Donald R. MacGregor, MP of Leith

When researching the history of our much-loved flat (built 1880-1881) in Woodburn Terrace in Morningside, it was easy to confirm some facts. The land had been sold by its previous owners in 1878. They were a brother and sister from England called Charles William Anderson and Mary Anderson… and Mary was married to someone called Donald Robert MacGregor (or Macgregor, or McGregor), a merchant in Leith. Our deeds referred to the grand villa and its grounds adjacent to Woodburn Terrace (an area the same size to our entire street of 100 flats), and it was also listed as their property. That is, in 1878 and 1881 it was referred to as being owned by the Andersons:

The lines about Woodburn House that sparked further interest in non-owner Mr. MacGregor (1881): “… and on the East by the Property of Woodburn belonging to the said Charles William Anderson and Mrs Mary Anderson or Macgregor… “

So, (I wondered), why was the land for the building of Woodburn Terrace off Canaan Lane (and Woodburn House on Canaan Lane) not in the name of Mr MacGregor? Why was it his wife who was in partnership with Mr. Anderson? It was, after all, a man’s world. But it took a long time to realise I actually had to focus on local man Donald Robert MacGregor, the non-owner of the land. I’d acquired yet another unexpected research topic. So, nearly a year later (and after lots of confusion on my part, some of it conveyed below) I know the basic facts and gaps. His life story could inspire one hell of a novel or film, if you ask me.

Donald R. MacGregor and Mary Anderson

I found a likely match for Mr and Mrs MacGregor in the index to the 1871 census in Scotland (as shown), which looked worth the £1.50 cost to download. And the gamble paid off.

MACGREGORMARY45685/5 111/ 5Newington
MACGREGORDONALD R47685/5 111/ 5Newington
1871 census, implying dates of birth of around 1824 and 1826 for Donald Robert MacGregor and Mary Anderson repectively, living in Woodburn, Canaan Lane. Jane Thom from Largo (Fife) aged 30 was also resident, working as housemaid (and there may be others over the page).

Donald’s census entry says he was a “steamship owner” born in Perth (Scotland) and Mary’s confirms that she was his wife and was born in England. But was she Mary Anderson?

Yes! HIT! There was a Donald and Mary who married in Newcastle (Upon Tyne) in 1851, near to Mary and Charles’s home in the North East of England, South Shields. I’ve not done any ancestral work on them, but I do know that there’s a living relative out there of Mary Anderson, whose maternal grandfather was Robert Kirkley Robert: one of his 2x great grandchildren has been in touch. They write: “As I had only found records of this family in South Shields and London and no confirmed records of his sister Mary I did not know of her marriage to Donald Robert MacGregor or that they lived and had a connection to Edinburgh.” Isn’t it great to overlap with someone else’s research!

The Andersons’ feu contract and disposition in favour of Francis Walkingshaw cited in our 1878 title deeds says they were being named named “as individuals and also as trustees for the ends uses and purposes mentioned in a Deed of Declaration of Trust and Indemnity dated twentieth July and eighteenth August and recorded in the Books of Council and Session twenty fourth August all in the year Eighteen hundred and sixty six.

My slow and confused start

The 1871 census entry for “Newington” was clear: the MacGregors lived in Woodburn, Canaan Lane. HIT!

This was good because I hadn’t found out from any website descriptions of Woodburn House itself who its owner had been in 1878. However, the couple may have lived there (maybe briefly), but not owned the land at that time, nor does it clarify the empty field on which Woodburn Terrace would later be built, when the land was sold by the Andersons in 1878.

Next, I turned to the Post Office Directory, and I searched for Donald Robert MacGregor as a new person of interest in the Edinburgh Gazette, newspapers, Valuation Rolls, as well as downloading the 1871 census.

It’s not an unusual name. So my search started off overwhelmed by multiple people of the same name. How many of these were our man, if any? (In our 1878 title deeds, he is referred to as “sometime of Edinburgh, now merchant of Leith”.)

  • An MP
  • A bankrupt
  • A businessman in shipping
  • Various ranks in the volunteer rifles
  • Another bankrupt
  • A victim of fraud
  • A hotelier (the Royal Hotel on Princes St.)
  • Owners of homes in Portobello/Duddingston, Leith, Newington, Morningside

If I knew Charles Smith’s history of Morningside off by heart, or if there were a digital copy to permit a ^f search… I would have noticed something earlier that would have saved me so much confusion. Smith has a one-sentence reference (p117) where he writes of the house’s ownership “In 1861 the house passed to D.R. MacGregor of the Merchant Shipping Company of Leith”.


