SCOTT, CHRISTOPHER, businessman and ship’s captain; b. c. 1762 in Greenock, Scotland; d. 29 July 1833 in London.
Christopher Scott was the third and youngest son of William Scott, head of the old Clyde shipbuilding firm of Scott and Company. Scott Sr died in 1769 and his elder sons greatly extended the firm’s activity, moving into the construction of large West-Indiamen, smaller ships for the Nova Scotia trade, and naval frigates; they were also to pioneer the building of steamships. Christopher served an apprenticeship as a mariner in the company’s vessels and as a ship-designer and master builder in its yards.
In the wartime years of the late 1790s, as a result of heavy losses of merchant ships to French privateers, vessels were at a premium in Great Britain, and in January 1799 Christopher Scott was sent out to New Brunswick to establish a yard and thus take advantage of the colony’s unlimited supplies of building timber, increasingly scarce and expensive in Scotland. He sailed from Greenock with two of the firm’s ships; on board were 50 skilled craftsmen, including carpenters, blacksmiths, caulkers, and shipwrights, and a complete crew for the first vessel to be built. Cordage, copper nails and sheathing, iron fittings, and all the tools and machinery for a shipyard were also taken out – an early example in the modern western world of the complete transfer of an industrial installation. In addition, a large quantity of trade goods – woollens and linens – was carried, for much of New Brunswick’s commerce was conducted by barter. Scott reached Saint John in March 1799 and by July had three sizeable vessels under construction. Soon after his arrival he met a local builder, William Barlow, whom he described as “a natural-born exponent of our art, with an eye for the practical use of his native timbers which makes it essential that we employ him.” A fruitful working partnership between Scott and Barlow resulted, and the yard prospered.
As the demand in Britain for vessels accelerated, the home partners constantly urged Scott to lay down as many keels as possible and also to purchase any new ships he could obtain from other builders. In defiance of the British embargo on the export of copper fittings imposed in 1799, the Scotts smuggled out large quantities to Saint John. Further skilled craftsmen were sent out by the Greenock firm, as well as complete crews, from commanders to cabin-boys, for the new ships. In the years 1799–1804 some 25 vessels were constructed, most of them for immediate sale in London, Liverpool, and the West Indies, to whose ports they were dispatched with highly profitable cargoes of timber. The building of ships as a speculation was a practice that had begun on the Clyde in slack times in the 1760s. The Scotts now introduced it to the colonies, and made handsome gains from it. In 1804 the Scott yards were employing more than 400 workers.
The Scotts were early influenced by the ideas of Robert Seppings, a contemporary British naval architect, and quickly adopted his method of shipbuilding. It involved a heavy construction for the lower part of the vessel, using a much greater quantity of heavy timbers as cross-ties and reinforced lower ribs, so that the keel and the basic structure were “almost a solid bed of timber.” The method made for a much sturdier, though more expensive, vessel and, when linked with Barlow’s plans for vessels with sharper lines, produced ships which were at once fine-lined and solid, a much desired combination. No better vessels were produced in Saint John in the early years of the 19th century than those built by Scott and Barlow in conjunction. By 1804 the home partners were stating explicitly that all new vessels be constructed under Barlow’s direction. These ships helped obtain for New Brunswick the high reputation as a shipbuilding centre that it enjoyed for the next century. Up to this time, vessels built in the colonies had tended to be regarded in Britain as rather second-rate in sturdiness and sea-going capacity. Scott and Barlow between them changed this estimate.
By 1801 Scott had embarked on the purchasing and exporting of timber on an even larger scale, and on general trading as well, collecting cargoes of potash, beech, pine, and black birch (much in demand for furniture-making) from various parts of New Brunswick and shipping them to Britain. Most of these goods came down the Saint John River and were paid for in rum from the Greenock distilleries and in soft goods, ironware, and other Scottish exports.
In 1803 Scott launched into shipowning on his own account, designing and constructing several small, but extremely well-built, brigs for operation on the Atlantic run, to take advantage of rapidly escalating freight rates. As a qualified master mariner he commanded one of these, the Mary, on two highly profitable voyages to the Clyde with timber, but in May 1805 she was taken and sunk by a French privateer off the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. Fortunately the Mary was insured, and Scott was able to purchase a large new vessel, the Wilson, in Liverpool, for which he immediately took out letters of marque as a privateer. No captures are recorded in his name. From 1805 to 1809 he captained voyages in his own ships, transporting timber cargoes to Britain and to Jamaica and other West Indian islands, occasionally spending periods of several months ashore to supervise his mercantile affairs.
