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Cannons, clocks and ocean liners
What connects two brass cannons, early 19th century Scottish clock & watch makers and the first transatlantic iron-hulled ocean liners? A MacGregor family, that’s what!

Two smallish (50Kg) cannons have recently been introduced to the Clan Gregor Society museum at Castle Menzies. For a number of years, following the closure of the Killin Old Mill heritage centre. the cannons were displayed at the Bridge of Lochay hotel. Due to recent changes in the operation of the hotel, the Society was asked to remove them, so they were taken to Castle Menzies to join our collection there.

I remember seeing one of these cannons loaded with gunpowder and paper wadding to be fired, with much noise and smoke, on the lawn of the late John MacGregor-Blain’s “Keep” in Balquhidder. This was probably in 1992 when I attended as part of a Jacobite re-enactment group. The late Dr Gregor Hutcheson, a past Chairman of the Society, arranged for the cannons to be presented on long-term loan by the owner for display in the Society’s room in the Killin Old Mill. At the time, when I first joined the Society, I was not personally aware of their provenance.

The owner of the cannons, Mr N. Gregor MacGregor of Walton-on-Thames, recently visited Castle Menzies and explained the provenance of the cannons. This proved to be a fascinating story involving early 19th century MacGregor clock and watch makers and the world’s first iron-hulled ocean-going steamship, built by a MacGregor shipyard on the Clyde.

I have borrowed much of the following from Gregor’s family history on his webpages at

John MacGregor was baptised on the 24th August 1802 at Fintry in Stirlingshire. He was the third son of James MacGregor and Anne McNicol. James and Anne had married in 1792. [1] James was a skilled clockmaker, baptising his children in Balfron and Fintry, Stirlingshire and the last at Comrie, Perthshire in 1808. James’s own origin is not known. There are a number of James MacGregors baptised in the late 18th century in Perthshire and Argyll. However, Gregor mentioned that there was a family tradition of connection to James Mor, son of Rob Roy. A letter by John has:
“Through my mother I am descended from Rob Roy. My mother was a daughter of Donald MacGregor, great grandson of James Mor, who died in Paris in 1754”. [2]

This may have a kernel of truth in it, but of course, John’s mother’s father Donald was not a MacGregor but a McNicol. James Mňr, Rob Roy’s third son, married Annabel MacNicol. The last child of James Mňr and Annabel MacNicol was baptised in 1753 in Glenorchy and Inishall parish, at the head of Loch Awe. A 1746 letter from Nicol MacNicol, the brother-in-law of James Mňr, was found in Inverness after Culloden. It was addressed to Major James McGrigor of the Duke of Perth's regiment.

There was an Anne MacNicol, baptised in Glenorchy in 1774 by Donald MacNicol. [3] Unfortunately the Glenorchy parish record only began in 1753, so it is not possible to determine whether Donald may have been a son of Nicol MacNicol, but if he was then the John MacGregor baptised in 1802 would have been a great-grandson of the brother-in-law of James Mňr. This might be sufficient to explain the family tradition.

Clock & Watch making In my email exchange with Gregor, he included an image of a clock, a family heirloom passed down to him, made by James MacGregor of Calton. Confusingly there is a Calton parish in Edinburgh and another in Glasgow! “Old Scottish Clockmakers” lists a number of MacGregors who were clockmakers in Edinburgh. There were also clockmakers based in Calton, Glasgow, but none named MacGregor! [4]

Gregor says in his account that the whole family moved to Glasgow. However, I wonder whether James and one, at least, of his sons actually opened their business in Edinburgh.

A clockmaker named James MacGregor had his business in West Register Street, Edinburgh in 1825. From 1836 until 1850, the business was known as James MacGregor and son. Judging by the date of his marriage in 1792, James was probably born around 1770. It is not possible to be certain, but this clock may provide the evidence that James, at least, had established his clock & watch business in Edinburgh at some time following the baptism of his last child in Comrie. James would be aged around 65 in 1836 and, no doubt, ready to pass the business on to one of his sons.