That’s our man. This basic reference should of course have been where I started. Oh hindsight!

MacGregor’s properties

Donald Robert MacGregor shows up in the Valuation Rolls index as Proprietor/Owner of Woodburn House in 1875. And (as Donald R. McGregor) he was listed as the owner of Woodburn, Canaan Lane (10 acres valued at £185 per year) in Owners of Lands and Heritages, published 1874 (page 58), which is probably the same data. But indeed, this confirms to me that he was the owner of Woodburn House just a couple of years before his brother-in-law and wife owned and sold the land adjacent (for Woodburn Terrace).

Somehow Mrs MacGregor and her brother came to own both parcels of land, including Woodburn House. More on that, below.

MacGregor owned 18 Minto Street, Newington, Edinburgh

Twenty years earlier, in 1855 (the oldest rolls easily available), MacGregor had owned and occupied a detached villa at 18 Minto Street (in Newington). It is now Category B listed and has just been completely renovated and converted (with numbers 16 & 17) from The Minto Hotel into eight 3-5 room bedroom flats (selling at over £500k) with three new-build 6 room terraced houses in the back garden, now called Blacket Mews. The developer’s brochure talks up the early 19th C. style: “The classic architecture and generously proportioned accommodation of the two existing period buildings has been spectacularly converted to create eight stylish apartments across three floors”, and “The … fine period detailing … highly sought-after … synonymous with central Edinburgh properties.” So, by 1855, Mr. MacGregor seems to have been one of Edinburgh’s (new) wealthy middle class entrepreneurs attracted to the then-modern villas in areas like Newington, Grange and Canaan.

18 Minto Street is the originally detached villa on the bottom right of the image (16/17 is an originally semi-detached villa on the left). Architect’s image from the sales brochure (2019), development by Midtown Capital.

Leith and Canaan

MacGregor was also named as a tenant of two commercial properties in 1855, Yard Number at 5 North Junction Street, Leith, and the Counting House, 128 Constitution Street, Leith.

Plan of Edinburgh and Leith. Engraved expressly for the Post Office Directory, By W.H.Lizars. 1854-1855, Edinburgh: J.A. Ballantyne. From National Library of Scotland online maps.

The contemporary 1850s map of Leith’s inner and outer harbours shows locations to which MacGregor was about to move rather than the ones just mentioned. His locus would be where the north side of Bernard Street meets outer harbour Shore. Bernard Street (in “South Leith”, east of the Water of Leith’s harbours) was linked to North Leith over the harbour by a raisable drawbridge.

Bernard Street drawbridge, Leith, looking inland towards the inner harbour from the seaward side, shortly before its demolition in 1897. Photo from Capital Collections, the image library for Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries, item 4882. Copyright City of Edinburgh Council – Edinburgh Libraries.

The bridge was replaced with the low road (and tram) bridge (17/2/1898) that now separates the inner (now shipless) harbour from the outer. In the 1850s the dock railway used to run along the seafront: land reclamation and dredging later created new Leith wet harbours far out into the sea to the north, as well as west of the Customs House (an earlier development already partly visible on this map).

To further set the scene it is worth quoting the 1852 OS Name Book (Midlothian, volume 84OS1/11/84/46 accessed at Scotland’s Places), even though Leith was already not MacGregor’s home residence.

Bernard Street extended “between Inner Harbour & Constitution Street. A wide street extending from the Shore … at the new Bridge to Constitution Street The houses in it are generally good and inhabited by merchants of considerable wealth. The street is paved and Kept pretty clean” [my emphasis]. MacGregor’s wealth was possibly even greater yet, since as noted, in 1855 he was living south of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a distance so great that even nowadays it can take an hour on the bus. Probably it was quicker then in a coach or on a horse. I can’t believe MacGregor would have travelled by tram.

Ten years later (1865), he had many more entries in the Valuation Rolls, as we will see. Business was booming, and I will list his business properties, which were mainly in Bernard Street, Leith, in more detail below.

MacGregor’s home had moved to the lands of Canaan in Morningside. He was was Proprietor/occupier of a house incorrectly indexed as 6 Canaan Lane at Scotland’s People. Memo to self: don’t trust the transcribed index, even on the most reliable sites.

