Buchanan was born on 30 January 1797, son of Andrew Buchanan, a Baltic merchant who lived in Glasgow‘s St Andrew Square. The family moved to Hamburg, and by the age of 21 Walter Buchanan had sole charge of his father‘s business.
In 1824, after returning to Glasgow, Buchanan began trading in partnership with James Hamilton. Business improved with the end of the East India Company‘s monopoly of the Indian and tea trades in 1833, although financial disaster struck in 1865. A political career saw Buchanan thrice elected as an MP (Whig) for Glasgow between 1857 and 1865.
He lived at Shandon, on the Gare Loch, for 40 years, and read widely in Latin, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish. In 1824 he married Mary Hamilton, who died in 1844 leaving one daughter. He married Christina Laura in 1851, but she died in the following year, again leaving a daughter.
THE present generation luckily knows nothing of such a state of affairs as existed in Scotland for the first thirty-two years of this century; more happily still, there has never been a recurrence of the exasperation and sullen discontent that marked the dozen years preceding the Reform Bill. The people were utterly unrepresented. In counties those only could vote who held of the Crown a forty-shilling land of old extent, which might mean either a fine estate or a few square inches of parchment. Self-electing Town Councils returned the Burgh Members, and Glasgow, Rutherglen, Renfrew, and Dumbarton had only one among them. It was a penal offence to combine to raise wages, though the law took no cognizance of any combination to lower them. I n all criminal trials the judges picked and packed the juries. The war had forced agriculture into an unhealthy prosperity, but with the peace it had fallen into the same distress as other industries. The huge war debt pressed with a well-nigh intolerable weight on a population of only twenty-four millions; and, lastly, during all these years the Tories were sitting and to all appearance would sit for ever in power. It needed courage as well as energy to be a reformer sixty years ago; but Walter Buchanan had both, and threw himself heart and soul into the great work. He came of a good Glasgow stock. In the early part of the eighteenth century his forbears were settled here, and were members of the Maltmen Incorporation. His father, Andrew Buchanan, a Baltic merchant, lived in St. Andrew Square, and by his marriage with Miss Cockburn (daughter of a W.S. in Edinburgh) had three sons - Walter, born on 30th January, 1797; Andrew, Professor of Physiology in the University of Glasgow; James; and several daughters who all died unmarried.
Early in life Mr. Buchanan went to Hamburg, where at the age of twenty-one he had sole charge of his father‘s business. After a stay of five or six yeas in Germany he returned to Glasgow, and about the year 1824 commenced business as an East India merchant, in partnership with James Hamilton, son of John Hamilton of Middleton, under the firm in Glasgow of Buchanan, Hamilton, & Co., and in Singapore of Hamilton, Gray, & Co.; and latterly they had a house at Shanghai. Other partners were afterwards assumed, among whom were William Hamilton of Minard; the late George Garden Nicol, Chairman of the Chartered Mercantile Bank, London; John Jarvie, and George Henderson. When the firm was started, business to the East was much restricted owing to the East India Company‘s monopoly of the India and tea trades. That monopoly ceased in 1833, and the Glasgow merchants at once took advantage of the opportunity. In that year Kirkman Finlay, ever in the van, despatched to Calcutta the first ship sent direct from the Clyde to India - the Buckinghamshire, of 600 tons. Business then was not so rapid as now, but profits were made in it, and it must have been much easier and less wearing. There were no telegraphs and no steamers, the mails all went round the Cape in sailing vessels, and the usual course of post to Singapore was eight or nine months. Indeed, Mr. Buchanan used to say that on one occasion his firm were without advices from Singapore for six months. Early he recognized the great benefit this would result from the overland route and the use of steam in the India trade, and warmly advocated both. Men had more leisure than now, and a good part of his time was spent at his charming house of Shandon, on the Gareloch, where he lived for forty years. Here, with his garden and his fields, a good moor at his door, and many friends, for he was hospitality itself, the happiest hours of his life were passed. At Shandon, too, he had a fine library, from which he got perhaps more enjoyment than from all the rest, for he was an caller and omnivorous reader. His field of reading and knowledge was widened by his talent for acquiring languages: he kept up through life his knowledge of the Latin classics, knew French, German, and Italian well, and could read Dutch and Spanish with ease. The financial disaster which overtook Mr. Buchanan in 1865 brought out the strength and beauty of his character. He faced the situation with placid courage, and unsoured he kept to the end of his long life the playful humour and kindly temper which made him loved alike by old and young. The magnificent testimonial subscribed by his friends on his retiral from business showed the high esteem in which he was held.
It is as a politician that Mr. Buchanan mostly deserves to be held in remembrance in Glasgow; for every effort for freedom and reform at home or abroad had his warm sympathy and steady support. It was his lot to pass his youth and early manhood in times still rocking with the surge of the French Revolution, when political and social questions of the highest importance were struggling into being. He began his political career by advocating Catholic emancipation. No sooner was that achieved than he plunged into the great Reform contest. When that was won he took an active part in the movement for the repeal of the Corn Laws, and all his life was a keen Free-trader. For long he was one of the ruling Whig body, or ”clique,• as it was called, which was mainly composed of the steady, determined moderate men of the upper middle class who have ever been the backbone of Whiggery, opposed equally to Toryism of the Lord Eldon and port-wine school and the frothy sedition of the Democrats of the lower orders. Among his fellow-workers were Robert Grahame of Whitehill, ”that veteran friend of liberty•; James Oswald, one of the first Members for the City after the Reform Bill; Colin Dunlop of Clyde, afterwards Member; Charles Tennant of St. Rollox, and John, his son; Alexander McGrigor, at one time adviser of the Whigs in the West; and Andrew Bannatyne, on whom his mantle fell; James Lumsden the first, William and George Stirling, par nobile fratrum ; A. G. Spiers of Culcreuch; George Crawfurd, Thomas Davidson, ”Lucius Verus,• with many others who through good report and evil report had stuck to the buff and blue. In March, 1857, after a contest with the late Mr. Merry, he was elected Member for Glasgow in the room of Mr. John McGregor, who had resigned. Mr. Buchanan had not sat for a month till Parliament was dissolved, and he had again to fight for his seat. He, the late Robert Dalglish, and Alexander Hastie, the other sitting Member, were the candidates. After a stiff contest, in which the odium theologicum was freely invoked, Messrs. Buchanan and Dalglish were returned. In 1859 they were returned unopposed, and in 1865 he retired from Parliament. Mr. Buchanan made an excellent Member. Shrewd, well-informed, and self-reliant, he soon attained a good position in the House. while he was always attentive to his constituents‘ interests.
In 1824 he married Mary, daughter of John Hamilton of Middleton. She died in 1844, leaving one daughter, who married Charles Wilsone Brown, sometime of Castle Wemyss, afterwards of Swinfen Hall, County Stafford. In 1851 he married Christina Laura (daughter of James Smith of Jordanhill), who died in the following year, leaving a daughter, married to James George Smith, son of Provost William Smith, of Carbeth Guthrie. Mr. Buchanan died in 1883.