Portrait of James Matheson
Cromarty Courthouse Museum
The portraits of James Matheson and his nephew Alexander show examples of men who became very wealthy through trade during the time of the British empire.
Their trade was centred on China and India. It included silk, tea and porcelain, but the most lucrative item was opium. Victorian society valued their wealth and, as opium was not illegal in Britain at the time, the Victorians were willing to overlook the source and consequences of the wealth. However, we now understand that this trade caused severe hardship for millions of Chinese people.
Both men were able to buy large estates in Scotland from their profits. James purchased land on the Isle of Lewis and Alexander obtained estates in Ardross and Lochalsh. They were both knighted, became MPs for Ross and Cromarty and were very influential in the Whig (Liberal) party. They were also Justices of the Peace. In this last role they may even have visited Cromarty Courthouse.
Both the Mathesons were judged at the time to be relatively benevolent landowners with a drive to improve their holdings through agricultural and industrial development. However, their actions also resulted in clearing people from their land. The portraits came to Cromarty Courthouse in 2015 with the closure of the Sheriff Court in Dingwall, where they were previously housed.