In fact, when I looked at the digitised document, it was obvious that #6 was actually owned by Mrs Walter Oliphant of 8 Buccleugh Place, and rented to George Davidson, gardener at £5-15-0 per year. This red herring had got me excited, because the houses at this location nowadays are next door to what was then the Volunteer Arms public house, named for the rifle militia who used the nearby rifle range just south of the Jordan Burn (see below). The modern pub sign recognises the history of The Volunteer Arms.. (This pub is now famous as The Canny Man’s rather than by its original name.) The long-standing family business currently also owns 4 Canaan Lane, using it as a hotel, under the brand “The Lane“. 6 Canaan Lane, in a mews adjacent to both, is a substantial but now subdivided warren of buildings. But as I say, this was all a red herring… so there was not such a direct connection to the Midlothian Rifle Volunteers as I first hoped.

Why did I care? As perhaps might be clear already, MacGregor was intimately connected to the Midothian Rifles (see below).

The Canny Man’s pub sign, with an image of a rifleman, from the days when it was named for (and used by) the Midlothian Rifle Volunteers.

However, the point is that by 1865 (in fact, earlier, as shown by the Post Office Directory), MacGregor (with his wife Mary Anderson) had become owner and occupier of Woodburn House, at a substantial rateable value of £185/year. This was even greater than the values of his famous or distinguished neighbours in and around Canaan Lane, some of whom are also listed in 1865 on the same valuation page:

  • William Carfrae MD, at The Bloom (£50)
  • Bruce Alan Bremmer MD, at Streatham House (£160)
  • John Gregory, Advocate, at Canaan Lodge (£120)
  • Lady Oswald, at Southbank (£140)
A slightly earlier (1863) Post Office Directory

So, Mr MacGregor was seriously wealthy.

Unsurprisingly then, also according to the 1865 Valuation Rolls, MacGregor was the proprietor of 12 residential homes (“houses”) in Leith’s Citadel, rented to the following tenants for around £5 to £6 per year. Now mostly demolished, it was apparently was originally a Cromwellian Fort (one of five in Scotland). Only an arched entrance in Dock St remains.

  • Mrs. Fairweather
  • Mrs Stevenson
  • Donald Ross
  • John Ferguson
  • James Paterson
  • Liston Croal
  • John Lockhart
  • James Watson
  • Mrs ?Gribble
  • Thomas Drummond
  • Andrew Hay
  • John Kerr
Citadel gateway (which survives) and probably MacGregor’s building above (which does not), circa 1850 – photo from photos of old Leith. There was also a “Cromwell House” in the Citadel which was removed in the 19th century. See also

He also had a shop at 34 Shore, rented to Reid and Son Stationers for £65 a year. Shore is reminiscent of other North Sea / Baltic river harbours like Gdansk and was, as an independent town, the port for Edinburgh and a major trading centre. Capital Collections (see images and links below) say “For many centuries the Shore was the trading centre of Leith. Vessels were loaded and unloaded here from mediaeval times… The Shore has also been the site of several royal disembarkations, including Mary Queen of Scots’s arrival from France in 1560, and George IV’s visit in 1822.”

The Shore, Leith
Shore, Leith. Image from Geograph, © Copyright Alan Murray-Rust: “between Tolbooth Wynd Bridge and Bernard Street Bridge. Before the development of Leith Docks, this would have been an important wharf for unloading goods for the City of Edinburgh.”
Rebuilt Gdansk (2019). What confidence! Well done Poland.

MacGregor was proprietor of a tenement a few meters away at 55 Bernard Street, and in the 1865 rolls for these was characterised as “merchant Woodburn House Canaan Lane”. He occupied one office himself (annual rental value of £60) and rented one to Macgregor & Sinclair merchants (for £50). Another office was rented to Raahange Brothers at £26, a printing room to Reid and Son printers for £30. He also owned 7 houses above (i.e. tenement flats). Four were vacant, valued at £20 and £18, one occupied by himself at £15, one rented to Henry Somerville foreman porter at £18 and one to Alexander Alexander (sic) tea merchant at £18). He also was proprietor of a shop at 56 Bernard Street (rented to Cruickshank Robertson, upholsterers, as tenants at £35 a year).

These are all in very close proximity to each other and the harbour at the mouth of the Water of Leith. For more on 55-56 Bernard Street, and the shop at 34 Shore, see below.

Soon (by 1869 as a random example), the vacant properties at 55 Bernard Street were filled by a range of people and businesses, according to the Post Office directory (pages 270-271), with Cruickshank and Ronaldson still in number 56:

  • Couts, And[rew], pilot
  • Reid & Son, printers
  • Robb, Richard
  • M’Donald, D. and Son
  • Vice-Consul of France — Raoul Wagner
  • Stoltz, Zoff, & Co., ship bro[kers]
  • Raahange Brothers
  • Leith Commercial List Office
  • Somerville, Henry
  • Oriental Screw Collier Co.

