Sir Donald Matheson – businessman and military volunteer

Brigadier-General Sir Donald Matheson was a Glasgow businessman who was knighted for his many years of commitment to the city’s military volunteers.

Part of an oil portrait showing head and shoulders of an elderly man with a thick, droopy moustache and a bald head
Photo credit: Glasgow Territorial Army Centre. See the full portrait on the ArtUK website.

Donald Matheson was born in 1832, one of the four surviving children of John Matheson, a commission merchant, originally from Golspie in Sutherland, and his wife Jane Gray, who had been born in Edinburgh.

Donald had a twin sister called Ellen (sometimes Helen) – their birthday was 30 September 1830 – and two other siblings – a brother called John, and a sister called Margaret.

He went to school at Glasgow Academy and lived in Glasgow all his life although he later also owned a property in Ayrshire.

In 1851 John Matheson Senior (57), Jane (53) and two children – John Junior (30) and Ellen (20) – were living at 63 Abbotsford Place. John Senior is described as a Commission Merchant and John Junior is a Merchant and Calico Printer.

Calico printing and Turkey red

In Memoirs and Portraits of 100 Glasgow Men (published 1886) John Snr is described as “… a calico printer and Turkey-red dyer, carrying on business at Barrhead, under the firm of John Matheson & Co.”

Calico is a printed cotton fabric (which originated from India) which usually had bright colours and floral patterns; the printing process used wooden blocks and ink. Turkey red is a dying process which produces a bright red colour which can withstand repeated washing. In fact the ladies’ swimming costumes of the club were made using the Turkey red process.

The calico printing and Turkey red dying industries became huge concerns in Glasgow with rival firms employing thousands of workers. Maryhill Burgh Hall has a stained glass panel, created in 1878, which shows women workers in a calico print works.

Donald’s brother John had a huge role to play in the the success of one the biggest firms William Stirling and Sons. He joined the company in 1846 and took charge of their works in the Vale of Leven in 1857

The most important partner in the firm was probably John Matheson, who was responsible for commissioning the new Glasgow offices. He entered the business in 1846, having previously worked as a salesroom clerk for a Glasgow cotton-broker and he had family background in printing and dyeing. He started his career with Stirlings in charge of their Glasgow salesroom and then moved onto the Vale of Leven works, which was largely under his management by the late 1850s, where he made many technical innovations and expanded output. He was actively involved in the commercial life of Glasgow as a director of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and as President of the Chamber in 1872. He wrote on commercial and financial subjects and took a detailed interest in the marketing of his printed cottons sufficient to take a trip to India via the overland route in 1861, just before the opening of the Suez Canal, which he later published as a travel account with his observations on the dress, manners and industry of the people.

Colouring the Nation: Turkey red in Scotland by Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, National Museum of Scotland

Donald also joined the booming printing and dying industry.

In the 1861 census Donald and Ellen, now both 30 years old, are living at 185 St Vincent Street, and he gives his occupation as Dyer & Merchant. In the Post Office Directory for that year he is associated with a company called McCallum and Matheson, which runs the Govan Croft Dye Works. The company offices in town are at 32 Exchange Square, and the Dye Works are in York Street. You can see it listed here here in the Ordnance Survey Name Book 1858-1860 under the name of proprietor B.F. McCallum, Esq.

Partner in William Stirling & Sons

When Donald joins the first Committee of Management of the Arlington Swimming Club he is 38 years old. 

His business address is still 32 Exchange Square and from the General Post Office directory of 1870-1 we can see that he was still involved with the Govan Croft Dye Works and also had an interest in an East India merchant company called Matheson & Alston.

6 Park Terrace

By now he is living at 6 Park Terrace, the home of his older sister Margaret. In the 1871 census, Donald and Ellen had moved in there after Margaret’s husband – George Coats, a member of the family that owned the Coats, the huge thread company based in Paisley – had died.