Scott pursued his timber and shipbuilding activities successfully from Saint John until 1810, when he moved to St Andrews to take advantage of the lucrative trading which had opened up with the imposition in 1807 of the United States’ “embargo” and “non-intercourse” policies against Great Britain and her colonies. He quickly became a leading citizen of the town, building a large warehouse where he stored silks, muslins, fine linens and cottons, and elegant furniture from Scotland. These he traded illegally, “on the line” along the coast of Maine and Passamaquoddy Bay, in return for tobacco, cotton, flour, and other American produce which he re-exported at a handsome profit to Britain. It was a dangerous enterprise, condemned by both the American government and, after 1812, the New Brunswick authorities, and further complicated by the presence of freebooting Americans who robbed traders and preyed on coastal shipping. Scott nevertheless succeeded in maintaining this trade and he amassed a considerable fortune from it. In addition, he speculated in “bargains” among the prize ships and cargoes auctioned off at Halifax.
When war broke out in 1812, Scott provided money for the construction of the fine “Block-house” or fort which still stands at St Andrews, and in 1822 he paid for the completion of the town’s wooden Greenock (Presbyterian) Church, employing architects in Scotland and Scottish craftsmen from his Saint John shipyard. It is still there, an outstanding example of a fine “colonial” church, and bears on its tower a wooden representation of the oak tree, the device both of Greenock and of the firm of Scott. By 1820 Scott was regarded as one of the richest men in New Brunswick, with his extensive shipyard in Saint John, a mansion in St Andrews, town lots in both locations, a landed estate on the banks of the Saint John River, several farms around St Andrews, and two estates in his native Scotland. In addition, he owned eight vessels, held shares in steamships (with John Black and others), was part-owner of ships in the West Indies trade and numerous fishing boats, and was associated with partnerships engaged in flour- and grain-milling. His collection of silver plate and valuable furniture was extensive.
In April 1820, seeing the crippling lack of credit and cash in the colony, Scott, along with John Robinson and other businessmen, took a leading part in founding the Bank of New Brunswick. There was a pressing need to provide loan-capital to enable local timber-merchants to compete with large-scale operators such as the Glasgow-based and dominating firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Company [see Alexander Rankin*], and the new bank was founded on “the Scotch Commercial principle” of cash credits (bank loans given without collateral security on the basis of the borrower’s reputation and obvious means). Of the 20 original directors, 9 were Scots traders, and Scott was pre-eminent among them as a shareholder. Two years later, in 1822, he took the leading part in establishing yet another bank on the “Scotch principle,” the Charlotte County Bank, with its headquarters in his own town of St Andrews. Scott was listed as second among its promoters and directors, 25 in all, of whom 15 were Scots traders and businessmen. The bank was a success, but its first minute-book shows only too clearly that it faced enormous difficulties in its early years. By 1825 economic depression had affected the colony. The demand for New Brunswick-built ships fell away to nothing, there was a timber-glut on the British market, and mercantile houses in Saint John collapsed. Yet the two banks in which Scott was involved rode out the crisis and by 1828 had reached the point where profits were beginning to be made.
Scott was regarded by his Greenock kin as something of an “adventurer.” He never married, but his will mentions “my reputed illegitimate son,” William Scott, to whom he left a considerable part of his fortune. He died on 29 July 1833 in England, having played a leading part in the development of New Brunswick’s shipbuilding industry and trade.
N.B. Museum, Christopher Scott papers; F86, will of Christopher Scott. Univ. of Glasgow Arch., GD 319/ 11/1–3. N.S. vital statistics, 1829–34 (Holder and Hubley). Esther Clark Wright, The Saint John River (Toronto, 1949). M. N. Cockburn, A history of Greenock Church, St. Andrews, New Brunswick, from 1821 to 1906 (n.p., 1906). Macmillan, “New men in action,” Canadian business hist. (Macmillan), 44–103. Two centuries of shipbuilding by the Scotts at Greenock (2nd ed., London, 1920). Daniel Weir, History of the town of Greenock (Greenock, Scot., and London, 1829). D. S. Macmillan, “Shipbuilding in New Brunswick . . .” and “Christopher Scott: smuggler, privateer, and financier, “Canadian Banker (Toronto), 77 (1970), no.1: 34–36, and 78 (1971), no.3: 23–26.
© 1987–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
David S. Macmillan, “SCOTT, CHRISTOPHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/scott_christopher_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||David S. Macmillan|
|Title of Article:||SCOTT, CHRISTOPHER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 8, 2023|