MacGregor’s shipping and insurance businesses were also listed (page 270) [p332 online], now (1869) comprising Macgregor, Cundell, and Co. (rather than Macgregor & Sinclair as in 1865, see below) and Macgregor, D.R., as merchant, shipping agent etc. and agent for the British and Foreign Marine Insurance Company, Macgregor was also an agent for Leith and St. Petersburg Steam Company. Finally, also listed at 55 Bernard Street were a wider range of steamship offices (Leith and Rotterdam; Leith, Amsterdam and Harlingen, Leith and Dunkirk; Leith and Riga).

MacGregor’s offices at 55 Bernard Street, with some other tenants and neighbours (including W.J. Cundell, see below)

There are also a couple of other entries on other pages of the 1865 Valuation Rolls, which might be updates or corrections. One is for 55 Bernard Street, with a tenant at £5-10-0 (Adam ?Brown).

MacGregor’s Building

Now… back to 55 & 56 Bernard Street, mentioned above.

56 Bernard St, Leith. A sunny day during the COVID lockdown, May 2020

Canmore has an image of carvings above the external cornicing of what is now 55 Bernard Street. The building at 56 Bernard Street across the road bears an inscription in the stonework reading “1864” and a monograph which includes an “M”, and appears to have been built at the same time as number 54.

I can’t really make the initials out, though, and annoyingly Canmore’s record reads “Pair of seated griffons with wings form label-stops of stepped date stone. Both face front. Below the date stone (and above and between the griffons) are entwined initials.” But WHAT initials? Or, WHOSE?

Above the door to 56 Bernard Street, just below the date 1864 (not shown). Google Streetview, 2018

Ah, they do have more detail in another note. It quotes a fieldworker who transcribed them as “DRM [?]“. HIT!

So, there’s a strong possibility MacGregor was not just the proprietor in 1865 of one ground-floor shop plus flats and offices across the street, but instead built and owned this entire (Scottish Baronial?) tenement almost at the junction of Shore:

54 (left) and 56 (right) Bernard Street, dated 1864 with a monograph possibly reading DRM above the door to 56. Google Streetview, 2018.

This requires the assumption that the numbering has changed, so that in 1865 (or when first built) the building shown above would have been 55-56 Bernard Street, though it is nowadays numbered 54-56. (Modern number 55 is another tenement with ground floor shops, which has been converted at some point, on the other side of the road – the one with the pretty carvings externally and defunct stonework indicating an external stair.) And indeed, by the 1875 Valuation Rolls, MacGregor is listed as proprietor of offices, lodge, and dwelling houses at 54 Bernard Street, a shop at 56 Bernard Street, and a shop at 35 Shore, which would support this assumption that he was the developer of the grand tenement above, and that local building numbering had changed, while ownership remained stable.

Nowadays, 35 Shore (previously aka 34 Shore) is the shop at the corner of Shore and Bernard Street. This very grand building, in a similar style to MacGregor’s, adjoins his and runs round the corner from Bernard St onto Shore, with a grand clock tower which remains a local landmark. Perhaps his empire was even bigger than indicated here? I’m sure a reader will know.

1884 – “An image of the buildings along the Shore at Leith. In the foreground the Water of Leith passes under a bridge with gas lamps on it, which leads into Bernard Street. On the corner is an ornate building with a clock tower. It has an art dealer occupying the ground floor … On the other side of the road is William Rutherford’s Bar (now the King’s Wark).” Photo from Capital Collections, the image library for Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries, item 6931. Copyright City of Edinburgh Council – Edinburgh Libraries.

So far, we have seen the progression from 1855-1875, with lots of detail for the first two dates.

Ten years later, in 1885, a Donald R. MacGregor appears on the Valuation Rolls only as a tenant in Everlee House, Upper Skelmorslie, Largs – which is on the other side of the country. Nobody of his name owns and offices or other property.

Not in Leith.

Not in Morningside.

Census entries

Donald had probably appeared in the 1851 census for Leith and in 1861 in Newington (Ref 685/5 68/ 5) with Mary and (I guess) Donald’s sister Elizabeth (aged 25), as well as in 1871 (see above). Neither he nor Mary seem to appear in 1881. This was soon after the sale of the land for Woodburn Terrace. Maybe they were on a world trip on the proceeds? I may as well mention here that they did not appear to have any children.


