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The Rising Burgh: 1560 to 1770s


Jean Holmes

By Irene Maver

Glasgow shopkeeper Jean Holmes (b 1703) was one of Glasgow's best-known 18th-century businesswomen who, along with her husband, Robert McNair (1703-1779), built up a considerable fortune in the grocery trade. Jean's origins remain hazy, but the McNairs appear together in a list of prominent city shopkeepers included in McUre's 1736 history of Glasgow. Robert reputedly commenced his career as a small-scale orange seller, but he quickly developed a flair for salesmanship and self-promotion. Undoubtedly he was acknowledging his wife's business acumen when he made her an equal partner in the firm of Robert McNair, Jean Holmes & Company, but the arrangement was sufficiently unusual to get the couple noticed in Glasgow.

Old Sugar House The journalist Robert Reid (1773-1865) had a fund of stories about the McNairs. He described their grocer's shop in King Street as painted bright green, with two bow windows. The couple dressed flamboyantly, and Jean, who kept the accounts, "rustled through the premises in a dashing silk gown". The McNairs believed in the power of advertising and the Glasgow Courant newspaper promoted their merchandise, much of it imported from the Mediterranean. It was high-quality fare, including such luxury items as citrus fruit, nuts, raisins, figs, olives and wine. The McNairs also became the proprietors of the Eastern Sugar House in the Gallowgate, which allowed them to sell a range of refined sugar products, such as candies, syrup and treacle.

While the couple's joint enterprise reflected a liberated approach to women in society, they were surprisingly inflexible when it came to their own daughter's life choices. In 1758 Jean, junior (b 1727), was openly reprimanded in a newspaper advertisement for marrying without consulting her parents. This was the same year that the McNairs purchased the estate of Little Hill, off the Camlachie Road, which they renamed Jeanfield. By 1764 a two-storey house had been erected, designed to Jean's specifications and noted as an architectural curiosity because of its irregular windows and "corkscrew" stairs. During the course of the 19th century "Jeanfield" became "Janefield", and from 1847 part of its grounds formed a cemetery. In the 1880s Janefield also had the distinction of providing the first playing field for Celtic football club.

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