Sir Alexander Grant of Forres (1864-1937)

“A great believer in the ‘passing on’ habit”

Image: Photo of Sir Alexander Grant

Background: Sir Alexander Grant, born in 1864 in Forres, is the inventor and creator of the McVitie’s digestive biscuit. His secret recipe is used by McVitie’s up to this day (1). Grant became Chairman (1910) and Managing Director (1911) of McVitie and Price and upon his death in 1937, his estate was calculated at £1,039,976. His legacy goes far beyond biscuits, and thanks to his painstakingly detailed record keeping in business diaries, we can begin to unpick how his self-ascribed habit of ‘passing on’ shaped the philanthropic landscape in Scotland.

Philanthropy: Grant is perhaps best known for his £200,000 donation to establish the National Library of Scotland; £100,000 of which as a permanent endowment and another £100,000 as a building fund which the Government match funded. His contributions to maintaining the richness of Scottish heritage are equally important. These include providing for the silver, crystal and plenishings for the Palace of Holyroodhouse (£10,000 after his death), and purchasing the ‘Glencoe Order’ document for £300. This original order document of 1692, sent to Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, instructing him to kill the MacDonalds of Glencoe, is fittingly housed in the National Library of Edinburgh today. Grant made further contributions to purchase the Monymusk Reliquary (£500) and the Codex Sinaiticus (£100).

Image: Commemorative glass engraving at the National Library of Scotland

His donation of £50,000 to the University of Edinburgh contributed to the King’s Buildings, of which the Grant Institute of Geology is named after him. Grant often gave anonymously and tensions around the visibility of the philanthropist emerge with Grant allowing this gift to the University to be announced, but only as a means to encourage other donors. Beyond these prominent philanthropic acts, Grant’s business diaries provide a view into his everyday philanthropy. Kept from 1 January 1917 to 13 May 1937, these diaries reveal a distinguishing feature of his philanthropy: the diversity of causes he supported, ranging from education, heritage and arts, work and welfare, to health and sport. Below is a brief account of his contributions to his workers and their families in financial need, as taken from his business diaries (2):

“- I promised to send Mrs Stiven £300 to pay for six weeks’ stay in a sanatorium for Mr Stiven (4th January 1922)
– I agreed to continue Mrs Stiven’s allowance for a further year (7th January 1930)
– […] we would allow Mrs Lawrence 10/- per week for six months. This is a tin-house worker who is ill and cannot return (15th May 1931)
– I promised to give the man in the margarine plant £50 to take his wife and family home to Denmark for a fortnight’s holiday at Christmas (24th November 1933)
– […] pay the full salary of the late Mr Park to his widow for the month of April and thereafter give her a rate of £200 a year until further notice (16th April 1934).” 

Image: Order for the massacre of Glencoe, National Library of Scotland

Grant’s diary entries highlight the routine of giving as a businessman prior to the establishment of the welfare state. Other examples included his larger donations to the Duke of York’s camps for boys from public schools and industry (average £1300 annually) and smaller charitable initiatives for the poor, such as a £10 subscription towards the Police-Aided Scheme for Clothing Destitute Children to the Chief Constable of Edinburgh. Grant funded hospitals such as the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary extension, Stonebridge Health Centre, and the maternity ward in Nairn Hospital. A smattering of Grant’s numerous donations to sport included £7 for the wire netting round the tennis court for the girls in Edinburgh, or promising £250 in prize money for the championship of the Scottish Professional Golfing Association, on condition that it is played for at Nairn. Not one to overlook his birthplace, he subscribed £600 towards the Forres Parish Church Memorial windows and made donations for the town’s park, named in his honour. These latter examples are indicative of place-based philanthropy.

The reach of his benevolence was not without controversy, however. This is illustrated by his financial support of Prime Minister MacDonald. The latter being the first prime minister without a private income, Grant provided a car and shares of McVitie’s for its upkeep to MacDonald, resulting in a scandal. When a baronetcy was conferred upon Grant in 1924 for his service around establishing the National Library, this was criticized as a hereditary baronetcy in return for his gifts. As his obituary in 1937 tellingly noted: “Sir Alexander Grant, who was a man of humble birth, was particularly generous to his friends.”(3)

Image: Painting of Sir Alexander Grant of Forres (1864–1937) by David Shanks Ewart (1901–1965), Moray Council Museums Service

Relevance for understanding philanthropy: Grant’s philanthropy draws our attention to the role of obligation that pervaded much of philanthropy in the early 1900s – whether, as in Grant’s case, out of a sense of obligation towards one’s own workers, their families and inhabitants of one’s birthplace, or more broadly out of obligation to those less fortunate, especially children and women. Grant, in his own words,
“always felt it was the duty of everyone who wanted to build up a big business, to have large ideas in the giving away as well as in the taking in and I am a great believer in the ‘passing on’ habit….I have tried to cultivate this habit and get far more pleasure than if I spent it on myself. My wants are few.” (Grant’s reply to Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s recommendation of Grant for a Baronetcy)(2)

At the same time, his philanthropy points to the practice of reciprocity, highlighted by his use of matched funding. As seen in one illustrative example from 1934, Grant promised to give Nairn Dunbar Golf Club £100 if they could raise £350 by means of bazaars in one year. One might even point to the reach of his philanthropic practice as early evidence of philanthrocapitalism with significant contributions to areas that are typically in the purview of the state (e.g., sick pay, national library, Prime Minister’s vehicle).

Overall, Grant’s philanthropy raises important questions around philanthropy in the absence of the modern welfare state, the role of reciprocity and obligation, the visibility of the philanthropist, alongside continuing evidence of place-based philanthropy. This cursory look into the everyday practice of giving reveals contributions to Scottish culture, national heritage and welfare that go far beyond a plate of biscuits.


(2) Adam, J.S. (1992). The Business Diaries of Sir Alexander Grant. Edinburgh: Donald.

(3) The Mercury, Obituary Sir Alexander Grant. 24 May 1937, p. 2.

Image sources:
Photo of Sir Alexander Grant

Commemorative glass engraving to Sir Alexander Grant at National Library of Scotland,,_1st_Baronet#/media/File:Commemorative_glass_engraving_to_Sir_Alexander_Grant_at_National_Library_of_Scotland_in_Edinburgh.jpg

Order for the massacre of Glencoe, National Library of Scotland,

Painting of Sir Alexander Grant of Forres (1864–1937) by David Shanks Ewart (1901–1965), Moray Council Museums Service,