There was a mention above of MacGregor, Cundell and Company (1869), shipping agents.

Yes, it’s shipping, based in Leith, that was the source of MacGregor’s financial (and social) fortune, not property.

Typical business advert by MacGregor & Co to arrange transportation from Scotland to Russia, on the SS Paris (1869). North British Daily Mail 13/5/1869 page 8 col 4.

The Gazette confirms MacGregor’s fortunes seem to have been somewhere up-and-down, however. MacGregor, Cundell and Co. had previously been MacGregor, Sinclair and Company, but had to change in 1866 following the death of Robert Sinclair (BMD dates unclear), who it seems was a sea captain as well as partner in the business.

William Joseph Cundell (?b. 15/07/1837 in South Leith son of Joseph Cundell and Margaret Mundy) had been the Managing Clerk, and became a partner. He was residing at 48 Bernard Street in 1869 (see above).

Edinburgh Gazette 24 April 1866

Business was good, but was high reward precisely because there was high risk. Apparently 17 steamers had been lost in the Baltic trade in just one year, in 1861 (Liverpool Mercury 9/12/1861, page 7 col 6.)

One of MacGregor’s own steamers, the SS Leith, foundered in fog on Karal reef, on the Estonian Island of Ösel (or Oesel, now called Saaremaa) in the Baltic in July 1862 on its way to Cronstadt (Kronštádt / Кроншта́дт, the port city of St. Petersburg in Russia), jettisoned some cargo, and was finally given up as a wreck in August 1862, losing the cargo of coal and iron and manufactured goods.

The Caledonian Mercury, Monday 15 September 1862. Just one of the many dramatic stories of death and disaster on its page.

The crew and passengers survived, but The Board of Trade held an investigation in the Courthouse of Leith in September 1862 into the actions of the Captain and the culpability of the owners. It was fairly widely reported in newspapers, and the case is probably worth another post, almost as long as this one, in its own right. But here, it’s enough to report that on the third day of the inquiry, Mr Millar, defence advocate for Captain Lindsay, called Colonel Donald Robert MacGregor as a witness.

MacGregor gave a fulsome and positive character and professional statement on behalf of Captain Lindsay, and (no coincidence surely) portrayed himself and his company (a partnership with Robert Sinclair, sea captain) as careful, responsible, and above reproach. He said: “we ran a great part of the risk in all our steamers, and had therefore every reason to be careful in our appointments.”

The company recovered from this 1862 loss, as well as the death of Sinclair in 1866. As stated above, every appearance is that MacGregor became extremely wealthy. (I would love to know more!).

1866… the year in which MacGregor created a Deed of Declaration of Trust and Indemnity (20 July & 18 August) making his wife and brother in law trustees. They would later sell a parcel of land for Woodburn Terrace (1878) and Woodburn House itself, the MacGregor home (date unclear). It looks like MacGregor was either re-financing in 1866, with money from his in-laws, or transferring ownership of his personal assets to his wife and brother-in-law in case of more business calamities that could wipe him out, leaving debts for which he would be liable. This way, his property would not be at risk from a failing business, I presume.

Member of Parliament

Let’s turn to his social fortune.

Donald R. MacGregor was the Liberal MP for Leith Burghs (Leith, Portobello and Musselburgh), elected in the general election of 1874. He doesn’t appear much in Hansard, but had a few things to say about… shipping. When I found those short, dull statements in Westminster, everything began to hang together strongly.

A new set of searches led me to the announcement of his appointment as MP, which had exactly the kind of confirmation which is ideal… As well as bringing together other facts discussed here at length, it adds that he was the son of the late Lieutenant Evan (sic) MacGregor, and that his wife Mary Anderson was the only daughter of William Anderson of the Deans, South Shields. HIT!

“New Members of the House of Commons”, The Western Mail, 12 March 1874. Useful confirmation that MacGregor was born in Perth in 1824 and married in 1851.

Funnily, one of the first things I had found about MacGregor’s career as MP was the fact that he had resigned (but I did not know the reason). What I had discovered was that there had been a by-election for Leith on 29th January 1878 (in which MacGegoror did not stand). It was won by another Liberal, Andrew Grant. But it’s the date that’s important. 1878. More on that below, but it should ring a bell.

Donald R. MacGregor ran for a second time in a by-election for Leigh Burgh about eight years later, but lost. The later by-election had been prompted because William Gladstone ran and won in two constituencies: Midlothian (where he remained) and Leith Burgh. This was not unsual, and Gladstone had done the same previously. Gladstone resigned the Leith seat, and so a by-election was called and took place on 20 Aug 1886.

