David Ramsay: Merchant of Kirkwall

He was to become one of the most important traders in Kirkwall but David Ramsay was not from Orkney. What brought him to the islands in the early years of the 19th century and what drove his success?

David Ramsay was born in 1781 in Barry, Forfarshire ( today Angus), where nearly every household wove cloth for onward transport to Dundee and export abroad. Ramsay, himself, was trained in weaving cloth. Most people in the town belonged to the Established Church of Scotland but not David Ramsay. He was inspired by the teachings of the preachers Rowland Hill and Robert and James Haldane. David Ramsay became a Dissenter.

In 1807 he travelled to Orkney as a minister in the Congregationalists and as the ‘new’ church was just getting going he took no money for his ministry but funded his life by his own means – as a trader in strawplait.

The strawplaiting and bonnet making industry was just taking off in Orkney where he was introduced to the trade by James Borwick who was to become his very good friend. The industry was extremely successful and David Ramsay, being there at the start, carried on with the trade throughout its boom years, till it died out as the 19th Century entered its second half.

Much of the strawplait used by Ramsay’s plaiters was grown on the farms of Seatter, Cleat and Holland, on the east side of Kirkwall. Demand was so great in those early years that many other merchants and traders fastened onto it as a quick money earner. This meant that when the harvest was not enough to meet the demand that the raw materials had to be imported too.

Kirkwall was growing fast. As Ramsay’s income grew he purchased a plot of land, part of Millers Park, the Lands of Papdale on April 22nd 1829. He built a fine house with a garden in what became known as Queen Street. The house and that adjoining it, recently renovated, is now occupied by Business Gateway.

In 1867 the buildings were put up for sale by the Trustees of Ramsay’s estate. The sale by public auction described it as:

a large and commodious dwelling house with garden, stable, washing house and other outhouse and conveniences attached, at present possessed by Mr David Bruce, and the small self-contained dwelling house immediately adjoining it possessed by Capt R Heddle – posted by Alexander Bain

Orkney Herald 25 December 1866

It is said that opposite the house was a public watering source which was known as ‘Ramsay’s Well’.

Ramsay married Margaret Bews from Kirkwall and produced a large family: William, Elizabeth, Isabella, John, David and Margaret. James went to sea and John became a cabinet maker but the rest of the family were employed assisting their father in the straw plait industry. The household was a large one with a live-in servant and a lodger who was employed as a straw splitter.

The industry was so massive and in those early boom years so ‘manic’ with thousands of women employed that there were often disputes between the various dealers over plait. The plait was being processed not just in Stromness and Kirkwall but in many parishes. It then had to be sent to the traders who would sell it onwards and export it from Orkney. It was all part of a distribution chain linking up the processing and plaiting of the straw to make bonnets. Just like today when a parcel is delivered to the wrong address that also happened in 19thC Orkney.

David Ramsay got into a dispute with another trader, John Taylor of Kirkwall, over wrongly delivered plaits. John Taylor accused Ramsay of receiving and keeping for himself plaits bought by Taylor. In a letter from David Ramsay to John Taylor dated 20th July 1813, Ramsay tried to take the heat out of the argument by offering to give Taylor some plaits. David Ramsay says:

“Mid June you called with 3 plaits at my house saying that I received 5 of yours. They are mine but I said I would give you 5 and pay for them being plaited by Cuper…I am willing to give you the profits on the 5 plaits with certain conditions.”

And we get an indication that this was not an unusual problem as the letter confirmed that Ramsay had a similar wrong delivery previously but had settled it with the trader concerned, Oliver Scott, amicably.

Ramsay paid the women plaiters and processors money,

to all who wished it on the return of their work, but many who preferred their money to lie in Mr Ramsay’s hands received a ticket with the amount due to them, to be drawn at their convenience.

The Dundee Advertiser 17th August 1898

The various Orkney traders had their own connections south for the plaited straw. David Ramsay exported his to the firm of J and A Muir in Greenock.

The most important aspect of David Ramsay’s life was his Ministry.

The Rev Mr Ramsay was a splendid Minister who occupied the church now known as The Temperance Hall, and which belongs to The Good Templars. He preached three sermons every sabbath.

The Dundee Advertiser 17th August 1898

David Ramsay died on the 2nd August 1853. An Inventory recorded on 28th February 1854 of his effects is as follows:

  • Value of household furniture and other effects £42 9 /- 6d
  • Debt due by Wm Frear (flesher) £3 1/- 10d
  • Principal sum due by the trustees of Mill Street Chapel £70 plus interest £2 12/- 2d total £72 12/- 2d
  • Sum contained in deposit receipt to the National Bank of Scotland’s branch at Kirkwall £200 plus interest £1 11/- 6 d Total £201 11/- 6d
  • Balance of account due by Messrs Muir Connel (?) and Brodie of Glasgow £43 13/- 6d
  • Total £363 8/- 6d

The Trustees : Peter Cursiter, William Mainland (both merchants) and Richard Spence joiner took care of the property at Queen Street.

David Ramsay’s grave in St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall is a very modest stone which was put in place by his congregation. As such there is no mention of his family on it and it is in a poor state.

[Flat or fallen stone] In memory of Revd DAVID RAMSAY, for many years Minister of the Congregational Church Kirkwall, who died on 2nd Aug 1855 aged 75. Also of Rev JAMES MCNAUGHTON, 7 years Minister of the same Church, who died on the 10th Decr 1859 aged 40. This stone is erected by members of the Congregational Church of Kirkwall as a memorial of their love and esteem toward these servants of Jesus Christ. Also Rev J W CHALMERS, one year Minister of the above Church, died 3rd June 1895 aged 39 years. With Christ in Glory.

I don’t think David Ramsay would have wanted an ostentatious memorial. For such a man, dedicated to his religious beliefs, and so hard working, for him, what was important was the church he was instrumental in developing.

“Mr Ramsay was an earnest man, gifted, full of humour, who, as used to be said about him, “ thought for himself about everything.” And whose adherence to Independency in early life  had offended his relatives, and seriously injured his own worldly prospects.”

Orkney Herald – 6th Feb 1895

Fiona Grahame

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