Edinburgh has had its share of philanthropists and benefactors over the years, people like George Heriot whose estate established a school for "faitherless bairns," Mary Erskine who established a school for girls (which survives today), and John Watson, a solicitor who similarly had a school established in his name after his death.
One man who was similarly generous with his money and his position in society was John Ritchie Findlay, after whose death in 1898 it was remarked: "Edinburgh can scarcely have had a citizen of more truly public spirit".
Born in Arbroath in 1824, Findlay studied at the University of Edinburgh before joining the offices of the Scotsman newspaper in 1842, which was owned by his great-uncle, John Ritchie. Having started working as a clerk in the offices, Findlay would work his way through the ranks of the Scotsman organisation to become a partner in 1868, and after his great-uncle's death in 1870 he owned and controlled the greater portion of the Scotsman business.
Through this period, and the time during which he managed the newspaper, circulation increased hugely and Findlay found himself in control of a significant fortune, which he began to dedicate to philanthropic causes and organisations in the city.
As well as providing money, he also dedicated his time and status to advance social issues that he considered important. He was president of the Association for the Medical Education of Women, credited for getting the University of Edinburgh to finally allow women to train as doctors and surgeons after the debacle of the Edinburgh Seven; he founded the Edinburgh Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor, campaigning for better housing, hygiene and rights for impoverished families in the city; and he became director of Edinburgh's Royal Hospital for Sick Children.
In 1882 Findlay donated £10,000 to establish a gallery for the Society of Antiquities (of which he was secretary at the time) in Edinburgh's New Town. The building - still the Scottish National Portrait Gallery - would become the world's first dedicated portrait gallery space, and Findlay would end up covering the entire £70,000 of the cost of its construction. Notably he did so without his name being publicly attached to the project - his identity as its funder was only disclosed on the day the gallery opened in 1889.
At the time Findlay was also building his own home at the fashionable West End of the New Town. The property at 3 Rothesay Terrace (pictured left) was designed by Sydney Mitchell, and featured distinctive leaded glass bay windows overlooking the street. Today the building is the B+B visitor accommodation.
Mitchell would also be the architect for Findlay's efforts to help regenerate the Dean Village, a former industrual town which had fallen into ruin in the middle of the nineteenth century as the industries moved away and left it as a ghost town.
Well Court (pictured below) was built as workers accommodation, featuring 49 tenement style flats with their own washroom and social hall for community events. The intention was to provide modern, affordable housing for working families, in a space which also brought community back to the Dean Village - the central courtyard of Well Court continues to operate as a communal drying green for people to hang their washing, creating a sense of connection with neighbours that was lacking in other parts of the city at that time (and, possibly, today).
By 1895 all of Well Court's properties were occupied by a variety of workers including painters, gardeners, bakers, masons, hairdressers and teachers. Two further developments in Dean Village were built to continue the repopulating of this once abandoned suburb of the city.
Findlay also wrote a book - Personal Recollections of Thomas De Quincey - which recounted his friendship with the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, whom he had known over the last years of De Quincey's life, and he would also write the entry for De Quincey in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which had been first published in Edinburgh.
After Findlay's death in 1898 the Scotsman newspaper continued to flourish under his son and (later) grandson's stewardship. The paper moved from offices on Cockburn Street (pictured left) to a new purpose-built office on North Bridge, which continues to operate as the Scotsman Hotel today.
Findlay was buried in the Dean Cemetery, on the ground above the Dean Village and directly across the valley from his home on Rothesay Terrace.
Although he never had his name attached to any of the projects on which he worked, his philanthropy was a major and important contribution to the life of many of Edinburgh's residents in the nineteenth century. That he never seemed to seek recognition or status for his work is perhaps a reflection of his down-to-earth nature and his desire to prioritise the work over the status it brought him.
After his death a memorial was created inside the portrait gallery building on Queen Street. Designed by Rowand Anderson, the memorial features a likeness of Findlay within a grand classical surround (photo at the top of the page). There is also a memorial window to Findlay inside St Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile.
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