So, for some reason, MacGregor ran. He polled only 1527 votes as a “Liberal Unionist”, though apparently he had strong local support (Cooke, 1970). He trailed behind the winning Gladstonian Liberal (Ronald Munro Ferguson, returned with 4,294 votes), but was just ahead of the official Liberal Unionist (William Jacks, 1499 votes). He did better than Mr. Munster, whose dreadful performance is the reason that this by-election popped up in my search in the first place.

Poor Mr Munster (and so the by-election in which, incidentally, MacGregor ran but was defeated) was mentioned a couple of decades later in an article on “Scottish Electoral Curiosities”, where Mr Munster’s dreadful performance was worthy of historical record.

An unusual Scottish by-election. in The Dundee Courier, Feb 5th 1910, page 4.

A Colonel in the Rifles

I had noticed that there was one or more men called Donald Robert MacGregor named as officers in a couple of Edinburgh’s Rifle Volunteer Corps. Of course, thse appointments turn out to be just another aspect of our man’s life.

MacGregor was initially promoted to Captain in the Leith Rifle Volunteers in December 1859. Thereafter, in the 1st (Leith) Battalion of the Midlothian Rifle Volunteers, he was promoted to Major in August 1861 and then to Lieutenant-Colonel (15th March, 1862).

Better days for MacGregor -in the 1863 post office directory

Some fifteen years later he finally “retired”, though he was immediately recognized as an Honorary Colonel. This was in 1877.


So this seems to be an important time.

MacGregor resigned in late 1877 as both MP and an active Battalion commander in the Midlothian Rife Volunteers. In 1878 the Canaan property was sold by his wife and brother in law, the Anderson siblings. He was not the resident of Woodburn House come the 1881 census, and was not listed as resident in the next available Post Office Directory after 1877, which was 1880.

Donald R. MacGregor MP’s home and business addresses in the 1877 Post Office Directory, with a couple of red herrings. Before the fall?

Mary and Donald moved away at some point, so my default assumption is that the resignation as MP (1877?) and departure of the MacGregors from Woodburn House (and its sale?) happened at about the same time that Woodburn Terrace was planned or built.

The newspapers had already provided the answer, though I’d not been sure it was the right man. Bankruptcy!

I got the initial parts of the story from the reliable and easy to search archive of the Edinburgh Gazette, then turned to local newspapers, and finally searched for both his resignation as MP and the bankruptcy information.

The Gazette revealed in simple terms that Donald Robert MacGregor and Company collapsed, and he and his partner James Smith (merchants and shipping agents in Leith) were sued and their goods sequestrated. The Sequestration process seems to have been slow, with the first formal steps taken on 13 February 1878, then a number of postponements of any declaration of dividends. The last mention I can find is on 30 September 1879. What happened next, I wonder?

The newspapers had more to say, just prior to the official annoucement of sequestration in the Gazette in February. There had been rumours and oblique news items about bankruptcy on the 11th January 1878, sometimes juxtaposed to a statement put out by MacGregor resigning as MP.

One short sentence buried among new of cat bites and other news, column 3 of the Dundee Courier of 11/1/1878.

The evening paper in Dundee had a little more detail, though it focussed on the constitutency ramifications of this “matter of surprise” in the wider context, rather than mention the causes. The key part reads that “Mr Macgregor won the seat at last election by sheer force of peronal popularity, and it will be a matter of intense regret to the constituents, by whom he was held in so much esteem, that he has felt bound to resign.”

Dundee Evening Telegraph 11/1/1878, column 1 “Four Vacant Seats in Scotland (from this morning’s Daily Review)”.

The Edinburgh Evening News conveyed what was happening in three blocks: in four brief headlines, tthe third and fourth tell two apparently unreleated tales.

Edinburgh Evening News 11/1/1878 column 1

Then, in two adjacent columns, decently distanced, the commercial rumour of a spectacular failure (with debts of of quarter of a million) is partnered by MacGregor’s douce “retirement” notice. Quarter of a million in 1878, taking inflation into account, would be £30 million today (2020).

Edinburgh Evening News 11/1/1878 column 2
An apparently unsensational retirement by MP MacGregor, Edinburgh Evening News 11/1/1878 column 3.

The main reporting of the financial collapse was on Saturday the 12th of January 1878. For example, the Edinburgh Evening News ran two adjacent stories. The first, headlined “The Representation of Leith” discussed successors to MacGregor.