By 1880 he seems to have sold the Govan Croft Dye Works. In the Post Office Directory 1880-81 it is now being run by a company called Manson & Henry who are listed as “successors to Donald Matheson & Co.”

After John died in 1878, Donald continued to have a partnership in William Stirling & Sons, where his brother John had been so influential.

Mr. William Stirling (great-grandson of the founder of the firm of William Stirling & Sons), whose tall, manly, and well-known figure is still occasionally to be seen in the city, was the last of the name connected with the firm of William Stirling & Sons. He retired from it in 1875, and the firm is now continued by Messrs. Donald Matheson, Henry Forrester, and Alexander Wylie. Messrs. D. Matheson and Forrester are respectively brother and brother-in-law of the late Mr. John Matheson. Mr. Wylie came from Messrs. A. Orr-Ewing’s works to Messrs. William Stirling & Sons’, in order to take charge of their Turkey-red yarn dyeing department when they began it. Mr. Donald Matheson was formerly a partner of the firm of McCallum & Matheson, Govancroft Dyeworks, and Mr. Forrester was formerly a stockbroker on the Glasgow Exchange, in company with his brother, Mr. James Merry Forrester.

Memoirs and Portraits of 100 Glasgow Men, 1886

Military service with the volunteers

As well as the Arlington Baths, Donald Matheson was very much involved with volunteer military organisations in Glasgow.

In 1859 the Lanarkshire Artillery Volunteers was one of many volunteer corps formed in response to a perceived threat of French invasion. These volunteers corps were made up of men who were part-time soldiers, and operated as a supplementary force to support the Army at times of need. they were supported with public fundraising or by subscriptions paid by the members. 

Donald received a commission as a Lieutenant, was quickly promoted to Captain and remained with Lanarkshire Artillery Volunteers until 1864. It operated out of several locations across the city. The HQ, Officers’ and Sergeants’ Club and Orderly Room were at 8 Newton Terrace, and it had also five drill halls across the city including the Maryhill Drill Hall which held the ammunition wagons.

In 1864 he moved to the newly-formed Lanarkshire Engineer Volunteers, which had headquarters in West Campbell Street, and a drill hall and practice ground near Kelvinbridge. He was promoted to the rank of Major and in 1865 he became a Lieutenant Colonel.

Donald continued as a Lieutenant Colonel for the Lanarkshire Engineers for the next twenty years. In 1885 he was made Honorary Colonel, the same year that the name was changed to the 1st Lanarkshire Engineer Volunteers, Fortress and Railway Forces, Royal Engineers. In 1888 he was also appointed Honorary Commandant of the newly-formed Clyde Division Royal Engineers Submarine Miners.

There’s a detailed account of his military career in an 1891 book. 

“As acting adjutant he carried out his duties with that rare ability which had distinguished him throughout his various services as a Volunteer, and won for him the distinction of the Companion of the Baths bestowed on him by the Queen 20 years later.”

Historic families, notable people, and memorabilia of the Lennox by Macleod Donald, 1891.

Donald Matheson was made a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1881. Then, in 1888, he was made a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (K.C.B) in recognition of his longstanding work with the 1st Lanarkshire Engineer Volunteers.

The new headquarters for the Volunteers were constructed in Jardine Street, Kelvinside, and that’s where the portrait of Donald Matheson, painted in 1893, still hangs today.

He never married and continued to live with his sister Margaret. He was still involved in the Baths at this time, and is in the 1890 members list.

Though, intriguingly, according to a genealogy website created by a distant relative, he did have a romantic relationship:

“From a letter to me from one of his great-nephews I read “Donald had a fine head of red hair, and side whiskers. He did not believe in marriage, and lived with his charming mistress, whose name was Margaret Brown”

Donald Matheson page on the Mackay Family Genealogy website, created by Bob Mackay   

He died in 1901 leaving an estate of £57,000, more than £7 million today.

He is buried in the family vault in the Glasgow Necropolis.




Researchers: Will Jess and Lucy Janes




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