I have speculated that the son may have been his eldest, William, who was baptised in Fintry in May 1800. A William MacGregor, aged 40, was resident in the Canongate, Edinburgh in the 1841 census. That William married Ann Gilchrist on 1/2/1819 and baptised two sons and two daughters in the Canongate register. Canongate is the lower part of the Royal Mile, close to Holyrood. West Register Street is a lane beside Register House at the east end of Princes Street. The Calton parish begins at Leith Walk on the other side of Register House. It seems quite reasonable for James MacGregor and son to have their premises in West Register Street but label their clocks as being made in Calton. The Canongate is a few hundred yards to the South of Calton. William may have died in 1869. [5]

Sadly, the craft tradition of Scottish clock and watch-making more or less died out after 1850, due to the import of cheap mass-produced clocks and watches.

Whether or not James MacGregor in Edinburgh was the same James MacGregor who had baptised his children in Balfron, Fintry and Comrie is not directly relevant to the story of the MacGregor cannons.

clock face inscribed James McGregor Calton
Shipbuilding According to Gregor’s account, John, the third son of James, moved to Glasgow and became an engineering apprentice with David Napier, pioneer of marine steam engines. John became a sea-going engineer on the Belfast, a wooden-hulled paddle steamer, which plied between Liverpool and Dublin, one of the earliest steamers to cross the Irish Channel.

In about 1830 John (senior) married Margaret Fleming. [6] Together they had seven children, of whom two boys and three girls survived. The sons were: James [7] and John [8] James married but had no children. John (junior) and his wife, Sarah Jane, had 6 children in Dunoon, including 4 boys. John (junior) was a partner until 1870 in Duncan & MacGregor, shipbuilders in Greenock.

Following the death of Margaret Fleming, John (senior) married Margaret York [9] . By 1854, John & Margaret were living in a substantial mansion at Finnart House, Loch Long. Their son William Y Macgregor [10] , an artist, who became known as the“father” of the “Glasgow Boys”. (Pioneering Painters – The Glasgow Boys, Glasgow Museums Publishing P125). Their second son, Peter [11] was the great-grandfather of N. Gregor MacGregor.

At Napier’s John (senior) made the acquaintance of David Tod and in 1833 he and David formed a partnership to build steam engines themselves. Towards the end of 1836 “Tod and Macgregor” opened a shipbuilding yard on the South bank of the Clyde at Mavisbank. In 1845 the firm moved to a new purpose built yard at Meadowside in Partick on the North bank of the Clyde close to its confluence with the Kelvin, and directly opposite the Govan yards. “Tod and Macgregor” have been described as “the fathers of iron shipbuilding on the Clyde”.

Tod & MacGregors’s paddle-steamer Vale of Leven may have been the first iron-hulled ship to be launched on the River Clyde. In 1837, they launched Rothesay Castle, an iron paddle-steamer of 130 feet keel length. Her times of 1 hour 35 minutes to Greenock and 2 hours 55 minutes to Rothesay made her ‘by far the quickest steamer on the Clyde’.

By the summer of 1839, Tod and Macgregor had two ships in the water which were referred to as the largest iron vessels yet built in this country. The two vessels were Royal Sovereign and Royal George, built for the Glasgow and Liverpool Royal Steam Packet Company, the Royal Sovereign being the first iron-hulled seagoing paddle-steamer.

Tod and Macgregor decided to build to their own account an iron screw-propelled passenger steamship which would inaugurate a regular run across the Atlantic. The City of Glasgow was 227 feet long and displaced 1,609 tons. She had an engine of 350 horsepower and a screw of 13 feet diameter. The engines were manufactured in the Clyde Foundry and were installed when the hull was launched at the end of February 1850.

She set out on her maiden voyage on 16th April 1850. The final paragraph of a newspaper report forecast well what the future held:
“It is an effort to combine a reasonable degree of speed with certainty and cheapness, and it is intended to link the West of Scotland with the principal seaport of the New World. We may expect in due course to see tourists taking advantage of The City of Glasgow for a pleasure trip to the United States, in the same way as they hereto made a voyage up the Rhine, or a run to the Highlands of Scotland; and there is little doubt that the same facilities, and moderate scale of charges, will induce our Yankee friends to extend their personal acquaintance with the land of their fathers.”