Edinburgh Evening News 12/1/1878, column 2

Below it, the other article described the suspension of Macgregor and Co., but still doesn’t make the link explicit.

Edinburgh Evening News 12/1/1878, column 2

So, the debts of the company were between £200,000 and £300,000, and the assets did not exceed £10,000. “One half the whole liabilities will, it is believed, fall on the North of England. Several Leith firms will also be heavy losers, one to the extent of £10,000, and another, it is thought, will have to stop payment. Messers Macgregor & Co have carried on business for about a quarter of a century and had extensive trading relations with all quarters of the globe.”

MacGregor was ruined.

But How? Why? What had happened?

I think this post is already long enough! I’ll save what I know for another post. There were hearings in February, widely reported in the papers, about how the company suffered a bad debt in its Baltic trade with Russia, a rejected claim by brother-in-law Charles Anderson to reclaim loans worth £25,000 to the company, and more.

What happened next?

I have some ideas and information about what happened next in general terms, but the crucial detail eludes me. I’m going to allow myself to jump to one big conclusion, however.

I don’t think it was coincidence, let alone inconvenient that MacGregor’s personal Canaan property had been in the name of his wife and brother-in-law (and/or in a trust, for which they were trustees), since 1866. I presume this ownership pattern was both why the property was not sequestrated when MacGregor’s shipping company went bust, and why Anderson was denied any part of loans to his brother-in-law totaling £25,000 from the company’s liquidation alongside other creditors. That was viewed as a personal loan.

This was a long-standing ownership issue, however. Recall our deeds for 9/1 Woodburn Terrace say that Charles William Anderson and Mary Anderson (or MacGregor) were “as individuals and also as trustees for the ends uses and purposes mentioned in the Deed of Declaration of Trust and Indemnity dated … [1866 are the] … heritable proprietors of the lands after mentioned…”

A “Trust Disposition & Settlement” was a legal document that recorded the transfer of “heritable property” like land and buildings, presumably from MacGregor to his wife and brother-in-law, in exchange perhaps for earlier personal loans or maybe to protect the property from seizure in the event of MacGregor’s businesses failing. As, indeed, they did.

How interesting that the news had reported “half the whole liabilities will, it is believed, fall on the North of England.” Does this mean Anderson and perhaps other connected concerns? Mary and her brother were from the North East of England. They all seem to have lost a substantial amount of money, either in the business or personally. Donald MacGregor (and hence his wife) certainly lost his income and source of wealth, and his business. He lost his standing as an MP and local grandee. But the business creditors did not officially benefit from the sale of the Canaan properties, which remained in the family until they too were liquidated to provide Mrs (and Mr) MacGregor with new liquid capital (or to pay off their own personal debts).

So it was that the land upon which Woodburn Terrace was to be built was sold off by Charles Anderson and Mary MacGregor to (“dispone in feu form to and in favour of”) Francis Walkingshaw (“and his heirs and assignees whomsoever heritably and irredeemably”). (Woodburn House was sold too, I think sometime later, still to be confirmed.) This then is the basic answer to the question I asked at the start.

So there was, it seems, one of those powerful Victorian stories of money and trade and bankruptcy and a family saga at the heart of it, which I feel I’ve barely scratched. I will post in the future more detail on

  • an earlier bankruptcy for the teenage MacGregor in 1843
  • a prior case in 1839 in which he had been defrauded
  • the 1862 ship-wreck
  • the 1878 final business collapse
  • his will and estate at his death in 1889

MacGregor’s end

The MacGregors perhaps disappeared for a while till things settled down. (At least, I can’t find them in the 1881 census.)

But later, Donald and Mary re-appeared in Scotland. First, MacGregor ran again for the Leith constituency, as mentioned above, in 1886, nearly a decade after his fall. He lost, but was not humiliated.

The couple both died in Scotland, in 1889. They were living at Sweethope, Bothwell, a substantial farmhouse that was saved from demolition in the late 20th C. when its lands were developed for housing, and is now one of the two oldest houses in the village.

They leased the house. It may well have been this house (now a listed building), which is “One of the older dwellings in the village, Waddell mentions how the battle of Bothwell Bridge of 1697 could have been seen from the windows of Sweethope in its original form. References to Sweethope are also made connecting it with Sir Walter Scott’s “Old Mortality”. Waddell suggests that the house could have been the ‘Fairyknowe’ mentioned in this story”.

