James Gillespie (1726-1797)

‘An Edinburgh character through and through, with an impressive nose fit for a snuff merchant’

Background: Born into a family of modest means in 1726 in Roslin, Edinburgh, James was one of three children. A sister of whom little is known, and a brother, John, with whom he went into the tobacco and snuff business. Alongside running ‘The Gillespie Tobacco Shop’, located at what is now 231 High Street on the Royal Mile, the brothers also bought a snuff mill in the nearby town of Collinton, and made some shrewd investments in the American tobacco industry before and during the War of Independence.

Image: plaque at the location of Gillespie’s original shop

With their tobacco proving popular – apparently aided by the inclusion of generous levels of cocaine, a legal practice at the time – and with ‘Gillespie’s snuff’ even referred to in Robert Fergusson’s 1773 poem ‘Auld Reekie’, their wealth grew. James eventually became one of the richest men of Edinburgh.

Brought up in a strict branch of Presbyterianism, Cameronianism, the brothers led a life of thrift, avoiding ostentatiousness and pretentiousness. Reputedly, James’ favourite saying was ‘waste not, want not’.

Surviving his brother by two years, James died in 1797 at the age of 70: ‘Even in extreme age one might have seen him [James] with an old blanket round him and a nightcap on, both covered with snuff, attending the mill and superintending the operations of his man, Andrew Fraser.’

On his death, James left an estate in the region of £12,000, an amount worth around £2m today. He and his brother are buried in the Colinton churchyard.


Philanthropy: Renown amongst his workers for his benevolence and sympathy for the poor, James bequeathed most of his estate (lands plus £2,000) to build a hospital ‘for the maintenance of old men and women’, with the remainder (£2,700) going to the founding of a free school in Edinburgh.

Image: Gillespie tomb

The hospital, built in Bruntsfield, opened in 1801. After a long period of disuse, it was demolished in 1975. However, it still stands out for the hierarchy of selection criteria used to secure admission. In his Will, James firstly named each of his workers to have ‘preference of admission to the said Hospital’. Thereafter, the following distinctions were to be made: ‘poor persons of the name Gillespie, fifty-five years of age and upwards, whatever part of Scotland they may come from’; the poor belonging to Edinburgh and its suburbs, aged fifty-five years or upwards’; ‘failing of applications from poor belonging to Edinburgh and its suburbs, men and women belonging to Leith, Newhaven and other parts of the county of Midlothian’; and, lastly, ‘failing applications from all these places, poor coming from any part of Scotland … none are to be admitted into it who have an allowance from any other charity’. Each applicant was required to provide references stating they were decent and well-behaved.

The school was founded in 1803 and aimed at educating boys between the ages of six and twelve. During its first year, sixty children were taught by one schoolmaster. Today, over 200 years later, the school continues to exist. In 1923 it opened its doors to girls as well as boys. It now comprises a state-funded primary school and a secondary school, James Gillespie’s Primary School and James Gillespie’s High School respectively.

One of the most distinguished former pupils is the author Muriel Spark. She has written about her experiences at the School and with its donor in a personal reflection piece for The New Yorker and has used the school as an inspiration for her novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’.



Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 21, Gillespie, James, by James Tait, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Gillespie,_James_(DNB00)

James Gillespie, https://prabook.com/web/james.gillespie/2187297

James Gillespie – an Edinburgh character, https://www.mercattours.com/blog-post/james-gillespie—an-edinburgh-character

James Gillespie, the snuff maker of Colinton, 1 August 2018, https://www.konect.scot/articles/james-gillespie-the-snuff-maker-of-colinton

James Gillespie’s Primary School, School History, https://www.jamesgillespiesprimary.co.uk/our-school/school-history/

Muriel Spark, The School on the Links. Discovering Miss Jean Brodie, 17th March 1991, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1991/03/25/the-school-on-the-links



Gillespie’s Hospital ca. 1805 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Gillespie_(philanthropist)#/media/File:Gillespie%27s_Hospital,_Edinburgh.jpg

Gillespie’s Shop sign – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-46030606

Gillespie Tomb – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Gillespie_(philanthropist)#/media/File:The_Gillespie_vault,_Colinton_churchyard.jpg