The City of Glasgow had a crew of seventy – reported to be hand-picked by the two owners and the captain – and these included a baker, two stewardesses, a band of musicians and a doctor. Milk came straight from a cow on board!

The ship could carry about 1,200 tons of well-paying cargo and 52 passengers in her first class and 85 in her second class accommodation. Space was set aside too for a further 400 berths in steerage spaces, thus carrying steerage passengers by steam for the first time. She carried six life-boats.

The City of Glasgow has been generally accepted as not only as the first screw-propelled steamer to cross the Atlantic, but also as setting the pattern for most future liners. It was the beginning of much success for the partners.

The City of Glasgow was especially economical because she was not built for speed; her best time across the Atlantic was 14 days, 4 hours, almost 4 days longer than Cunard Line’s Asia, a wooden-hulled paddle steamer, (similar to Brunel's Great Western of 1838), which was the record holder in 1850. While The City of Glasgow's engines of 350 horsepower produced a moderate 9.5 knots, her coal consumption was only 20 tons per day, compared with 76 tons for the Asia. [12] The City of Glasgow established that Atlantic steamships could be operated profitably without government subsidy.

On 5 October 1850, The City of Glasgow was purchased by the newly formed Liverpool and Philadelphia Steam Ship Company (also known as the Inman Line) and operated the Liverpool-Philadelphia route from 17 December 1850.

She disappeared en route to Philadelphia in January 1854 with 480 passengers and crew. Almost certainly the victim of an iceberg.
SS City of Glasgow - lithograph by Edward Duncan
Twenty five years of partnership ended with the death of John Macgregor in the autumn of 1858. His share in the business was sold to David Tod, but four months later he himself died, on 24th January 1859. In around 1874, the shipbuilding business was sold and became D. & W. Henderson and Company which continued trading until 1936.

The Foundry Peter, the youngest son of James, had also moved to Glasgow and worked in the Clyde Foundry which was established in Warrock Street. Peter married Ann Jardon in 1839. [13] In the 1841 census he was found at Warrock Street, with Ann. They appear to have had a son, James. [14]

The Clyde Foundary was obviously successful, and Peter went on to open his own brass foundry at 81 Clyde Street between 1841 & 1845. After 1848 he moved the brass foundry to 187 Finnieston Street. In 1851 he was employing 17 men.

The cannons. Returning to the brass MacGregor cannons, it seems almost certain that they were manufactured by Peter and very likely that the wooden carriages were made at the shipyard. The cannons would be intended as ornaments, perhaps for the substantial houses that Peter and John were now able to afford for their families.

[1] MCGREGOR, JAMES; ANN MCNICOL/FR425 (FR425); 06/08/1792; 472/20 116; Balfron

[2] In the John MacGregor WS collection at GD50/184/84 is a letter headed Melfort, Kilmelfort, Argyll

[3] MCNICOL, ANNE; DONALD MCNICOL/MARJORY CAMPBELL FR38 (FR38); F; 02/10/1774; 512/10 34; Glenorchy and Inishail


[5] MCGREGOR, WILLIAM; 71; 1869; 692/2 417; Leith South

[6] Margaret Fleming was born 23rd March 1809

[7] James Macgregor born 23rd December 1833, City Parish, Glasgow, Lanarkshire

[8] John Macgregor born 13th April 1843, Barony, Lanarkshire.)

[9] John married Margaret York on the 9th of March 1851

[10] William Y Macgregor, baptised. 14th October 1855; died Oban, 28th September 1923

[11] Peter Macgregor born 21st February 1857 at Partick; Died Hove, Sussex 22nd April 1901

[12] Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society. James MacNab. 1859. p. 68.

[13] Peter married Ann Jardon on 31st of December 1839,

[14] James, son of Peter & Ann Jardon was baptised on the 28th August 1840