Donald died at only 65 years old, Mary even younger. She was only 62, and died first, on 12 March 1889. Donald died on 6 December 1889. Both left wills, and reading those is at the top of my list of things to do. All I can say for now is that Donald left his estate to his sister Elizabeth MacGregor, wife of Rev Dr Andrew Gray, minister in Dalkeith, chaplain to the Dalkeith Curling Club.

MACGREGORMARY621889625/1 82Bothwell
MACGREGORDONALD ROBERT651889625/1 334Bothwell
Index of death certificates. I can tell these are correct despite not downloading them: Mary’s certificate is also indexed under “Mary Anderson, age 62”. Also, they both appear in the register of wills with their dates of death and location in Bothwell indexed.

Final thoughts

Wealth, recognition, bankruptcy, survival – not necessarily all in that order. A footnote in history. A few quotes in Hansard. One short sentence in Smith’s book on Morningside. Quotes and stories in the paper archives. Dusty legal documents. A fancy tenement in Leith’s Bernard Street. This blog. Donald Robert MacGregor probably achieved and experienced more than most of us would aspire to.

But would you want to live that life? Or is your own good enough, right here, right now? And if not, what can you do about it? He lived in interesting times, full of risk and reward. So do we.

For me, finding out about MacGregor has been most useful in how it has made me aware of the big picture of Leith as a thriving North Sea port, which even now is only barely coming into my ken. Even so (as hinted), my imagination about what Scotland was like in the 19th C. (and could be like if it had become an independent country now) has been most stimulated by visiting comparable places. Leith is a shadow of what it was, and history does not help conjour up what it could be live now. My imagination is stimulated not just by little Gdansk, but also Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm and Rekjavik – other capitals and ports of small, rich, free and independent north European countries. Their confidence and optimism has been palpable. Their ports are huge and thriving. The preservation of their history and their citizens’ desire to control their own destiny in mutual cooperation with their neighbours is enviable. Scotland on the other hand is (in my view) part of an antagonistic Union of unequals. Subservient yet paying the bills. Not Norway.

Not yet.*

It is also useful to compare and contrast MacGregor’s story with the ups-and-downs of David Wight, the plasterer and first owner of just one of the hundred and more flats built in Woodburn Terrace. It was Wight’s name on our title deeds as first flat owner, and the Anderson & MacGregor names as original owners of the land, that were the triggers that led me into both these tales. The MP, and the plasterer. I wonder what the backstory of Woodburn Terrace’s developer Walkingshaw is? That’s for someone else to pursue.

Sources and Notes

*In these days, I feel the need to say that my offering a political opinion is likely to annoy some readers. My apologies if you are offended. These blogs are veined with opinion. You are free to express your own, in your own blogs.

56 Bernard Street information at Canmore: “Information from Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA Work Ref : EDIN0455)” and from Field Visit (28 May 2001) “Possibly originally same building as No. 54 with Leith coat of arms above doors.] Inspected By : D. King.” The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association ( set up a National Recording Project in 1997 with the aim of making a survey of public monuments and sculpture in Britain ranging from medieval monuments to the most contemporary works. Information from the Edinburgh project was added to the RCAHMS database in October 2010 and again in 2012.

A quick search didn’t find MacGregor’s partners. I checked out a William Cundell who died in North Leith in 1871 aged 33, because it might have illuminated the story, but it was just a red herring namesake (a relative?), who died of smallpox. He was an engine driver and his parents were John Cundell and Catherine Tait: so I don’t know what became of MacGregor’s business partner.

Ordnance Survey Name Books Midlothian OS Name Books, 1852-1853 Midlothian, volume 123, OS1/11/123/6 [volume 123 (see the index) has many local place names – Canaan, Egypt, Hebron, Jordan]. Woodburn House appears in Volume 15 page 7 – OS1/11/15/7 and Jordan Burn in Vol 15 page 3 OS1/11/15/3 Available from the website Scotland’s Places at which also provides many other place-linked documentation.


Scotland: Owners of Lands and Heritages 17 & 18 Vict. Cap. 91, 1872-1873 : Return of the Name and Address of Every Owner of One Acre and Upwards in Extent … and the Annual Value of the Lands and Heritages of Individual Owners : and of … Owners of Less Than One Acre … Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty. Murray and Gibb, 1874.

Cooke, Alistair B. (1970) Gladstone’s Election for the Leith District of Burghs, July 1886, The Scottish Historical Review Vol. 49/ No. 148/2, pp. 172-194.

Morningside Heritage Association is on facebook at and also on the proper internet at They have a walking Heritage Trail which you can print out at

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