-Penicuik founder of Finland’s second city

The story of James Finlayson was featured in Penicuik Community Arts Association’s Penicuik Looking Back exhibition in May 1997

 and a decade later in Penicuik Community Development Trust’s  Penicuik Greats shown in Penicuik Town Hall.

 During 2011 it appeared as part of the Finlayson Bench display and panels in Penicuik’s Bank Mill


Someone who started life in Penicuik played an important part in the industrial and social development of Finland, yet he’s hardly known here in Scotland.  James Finlayson gave his name and reputation to the Finnish city of Tampere and the company he founded there, Finlayson & Co., which went on to become the largest industrial enterprise in the Nordic countries between 1850 and 1920. 

It’s believed that he was born in Penicuik on 28th August 1772. His parents were Margaret McLairin and James Finlayson, a Penicuik tailor. The vague baptism record in Penicuik's parish register leaves out the child's name and sex, perhaps suggesting that the Finlaysons were members of a dissenting religious group. There were many such groups in Scotland at that time and weavers and tailors were often associated with them. Certainly James himself was to be a dissenter later in life.

Penicuik’s new Parish Kirk, built 1771

At that time Penicuik was a small papermaking community where local people already had a stake in international trade and industry. The parish church of St Mungo had been grandly rebuilt in a classical style similar to many of the colonial buildings going up across the Atlantic. In those days the American colonies were still under British government.

The first cotton mill in Scotland was built at Penicuik in 1778 at Esk Bridge, north of the hamlet of Kirkhill.  By the time James was old enough to work there (and we assume that he did) a dissenters’ Meeting House was built beside it at Bridgend.

Old Meeting House, Bridgend, Penicuik 1783 to 1867 when its United Presbyterian congregation moved to the new North Kirk 


James Finlayson’s early interests and training can only be guessed. We can assume that he became well-versed in the intricacies of machine building, and that it was textile machinery that he was most closely involved with. Scotland was developing textile industries fast. In 1785 David Dale's massive works began at New Lanark, boosted by Richard Arkwright's grim determination to help Scottish mills overtake the Lancashire spinners he believed had unfairly disputed and copied his earlier inventions.

Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) –also a tailor’s son, his ideas supported Scotland’s textile mills


The years from the outbreak of war with France in 1793 were difficult for the economy, and the cotton industry badly affected. The less efficient cotton mills stopped production, while others  shortened their working hours and undercut prices.  Against this background, James Finlayson appears to have plied his trade as a mill engineer and organiser in the west of Scotland. The Penicuik cotton mills on the Esk had closed by 1811 when they were converted to become a Government prisoner of war camp –but they had probably stopped working a few years earlier.


Meanwhile in Russia, Alexander Romanoff was five years younger than James Finlayson.  As Czar Alexander I he had succeeded to the Russian throne on the assassination of his father Paul I in 1801. The new Czar was heartily supported in Scotland as an enlightened ruler who would unshackle the peasantry and promote Russian education and prosperity. He made peace with Britain in 1801. A brief realignment with Napoleon in 1808 brought Russia and Britain into conflict again, Russia took Finland from Sweden in 1809. By 1812 she had rejoined Britain and her allies, and made possible Napoleon's final overthrow.

Alexander I

After Waterloo in 1815 Czar Alexander Romanoff began to take a deep interest in simple religion and good works. He encouraged the British and Foreign Bible Society in Russia, and looked for practical ways to promote Russia's education and industrial development. James Finlayson came to St Petersburg to become master machinist in the Kolpino Workshops. He was associated with the Society of Friends (Quakers). Alexander Romanoff wanted help from members of the Society in carrying out various engineering projects and they looked to him to fulfil his potential as a force for world peace and national reform. According to Finnish sources, James Finlayson and Alexander Romanoff were friends, and the Czar, like James, attended Quaker meetings.


It was in 1820 that James Finlayson and his friend John Paterson, the Bible Society's organiser for Russia, left St Petersburg for a tour of neighbouring Finland. Here James Finlayson saw the fast flowing waters at Tammerfors. Hydraulic power in abundance: the perfect place to demonstrate the new textile machinery for Russia's expanding empire. Czar Alexander visited the spot and gave his personal support, the water power was harnessed and Tampere, Finland's second city and home of its industrial revolution, was born.  As the Czar’s master machinist, Finlayson was given an interest-free state loan, considerable customs concessions, free land and most of the Tammerkoski rapids.  And from making textile machinery, Finlayson's business progressed to making the textiles themselves.

Daniel Wheeler of the Society of Friends described Finlayson's departure from St Petersburg. "He is a solid man, between forty and fifty years of age. It would have been pleasant for us to have kept him here, but I hope he will be instrumental of much good where he has gone." Finland remembers him as "a demanding and prestige-conscious employer· despite his abrupt ways, a respected man of the town.  The person himself was very mysterious·a real industrial man, by spirit and blood - a man of the future." In letters, Finlayson told of difficulties he met in running the new factory and of the natural disasters and famines that afflicted the area. With his Glasgow-born wife Margaret, he gave succour to many who had been reduced to begging, by arranging food, jobs at the factory, or work on the land. The pair also began Finland's first provision for orphans.


Czar Alexander's sudden death in 1825 ushered in a period of repression and reducing prosperity. Broken in health and fortune, Finlayson finally gave up the Tammerfors factory to creditors and returned to Scotland in 1837. First at Govan, then at Nicholson Square, Edinburgh, he lived with his wife until his death in 1852, attending the nearby Friends' Meeting House in the Pleasance. They had no children.

Entrance to the old Friends meeting house in the Pleasance


In 1970 a headstone was raised by the Finlayson-Forssa company on James Finlayson's unmarked grave in Newington Cemetery, to be maintained by J&P Coats of Paisley as a gesture of Scottish-Finnish friendship. And in 1988 Edinburgh's Lord Provost unveiled a plaque in Nicholson Square to "James Finlayson, industrialist and philanthropist, born Penicuik 1772 died 1852... Around his great textile manufacturing enterprise in Finland grew that country's second city of Tampere. His spiritual qualities and his love of mankind have seen to his name being one deeply respected in Finland's industrial and national history."



Finlayson company website 


Penicuik’s connections with Finland continue. In 2007 a Penicuik resident was awarded the White Rose of Finland at a ceremony in the Ambassador’s official residence in Kensington.


The Finlayson Bench display panels in Penicuik’s Bank Mill 








John Leadbetter, linen merchant & railway promoter 1788-1865

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