John Tailyour was born to Robert and Jean (Carnegie) Tailyour on February 29, 1755, in Marykirk, Scotland. Robert sent young John to Glasgow to work as a clerk in the merchant firm of George McCall. In 1775, McCall helped John find employment in Virginia as a factor in the Glasgow-Virginia tobacco trade, but the chaos resulting from the onset of the Revolution forced John to leave for home. He returned to America two years later to trade between New York and the West Indies, but again returned to Glasgow one year later. In one last attempt to trade in the western Atlantic, Tailyour sailed for America in 1781, but was thwarted by Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown just days before his arrival. However, Tailyour did find work supplying British prisoners of war in Pennsylvania, until American soldiers frustrated the deal. Fed up with the emerging independence of the American colonies, John left for Jamaica in 1782, encouraged by his cousin, Simon Taylor, one of the island's wealthiest inhabitants.
In Jamaica, John Tailyour quickly flourished under the supervision of his notable cousin. Originally acting as an attorney for absentee planters, John built up enough revenue to start his own merchant house, McBean, Ballantine and Taylor in 1784. He had altered the spelling of his last name to "Taylor," hoping to capitalize on his cousin's success. Tailyour's partner Peter Ballantine became one of his closest business associates and lifelong friend. The firm began trading in plantation supplies, dry goods, and various other commodities. However, the demand for slaves in the British West Indies impelled the firm to enter that trade, and they quickly became known for their efficiency in unloading and selling slaves. John's Glaswegian network helped him build a base of merchant contacts that facilitated his success. He soon became a popular advisor to other young Scottish traders, who wanted to try their fortunes in the Caribbean market.
In 1792, Tailyour reorganized his firm with James Fairlie and renamed it Taylor, Ballantine, and Fairlie. Later that year, however, John returned to Scotland for health reasons, and soon adapted to the life of an aristocrat. In 1793, he married George McCall's daughter Mary, with whom he had ten children. He repurchased his family's estate of Kirktonhill, began renting out nearby land in Marykirk, and sold off his interest in his colonial firm in 1797. His bad health continued to burden him until his death in 1815.
The topic of slavery is prevalent in this collection, as Tailyour was involved professionally and personally with slaves. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the greatest profits in the slave trade were made, and Tailyour's firm certainly benefited well. The era also witnessed the advent of arguments against the slave trade, and calls for its cessation. Tailyour was unapologetic in his support of the slave trade, and vehemently castigated the emerging abolitionists. All of Tailyour's contacts did likewise, because of their own involvement with the trade.
During the mid-1780s, John took Polly Graham, one of Simon Taylor's slaves, as a common-law wife. Together they had three or four children, during John's sojourn in Jamaica. In 1790, John appealed to Simon for the freedom of Polly and their children. Simon granted the request, and Tailyour sent three of them (James, John, and Catherine) to Britain to be educated, and to remove them from the prejudices of Jamaica. Two of those children, James and John, are recorded in some detail in the collection. James became a serviceman in the East India Company army, and John worked as a clerk in a London merchant house.
After John Tailyour's death, the family continued to live off the proceeds of the Kirktonhill estate, until it was sold in the early-twentieth century. A long string of Tailyour men undertook careers in the military from the mid-nineteenth to the twentieth century. Kenneth R. H. Tailyour became a high-ranking officer in the British military in the twentieth century. A number of photographs, diaries, and war records in this collection come from his family and professional experiences, as well as those of his brother, Ian Stewart, who also served in the military.