Scottish Philanthropy Snippet – The Buchanan Sisters

Monday 28 January 2019

The Buchanan Sisters

Background: Margaret Buchanan (1793-1864), Jane Buchanan (1796-1867), and Elizabeth Buchanan (1803-1875), otherwise referred to as the Misses Buchanan of Bellfield Estate, were born to George Buchanan, a merchant in the cotton spinning trade of Glasgow, and Jean Miller, who brought with her the Woodlands estate. As Glasgow continued to expand and swallowed the Woodlands into urban Glasgow, the family bought the Bellfield Estate in the Ayrshire countryside. It was here that the Buchanan sisters lived and died. Unmarried and childless, they inherited the wealth of their three brothers, leaving the sisters with an affluent estate for their lifetimes.

Image: Jane and Elizabeth Buchanan

Philanthropy: In 1862, with no family to pass on their wealth, the sisters decided to establish their legacy through a will, known as The Buchanan Bequest: upon the death of the last sister, this would give the entirety of their estate to charity. As the sisters felt a particularly deep connection to Glasgow, the Bequest – to be administered by the Provost and Magistrates of Kilmarnock and the Ministers of Kilmarnock and Riccarton – was to be used for a variety of causes across the city. As part of this, £10,000 was to be sent to the Merchant House of Glasgow, and £4,200 to the University Court of Glasgow to fund bursaries for the maintenance of two matriculated students who intended to become licentiates of the Church of Scotland.

One of the most substantial gifts consisted of £30,000 to build a hospital, now known as Glasgow Royal Infirmary. This was aimed at assisting indigent and infirm Glaswegians aged 60 and above – particularly those named ‘Buchanan’. Alongside founding the hospital, the sisters also took care of its long-term position: the bequest stipulated that its trustees were to purchase two acres of ground within eight miles of Glasgow and erect the hospital, and after ten years, they were to hand it over with all accumulated funds (which the sisters expected to be around £12,000) to the Lord Provost and Magistrates of Glasgow.

Image: Buchanan Family Mausoleum post renovation

The Buchanan’s own Bellfield estate was to be used to support several causes. To this end, rooms were to be rented out and the gardens to be opened to the public. Revenues raised from these activities were to be distributed in a strict manner: £5 paid yearly to the Ragged School of Kilmarnock, £3 to the Fever Hospital and the Infirmary of Kilmarnock, and £130 for a missionary appointed by the minister of the Riccarton. The minister would also receive £10 yearly to buy flannel clothing for the poor. The rest of the estate was to be turned into an asylum for people over 60 years of age, as well as a library open to the public. Neither of these initiatives lasted long, but the building continued to be used for community events, such as weddings. Bellfield House itself no longer exists; the walled garden area now hosts a bowling club, while the remainder of the estate has been giving over to housing. The library collection of over 100 titled from 1759 to 1856 is held at the Dick Institute.

Mausoleum:  The Buchanan Bequest was based on the single condition that the Buchanan’s family mausoleum had to be maintained in perpetuity. For 139 years, however, this expectation appears to have been neglected: by the 21st century, the mausoleum’s roof had fallen in, engravings had faded, and sides of the building crumbled. Following a successful fundraising campaign by the Friends of the Glasgow Necropolis, £20,000 were eventually raised to repair the tomb, with the restoration being awarded a My Place Award from the Scottish Historic Council.

The Buchanan Bequest has been rather unsung. As it took almost 150 years to address the sisters’ only dying wish, their legacy points to tensions between the dead taking care of the living, and the living’s responsibilities to the wishes of the dead.

Bellfield House – Image retrieved from
Elizabeth Buchanan – Image retrieved from,-(1794-1875).aspx
Jane Buchanan – Image retrieved from
Mausoleum – Image retrieved from

The Friends of the Glasgow Necropolis (ND). “Buchanan Sisters”,
The Friends of the Glasgow Necropolis (ND) “Buchanan Sisters Appeal”, The Friends of the Glasgow Necropolis.
Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), “Munificent Bequests”, Friday, May 7, 1875; Issue 11033.
Glasgow Women’s Library (Glasgow, Scotland). “Glasgow Necropolis Women’s Heritage Walk”. 2011.
Scottish Civic Trust “The Buchanan Sisters Mausoleum”. My Place Awards. 2014.

Drawing on findings from our How Philanthropy shapes Scotland project, our monthly Scottish Philanthropy Snippet explores the spectrum of people, places and practices that have contributed to the history of philanthropy in Scotland.

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