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The Rising Burgh: 1560 to 1770s

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William Cuninghame

By Irene Maver

William Cuninghame of Lainshaw (1731-1799) headed one of the major Glasgow syndicates that came to dominate the transatlantic tobacco trade. Born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, both of his parents came from prosperous merchant families. Cuninghame was also related to Andrew Cochrane of Brighouse (1693-1777), probably Glasgow's most respected 18th century Lord Provost, who himself had Ayrshire roots. Kinship and local ties were important factors in consolidating Cuninghame's substantial fortune. Most of his business partners were related by blood or through marriage, while the storekeepers based in his Virginia and Maryland estates were recruited from families that were personally known to him.

According to a brief memoir written by Cuninghame, he first went to America in 1746 as an apprentice in the firm of Cochrane, Murdoch & Company. Four years later the "ignorant raw boy" had progressed to a managerial position and in 1752 he took "the supreme charge" of all the company's settlements in Virginia. Cuninghame returned to Glasgow in 1762 where he became principal partner and manager in the Cochrane concern. His "hands-on" approach to business had a positive impact on the firm's profitability. By the early 1770s, under the name of William Cuninghame & Company, it was among the city's five largest importers. Cuninghame was also a shareholder in Maryland tobacco enterprises and had considerable industrial investments in Glasgow.

Contemporaries believed that Cuninghame had made a financial killing from the tobacco scarcity caused by the American War of Independence. By stockpiling supplies, his companies were able to sell for a high price from the mid 1770s. Whatever the reality, Cuninghame retired from business in 1780, not yet fifty years old. He devoted his wealth to land acquisition and building projects, notably his celebrated Queen Street mansion, which is today an integral part of the Gallery of Modern Art. In 1778 he paid £26,200 for the landed estate of Lainshaw, in Ayrshire, and the following year he registered his family coat-of-arms at the Lord Lyon's office in Edinburgh. According to this official source, he spelled his name "Cuninghame" rather than "Cunninghame", although many historians have assumed the latter version in their writings.


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