchant, all of Kirkwall and John Williamson Gorn merchant in Kirkwall.

James was also continuing the family business in buying up houses and land. He owned properties in Albert Street, Bridge Street Wynd (off Albert Street) and land including 7 acres situated near to the farm of Waterfield, on the outskirts of Kirkwall. On retiring from business he bought the estate of Lynnfield where he lived until his death in February 1902. It is reported that on the day of his funeral, although the ground was heavy with snow, that it was well attended.

There was much more to James McBeath than a trader in Iron. Like his father before him he was an influential member of the Congregational Church in Kirkwall. George McBeath was ordained as an elder in the Congregational Church in 1835 and appointed Session Clerk in 1840. In 1865 James McBeath was ordained as an elder and in 1884 appointed Session Clerk. In 1885 he became the Secretary and Treasurer of the Congregational Missionary Society.

James McBeath was also a member of Kirkwall Town Council and of the School Board. If that was not enough to keep the man busy, his other great passion was for antiquities – which today we would refer to as archaeology. He wrote at least two papers on the ancient sites in Orkney delivering a lecture on his findings at Stromness Museum to the Orkney Natural History Society in 1891. He also turned his hand to writing poetry.

From ‘A Churchyard Reverie’ by James Mainland McBeath

Kirkwall of the 19th Century was quickly developing as a town of trade where fortunes could be made and lost when investments were not wisely done. George and James McBeath were both smart savvy businessmen who were also leading members of their community and their church.

Fiona Grahame

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    • They were visited to get the payment. This area was then later purchased and was in the following decades ‘cleared’ of its people by the new lairds

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